Revival Period

SPRING IN BOZHENTSI VILLAGE

When spring in Bulgaria is in full swing, something marvellous happens. At night, songbirds go crazy. When darkness descends, nightingales, orioles, larks and gold finches sing, chirp and improvise for hours, as if their lives depended on it, creating a symphony celebrating life itself.

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OLD NESEBAR

The summer of 2019 was disastrous for Bulgarian tourism, with an overall 20 percent drop in holidaymakers. However, there was one place on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast which remains packed: Nesebar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site conveniently located next to Sunny Beach, this nation's largest seaside resort and one of Europe's cheapest holiday destinations.

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BEST BULGARIAN VILLAGE TO DISCOVER IN 2019

Going on your summer vacation to Greece? Returning from the Aegean? Whatever brings you to the southwest of Bulgaria, do take the time to divert from the main road and head to Teshovo.

To say that Teshovo is an out-of-the-way, off-off-off-the-beaten-track destination would be an understatement. Tucked into the hills south of Gotse Delchev, a mile at most from the border with Greece, it is an end-of-the-road settlement. It is now quiet and severely depopulated, though in the Communist period it sported a shoe factory.

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REVIVAL PERIOD PLOVDIV

The colourful houses lining the cobblestone streets of Old Plovdiv are arguably the city's most recognisable sight. The only thing that can distract from marvelling at their painted façades, projecting bay windows and verdant gardens is the pavement. Polished by the feet of generations of passers-by, it is slippery even when dry, as traveller and historian Konstantin Jireček noted as far back as the late 19th century.

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BULGARIA'S VILLAGE CHURCHES

At the heart of traditional villages with old houses or in drab Communist-era developments fighting depopulation, village churches dot the Bulgarian countryside and offer a variety of stimulating experiences. Some were built centuries ago and others are newer. Some are covered with masterpieces of church art and other were decorated by self-taught artists. Some are museums and other still serve their communities. Some offer proof of strange rituals or important events in their parishes and keep alive the memory of the times when the now empty villages bustled with life.

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KARLOVO

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance. Tucked between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges looks fairly unimpressive now, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries it produced a disproportionate number of men and women who influenced this nation's history.

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VILLAGE WHOSE CHURCH STAYS OPEN

The villages in Bulgaria that are abuzz with life are generally located around cities in the plains, like those surrounding Plovdiv. Their houses were mostly built after the 1960s, so more often than not they do not offer much for the curious visitor to see, besides the ubiquitous memorial to some local Communist and a few stalls with fresh homegrown produce.

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MONASTERY IN THE SKY

Seen from afar, St George's Monastery near Glozhene, by the Hemus highway, appears to challenge the laws of both physics and common sense. The compact monastic complex of wooden residential buildings with drooping eaves stands on the top of a narrow rock pillar.

Reaching the monastery is also a challenge. Signage in Yablanitsa, the nearest town, is non-existent and the GPS will send you to a dead-end. The road itself is a narrow band of crumbling asphalt clinging on to the steep slopes. Pray that you do not meet an oncoming car. In snow, it is impassable.

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BULGARIA'S ROMANTIC VILLAGES

Tranquility combined with landscapes untouched by tourism: if you have a longing to visit, Bulgaria will deliver. Here and there isolated and lesser known villages lay scattered over vales and hills, offering the chance to awaken to bird song, spend the long days exploring quiet lanes and traditional houses, and the evenings contemplating the surrounding vistas, preferably with a glass of cold Rakiya.

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BULGARIA'S TOWERS

Bulgaria has a number of forts, both genuine ones as in Cherven and recently constructed "restorations" as in Veliko Tarnovo. The country, however, has several examples of a curious type of fortification: the standalone tower.

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MONASTERIES OF VELIKO TARNOVO

It was also the seat of the patriarch, the head of the Bulgarian Church. Surrounded by his staff and underlings, he presided over a vast network of churches, monasteries and scriptoria.

There, icons were painted, books were written and the latest ideas in medieval philosophy were discussed.

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BULGARIA'S CLOCKTOWERS

With the ubiquity of smartphones and wristwatches the question "What's the time?", coming from a stranger in the street, has become redundant. Yet, until not that long ago people relied on a single source of information for this: clocktowers.

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BRIDGES OF FREEDOM

History sometimes moves in mysterious ways, as indicated by the story of the role two bridges played in two revolutions, a century and an ocean apart.

Most of the tourists visiting Koprivshtitsa, a town of beautiful traditional houses in the Sredna Gora mountains, pause at a certain bridge. Small and humpbacked, it does not look that important.

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ETARA

When Lazar Donchev, the founder and first manager of the architectural and ethnographic museum complex at Etara died in 1976, his private study became one of the exhibits. His records and personal diary were left on the old desk, contributing to the mythical aura of the man who created from scratch Bulgaria's only open air museum, on the banks of the river Sivek, eight kilometres from Gabrovo.

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TROYAN MONASTERY

Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.

Then, there is the Troyanksi Pass, a precipitous road that reaches an altitude of 1,595m before leading down, south of the Stara Planina.

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ROZHEN MONASTERY

Near the town, however, one of Bulgaria's most fascinating monasteries, a delightful example of 16th-18th century religious art and architecture, sits hidden in the hills.

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BYGONE NESEBAR

Zillions of stalls selling kitschy souvenirs, beach towels, jeans and conveyor-belt-produced marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and 200-year old houses.

Many tourists are actually wondering what they are doing in Nesebar.

The obvious answer is they are visiting what is probably Bulgaria's best known and most visited UNESCO World Heritage site.

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PREOBRAZHENSKI MONASTERY

The Wheel of Life scene, on the southern wall of the main church, is self-explanatory. Here unfolds the human cycle, the eternal flux mirroring the passing of the seasons. The naivety of the child in spring blends into the confidence of the adult in summer, before settling into the wisdom of the ageing man in his autumn, until it reaches the despair and demise of the old man in his winter; a never-ending cycle put into motion by Death itself.

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CHRIST IN SPACE?

Christ was an alien. Or if He wasn't, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

If you believe the hype, evidence that aliens visited us in the past, probably inspiring Christianity, exists hidden in plain sight. In a church. In Bulgaria.

A fresco in a 17th century church in Dobarsko village, near Bansko, is said to represent Christ in a space rocket, in the Transfiguration scene.

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VELIKO TARNOVO CHURCHES

In the Middle Ages, Tarnovo was not only a political and administrative capital, but also a major religious centre. In and around it were dozens of churches and monasteries, where priests and monks of all ranks were busy with prayer, philosophy, and writing. The Ottoman invasion of the 14th century brought all this to an end, but some of the churches survived. You will find them clustered around Tsarevets hill, where the main fortress of mediaeval Tarnovo used to be. All of them are now museums.

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