Small mountain town bespeaks entrepreneurial, charitable spirit of Bulgaria of yore
Great changes often spread from inconspicuous places, and Karlovo is a case in point. This town at the southern foot of the Stara Planina mountain range looks quiet and quaint now: some old, Revival Period houses huddled between newer construction lining a long street that funnels much of the traffic on the Sofia-Burgas road. You might think that nothing of importance has ever happened in Karlovo, but the first impression, as most first impressions, is wrong.
In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, Karlovo produced a disproportionate number of men and women who influenced this nation's history: educators and wealthy merchants, benefactors and actors, artists and revolutionaries. Karlovo is also the hometown of the first Bulgarian female adventurer, Anka Lambreva, who travelled round the world, and the brothers Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi, who sponsored the construction of Sofia University.
Karlovo is nestled at the foot of the Stara Planina
Most Bulgarians associate Karlovo with one person in particular. Vasil Kunchev, commonly known as Levski, meaning Lion, was born here in 1837. He took his monastic vows in Karlovo, in 1858, but left soon afterwards and became a revolutionary with an unmatched talent for organising rebellion against the Ottomans.
The reason why relatively small Karlovo produced so many impressive personalities was mainly economic. At present, the town is hardly a powerhouse, but back in the day it was a centre of textile manufacturing and and rose oil production. This resulted in a lively community whose members travelled far and wide. After Bulgaria's liberation, when the Ottoman markets were lost and local manufacturing was replaced by cheaper industrial production, Karlovo started to lose its importance. Its most entrepreneurial citizens departed for places that offered better opportunities, such as Plovdiv and Sofia.
Today Karlovo is quiet, but the inquisitive visitor can still find some rewarding curiosities and delights in and around it.
Levski's monument in central Karlovo
The family home and museum of Vasil Levski is the obvious focus of interest. A tiny and rather austere place, the 19th century house is a place of pilgrimage for modern Bulgarians where school children from all over the land are taken on bus trips.
Unless you stray off the main street and drive a couple of blocks south you might miss Levski's monument. Erected in 1907, Levski stands proud, a lion by his side: an excellent rendition of the 19th century man that by far outshines many modern attempts at heroic sculpture.
The area around is also a delight. Old Karlovo is a mosaic of sensitively restored Revival Period houses, some of which are now B&Bs.
Two churches in the old quarter are easily recognised by their Baroque-inspired belfries. By the northern wall of St Nicholas, built in 1847, there is a small grave where Gina Kuncheva, Levski's mother, was interred. On the other side of the church a milestone claims to mark the geographical centre of Bulgaria. In actual fact, the geographical centre of Bulgaria is on the northern side of the Stara Planina, in the area of Uzana, near Gabrovo.
The porch of Karlovo mosque
The Holy Mother of God Church (1858) stands on the site of an older church, which was destroyed by fire. Its marble floor is decorated with a relief of a two-headed eagle, the symbol of the Constantinople Patriarchate. This indicates the subservience to Constantinople of the church and its parish at the time the church was erected. A mural of Vasil Levski is depicted inside. There have been several efforts to canonise him, but so far they have been turned down by the Orthodox Church.
When you venture out of the area you will see Karlovo's other faces: beautiful modernist houses from the early 20th century, a Communist-era central square and pedestrian street, apartment blocks and infrastructure for the servicemen of the local military base. Among these are scattered newer, post-1990s business and residential buildings.
When you are wandering around central Karlovo, do pay attention to signs of the rich charity and donation culture that existed in the town during its heyday. Today, Karlovo residents get married in a beautiful house built in 1896 by a local women's association called Education. On the main street stands the small, and sadly abandoned, Lazarovo School donated to the town in 1892 by a local merchant involved in international business.
Rose oil production is a traditional Karlovo craft
The grandest of these is the woollen textile factory built in 1891 by the Georgievi Brothers on the road to the nearby waterfall. Their idea was to provide Karlovo, which was already feeling the brunt of the changed economy, with an industry and jobs fit for modern times. Machinery and factory plans were imported from England. When Evlogi Georgiev died, the wool factory became the property of the municipality of Karlovo. After the Communist takeover in 1944, it was nationalised and eventually transformed into a silk printing and stamping facility. When Communism collapsed, it was privatised. Its assets were then quickly sold off, and the factory closed. It remains so to this day.
Karlovo has also preserved some remnants of its earlier history. The town appeared in the late 15th century, when the area was given to a high-ranking Ottoman official, Karlizade Bey, for his personal use. Gradually, his name was transferred to the settlement itself. In the centre of Karlovo there remains a beautifully painted mosque dating from those times. On the opposite side of the street there is a beautifully preserved Ottoman inn that is now a hotel. Do not be deceived by the old clock tower, however. It is a recent restoration of the original, which used to stand beside the Ottoman-era market and was demolished in 1944 to make room for new urban construction.
Old Karlovo is beautifully preserved
A short walk from the centre of Karlovo leads to one of Bulgaria's most delightful waterfalls. Both its names, Suchurum or Karlovsko Praskalo, are tongue twisters, but you can just ask around for the waterfall, and you will be understood. It falls eight metres through massive boulders and has been a favourite spot for picnics and walks for generations of locals. In 1926 a small power plant was built at the foot of the waterfall, and inaugurated in the presence of King Boris III. Unlike the wool factory, it operates today, its original Made-in-Germany turbines still doing their job.