What first attracts your attention in a Bulgarian Revival Period church? The architecture? The silver-haloed icons of the Virgin Mary? The elaborate carvings of the icon doors? These may all be astonishing, but have you noticed the river of fire, on the outside western wall of most of the churches, flowing towards the gaping mouth of a dragon-like monster? Have you bent to see in detail the devils in the flames? Have you wondered what were the crimes of the sinners they torture?
We all love snow in the city on the first day after it falls, while the air is still crisp and pristine white covers the dusty streets, the cars, the leafless trees. However, after its first day in Sofia, snow becomes just another urban annoyance. The compacted ice on the pavements. The impassable streets. The grey, yellow and black hues the snow assumes from the dirty city air. Not. Enjoyable. At. All.
Kalofer is one of those places that all who'd rather avoid Bulgaria's highway pass en route between Sofia and Burgas, yet few bother to stop, and even fewer stay on. From a certain standpoint, this is positive. It keeps mass tourism confined to the highway, away form the town huddled in the foothills of Mount Botev, once known as Ümrükçal, which means Fist Mount – Stara Planina’s tallest summit at 2,376 metres. Kalofer is a pearl you will fall in love with. But to discover it, you need to make an effort.
Travelling is not just about seeing new places. It is also about experiencing their atmosphere and their food, their people and their stories. Elena, in the central Stara Planina near Veliko Tarnovo, is a destination that has all this, and more. There, you will find yourself deep amid green forests, old churches and traditional houses, complete with the feeling of a place still stuck in the early 1990s. As a bonus, the town is the home of one of Bulgaria's renowned delicacies: the Elenski but ham.
An easy drive from Sofia, nestled deep in the leafy Sredna Gora mountains, Koprivshtitsa has all the elements of an exemplary Revival Period experience. The surrounding landscape is all high slopes, lush forests and meadows. Beautiful 200-year-old mansions line cobbled streets. Old stone bridges span the local river. Charming old water fountains, their worn inscriptions still legible, are here, there and everywhere. Koprivshtitsa's history is also captivating, as this was where the April Uprising of 1876 began.
Perched on an outcrop of rock above the Chaya River in the Rhodope, Bachkovo Monastery is a place packed with all the hallmarks of Bulgarian-ness. Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.