Memories of a Traditional Bulgaria
Story from a souvenir box
Written by Alistair Diamond, edited by Scott Green, photos by Alistair Diamond and Zhanet Stamatova
The historical accurateness of the recollection of the April Uprising (below) may well be different from actual events. We did our best to fact-check, but as it is a local legend and passed through the family, the events may have changed over time with each telling of the legend.
I first came to Bulgaria in 1998. I had a Bulgarian girlfriend at the time, a student in England. As all Bulgarians alive then will tell you, the country was desperately poor in those days. The corrupt post-Communist government had stolen the country’s assets and the economy crashed in 1996. But I found that despite these troubles, the people were wonderful.
Even having a low English salary meant that I was a rich man in Bulgaria. Changing a £50 note gave you a wad of Bulgarian notes two inches thick. I could take taxis in Sofia! No ordinary working person took taxis in Sofia in 1998. I could also hire a car and book hotels, for the first time in my young life. So we went traveling.
First of all, we went to Koprivshtitsa, the historical town which was at the heart of the April Uprising of 1876, the initially disastrous rebellion against the Ottoman Empire that led directly to the liberation of the Balkans by the Russians in 1878. It was early April and still wintry. We took a creaking, slow old Communist train from Sofia that trundled on aging tracks into the Sredna Gora, the low mountain chain that runs parallel with the great Balkan Mountains.
In those days you didn’t book your hotels in advance, there were no online booking companies. So on arrival, we walked around the steep cobbled and stepped streets until we found a beautiful bed and breakfast called Byaloto Konche, The White Horse. It was owned by a local family, who were poor, but the building, the beds, everything was lovely.
That night we went to a tavern, where everyone became our friends. The food was simple, homely, but tasted great because it was family cooking with fresh local ingredients. There was no wine list, just local Koprivshtitsa wine from the valley. That night I had my first experience of the difference between the youth of Bulgaria and the youth of England. As I was working through my second jug of local wine, all the local young people came in, the family struck up their instruments and everyone started dancing the horo. It wasn’t a show put on for tourists, no such concept existed in Bulgaria in 1998, no, it was a real rural tradition, real Bulgarian rural life, and the young people loved it. I had never seen anything like it in the shallow Anglo-American pop-culture West.
In the morning we blearily went to the flagstoned kitchen/dining room, where a huge fire blazed. While drinking coffee the owner came to ask us what we wanted for dinner and gave us a menu of rustic dishes. We chose a stew, with wine, pork, and vegetables, a local version of the Bulgarian classic dish ‘kavarma’. While we were studying a map of the area for hiking, a little old lady, the owner’s mother, dressed in black, came in with a big earthenware pot and put it in the fire. We asked the owner about it, he said ‘that’s your dinner’.
We went out for the day in the light but constant snow. Byaloto Konche was just up a narrow stepped road from the mountain stream that ran down the valley. A hundred yards upstream there was a small arched stone bridge, no more than a few meters long and only a couple across. I would hardly have noticed it, except that my girlfriend and guide told me that it was the ‘Bridge of the First Shot’.
After 480 years of Ottoman domination, the Bulgarians were ready to fight, and the fragmented, oppressed Bulgarians were coming together and arming themselves. The main command was playing a long game, waiting until all was ready before declaring the uprising, which wasn’t ready yet.
However, a group of partisans from the hills came down to Koprivshtitsa’s little bridge in April 1876, and saw the Ottoman armory in the town square below, its doors open, guarded by one bored soldier. One of the Bulgarian partisans took aim and fired. The Ottoman was killed. The Bulgarians ran down and started looting the armory. The locals joined in. Soon word spread around the villages: the uprising has begun! All the revolutionary cells started to hear about it and the country began to go up in flames.
The High Command was appalled. Nothing was ready! There were no allies, no supply lines, no arms shipments… and indeed, the April Rising was brutally crushed, with terrible massacres. When the world heard about it, the Western Powers, Britain, France, and Austro-Hungary, did nothing. This so affected Alexander II of Russia that he moved in and liberated the entire Balkans in 1878, paving the way for the modern Bulgarian state.
I stood on the little Bridge of the First Shot that day and aimed my imaginary musket down at the doors of the armory building. But I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what it would have been like to be there at the time.
We went for a long walk in the snowy hills and came back at dusk, cold, tired and hungry. Sitting back in the kitchen/dining room again the old woman came in and took the blackened ceramic pot out of the fire, where it had been for eight hours.
After freshening up with a shower, we came down for dinner and the stew was amazing. Perfect slow-cooked meat in a rich broth, served in traditional bowls, with a covering layer of baked egg, like an omelet, at the top. The owner came to sit with us, bringing jugs of wine and rakia made by his cousin who lived up the valley. He was a Beatles fan, and had both the Red and Blue album on cassette ready; in those days, everyone in Bulgaria listened to their Western music on imported cassettes played on old tape players. The fire blazed, the food and wine were wonderful, the Beatles sang out from the tinny and wobbly stereo. It was a wonderful, memorable experience, I have never forgotten it.
In our travels, we also went to Melnik, a crazy place in a deep valley of sandstone formations at the foot of the Pirin Mountains, now a famous wine region. Once a thriving market town with a big population of Greeks, Bulgarians and other nationalities and languages, the massacres of the April Uprising and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 all took their toll, and by the time I arrived there were 350 inhabitants, in a town where most of the old buildings were empty and forlorn.
There were no working hotels in Melnik in 1998, the old Communist one was closed and the huge number of new ones lining the one central road today didn’t exist then. We went into the one tavern we could see, and asked about accommodation. The owner knocked on the door of a really nice family who put us up in their spare room. We walked in the late afternoon up the long narrow path that leads to the plateau underneath the southern Pirin mountains, where the now-abandoned 700-year-old Rozhen Monastery still nestles in the foothills.
That night we ate and drank in the tavern. The owner was a winemaker, and he showed us his cellar with huge barrels of Melnik wine. He came and sat with us at dinner and we sampled all of his different wines, while eating simple homely food from earthenware bowls, together with homemade bread and chunks of Bulgarian cheese.
I drove with a friend from Oxford to Bansko for the millennium New Year celebrations in 1999, sharing the driving and sleeping in the car. The journey was a real adventure, not least because we were stopped by corrupt police officers in Romania, who took our passports and driving licenses and demanded 100 German marks to return them. I produced a £20 note and told them it was worth 100 marks, which was nonsense of course. They accepted it with smiles of happiness, and we went on our way, accelerating hard when they were out of sight. We made it to the Vidin crossing at midnight and took the ferry across the Danube.
The next morning we arrived in Sofia just as the snow started. We picked up my girlfriend, two of her friends, and set off down the awful potholed road south to the mountains. The shiny new motorway didn’t exist then! All Bulgarian roads were in a state of total disrepair. It was dark and snowing hard when we got to Simitli and the pass over the Rila to the Razlog valley. The road was dangerous, it was difficult to see anything other than the rear lights of the car in front. We got to the pass at Predel just as they were preparing to close it, hauling out barriers and heavy chains. Any later and they would have sent us back. But we made it through, and I found on the long slope down into the valley that I had lost control of my brakes. The white-out was complete, I could see only the car lights in front of me, and I went down the gears to offer some resistance as we slid down the road into the valley, unable to stop.
We got to Bansko at 7 pm in heavy snow, with nowhere booked to stay. You can’t do that and find a room nowadays! But we did then and made it to a tavern for the millennium celebrations. They take New Years’ seriously in Bansko, and there were big tables laden with meze, huge chicken and pork kebabs sizzling on the spit, big frypans of garlic and herb sautéed potatoes, and jugs and jugs of wine. The snow piled up three feet outside but inside the fire was blazing and we were drunk and singing.
Well, that was all a long time ago. Bulgaria has changed, especially Sofia! Sofia center is unrecognizable now from what it was in the 1990s. The poverty was extreme then, and there were no Westernised European Union bars, cafes, or restaurants. You could get a pizza on the main Vitosha Boulevard, but that was about it. Now, of course, the city is teeming with cafes and restaurants, and when you stroll along Vitosha Boulevard today you could think you were in Paris.
The Byaloto Konche in Koprivshtitsa is closed, although the building is still there. The main tavern in Melnik with its huge barrels of wine is still going strong, and the little main street now has 22 hotels to choose from. The Bansko taverns are still in full swing, despite the modern corruption of the ski zone, and they dance the horo around the central fireplace in Baryakova tavern every night when there’s no pandemic. People often get eating and drinking wrong, thinking that it has to be expensive, that they have to be treated like a lord by waiters who are servants. But in fact, some of the best evenings are had in places where there is no wine list, and the people serving are your new family. Bulgaria in 2021 is a modern European state, but those old-fashioned experiences can still be found, especially if you go off the beaten track, in the Rhodopes, for example, or the central Balkan Mountains.
I recently stayed in the little village of Stoykite, near the Pamporovo ski resort, I went for a long walk up the mountain, Snezhanka, and in the early evening saw all the local villagers and Roma coming home on their horse and carts as I wandered through the forest lanes. As I came down at dusk a howling of dogs went up, and I saw no one else as I hurried down in the cold. When I got to the tavern the family who ran it were aghast. The reason the villagers come home before sunset and leave their guard dogs to howl in the fields, they told me, is because at dusk the bears come out to prowl around, looking for sheep to eat. No one stays out late on this mountain – except me, of course! But I didn’t get killed, nor eaten, instead, we had a wonderful evening by the fireplace with wine and rustic food.
I love living, exploring, eating, and drinking in Bulgaria!
Alistair C. Diamond