Monthly Archives: January 2016

Triavna / Трявна

We were planning a trip through central Bulgaria when my husband’s cousin told us we couldn’t miss Triavna. “It’s lovely,” she said, “and you must have the coffee on sand.” That was irresistible and we duly included Triavna on the trip map we plotted.

часовникова кулаTriavna was well worth the stop. We loved the beautifully preserved National Revival architecture and the wide main square with the clock tower dating to 1814, but we also enjoyed just wandering the winding streets and crossing the bridges over the Trevenska River. We spent a good amount of time on the riverbank and in gathering many bouquets of wild flowers.

църква Св Михаил

The St. Archangel Michael Church, the oldest in Triavna, dates back to the 1196-1297 medieval rule of Bulgarian Tzar Kaloiyan. The small and peaceful churchyard is beautifully landscaped. In its tiny cemetery, presiding priests of the last two centuries or so are buried.


Triavna is known for its crafts, particularly woodcarving. This tradition gave rise in 1920 to a formal school for woodcarving. Over time, the school expanded from functional craft to applied arts and added other disciplines both to preserve and develop traditions. Today the National School of Applied Arts in Triavna is nationally famous and has three major courses of study: carving, interior design and icon-making. Many who come to the school stay in the region to live and work. Along the Triavna main square are a number of craft ateliers and as we peeked into one, one craftsman immediately beckoned us in, picked up my four-year old son, gave him a woodcarving tool, put his large hand on my son’s small one, and guided him into making a few lines. Another woodcarver gave my daughter an intricately carved wooden fish.


If you continue to walk along the main square, you find the entrance into a courtyard around which is built the restored Trevnensko School, constructed in 1836, one of the earliest secular schools in Bulgaria. There is a carefully preserved 19th-century classroom with its rows of seats and writing systems designed for all levels of learners. The first row’s long sandbox allowed the youngest children to practice drawing the letters with their fingers and then to “erase” them by pulling a thin, flat piece of wood over the sand to smooth it once again. The slates and chalk in the middle rows were used by children who had advanced to practicing words. The last rows were equipped with paper, quills and inkwells for the most advanced students. Exhibited also are the wooden signs with thin metal chains for children to wear around their necks, largely of the “dunce” variety, so as to publicly display their performance or conduct.

“Your Coffee on Sand” announces a wood-carved sign above a café on the main square—and yes, there is plenty more to Triavna than the main square. By coffee, Bulgarians do not mean the American version of eight ounces or so of black coffee, which they refer to by the pseudo-German шварц кафе (schwarzer Kaffee). Bulgarians generally drink expresso or Turkish coffee. And when they order Turkish coffee, they expect it to be made in a traditional джезве (jezve), the Turkish small copper coffeepot with the long wooden handle (Turkish Coffee Pot with Medal Handling Ideal for 2 Turkish Coffee Cup Size). With 500 years under the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarians developed a similar coffeehouse culture that still exists today.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the golden age of the Ottoman Empire occurred just as coffee had become an empire-wide phenomenon. Muslim legal scholars grew concerned about the obvious stimulatory properties, and an addiction that was indulged by sultans and commoners alike.

They extended the Koranic ban on intoxicants to coffee, but coffee drinking went on apace as sultans and peasants alike imbibed. By the 17th century, famed Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi (An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi) could describe coffeehouses that served up to 1000 patrons, though as a devout Muslim himself he professed to having never tasted so much as a drop.

Mark Pendergrast in his Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World highlights the observation of another traveler of the same period, British poet Sir George Sandys. Sir George spent a year traveling in Turkey, Egypt and Palestine; the Turks, he found, sat drinking their coffee and “chatting most of the day.” My husband and I have long noticed the proclivity of Bulgarians to do the same, enjoying what most Americans would consider the great luxury of unscheduled and unhurried time with friends while paradoxically complaining all the while about the poor standard of living under which fate has compelled them to live.

The various Ottoman bans on coffee were perhaps more particularly on coffeehouses; they fostered gatherings of people who could well be stimulating social upheaval and controversy, and not merely stimulating themselves. The sultans may have enjoyed drinking coffee in the confines of Istanbul’s famed Topkapi Palace, but they worried that the establishments serving the drink to the public undermined social order and security. In a classic “nihil novi sub sole” (“there is nothing new under the sun”), the Communists had a similar reservation. My husband recalls that when longtime head of the KGB Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Bulgarian police entered cafés and demanded of patrons “Why aren’t you at work?”

To make Turkish coffee today, the coffee beans must be ground to a very fine powder and added to the water (with sugar if desired). To give a start to the froth, one stirs without touching the bottom of the джезве until the coffee sinks (and the sugar is dissolved). The джезве is then slowly heated but never boiled; one keeps stirring from the outside in to gather the froth in the middle. As soon as small bubbles form and the froth begins to rise, the джезве is removed from the heat. The rising of the froth and the consequent immediate removal from the heat is repeated an additional two times and poured into a cup to be drunk slowly once the coffee grounds have sunk to the cup’s bottom.

At home, we just put our джезве on a conventional burner on the stove, but one traditional method is to place a tray filled with sand over a burner or other heat source. At “Your Coffee on Sand,” there was a large black metal curl-footed barrel. A metal tray some 4-5 inches deep was set into the open top and filled with hot sand, ready to gently heat one’s Turkish coffee, and allow for the optimum amount of foam while eliminating the possibility of any burnt flavor. Following his cousin’s recommendation, my husband ordered a Turkish coffee “on sand” and informed the children that now was a perfect time to run around the square and play. We sat at the outdoor tables watching them at a distance sufficient to allow both responsible oversight and an inability to hear any potential squabbling. Possibly the sultans did not enjoy a more pleasant day in the Topkapi Palace than we did in in Triavna.


Thracian TombKazanluk, Bulgaria, is probably most famous for two places not precisely in Kazanluk. One is the UNESCO world heritage site of the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk. It was discovered in 1944 and you shouldn’t miss it. UNESCO calls the Thracian tomb “a unique aesthetic and artistic work, a masterpiece of the Thracian creative spirit. This monument is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.”

The other is the nearby Valley of the Roses. It has been producing its fragrant damask rose oil since the 15th century. Its fame reached far enough that a 1900 article in Michigan’s The Grand Rapids Herald noted, “The country about Kisanlik (sic), Bulgaria, is the main source for oil of rose.”

KazanlakBut I would like to draw your attention to a building you reach by walking along the pedestrian-only square in the heart of Kazanluk, the Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery. Founded in 1901, the museum staff is warm and informative, with a sense of pride in and ownership of the rich and well-documented prehistoric and ancient archeological collections from the Neolithic through the Roman period. The museum also houses collections from the Bulgarian Middle Ages and the Bulgarian Renaissance. Then there are the “New History” and “Newest History” exhibits. The former is devoted to Iskra’s holdings documenting the changes in Bulgaria generally and Kazanluk particularly after the Russian-Turkish War. The latter focuses on the losses and gains made by the 23rd Infantry “Shipchenski” Regiment in the Patriotic War 1944-1945.

The Soviet Union used the term “Great Patriotic War” to describe its long, bitter 1941-1945 conflict with Nazi Germany. Today’s Russia continues to use “Great Patriotic War” to reference this period, but it is a bit startling to see it still used in Bulgaria. It may take many more years for Bulgarian museums to accumulate the archival objects, scholarship, curatorial analysis and perspective to develop exhibits for a true “Newest History” that focuses on the 45 post-war years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

For me, the wonderful surprise of Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery is the unique exhibition of objects found during the excavation of the fortified city of Seuthopolis, the capital of Thracian tribal ruler Seuthes. The Thracians left no written language, but ancient Greek mythology is rife with mentions of them. So are the works of Herodutus, Thucydides and other ancient authors. The Danube was their northern border and the Black Sea the eastern, precisely that of Bulgaria today.

8594 (33)My daughter had a whole chapter on the Thracians in her Bulgarian history textbook. Among the many Seuthopolis objects displayed at the Iskra museum is a strikingly realistic bronze head, once part of a life-size statue, with a long mustache draping down to a flowing beard. The forehead is wrinkled, the eyes lined, it is thought that the sculpture might be of Seuthes III himself. Had Auguste Rodin not died three decades before its discovery, one would think it was a model for the French sculptor’s work. Fittingly, the head of Seuthes was recently featured in a Louvre exhibit entitled The Saga of the Thracian Kings: Archeological Discoveries in Bulgaria, not so very far across the quai from the many works of Rodin at the Musée d’Orsay.

Seuthopolis was thoroughly uncovered and extensively studied and photographed, with its finds carefully preserved. But it was found in 1948 only because of a nearby dam construction project and after the excavation was completed in 1954, the construction proceeded as planned. Today the “the best preserved Thracian city in modern Bulgaria” is underwater in a flooded valley.

Now a project for making the actual Seuthopolis accessible to visitors might be financed at least partly by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of the US Embassy in Sofia. The project has been long conceived. Let’s hope it is not even longer in the realization.



Bulgaria 2015: The Year in Review

Yes, it’s entirely arbitrary, but all such “year in review” lists are. Mine pretends nothing authoritative and I offer it only as a sort of verbal prophylactic against the tendency to reduce news from and about Bulgaria to its economic status (“poorest country in the EU”) or regional position (“the Balkans”). With luck, this year in review is also entertaining.


Zhelyu Zhelev, the dissident who became president, died January 30.

Zhelyu Zhelev“Being a rabid anti-Communist does not yet mean that one is a democrat; nor is frenzied ant-fascism a hallmark of democracy. To a democrat, both communism and fascism are abhorrent. Indeed, there has been no greater anti-communist than Hitler, and no greater anti-fascist than Stalin, but neither of them is known to have been a democrat. Moreover, the 20th century has seen no greater butchers of democracy than these two mustached comrades.” Zhelyu Zhelev (Sofia 1997)

Sonya Yoncheva released her first solo album, Paris, mon amour, and sang Violetta in La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. NPR called her “the pride of Bulgaria” and praised her “creamy lyric voice.” Listen to her sing the rarely heard “Le jour sous le soleil beni (Messager).”


uberBarely a month after beginning operation, the Bulgarian National Income agency, Ministries of the Interior and Transport organized a joint inspection on the activities of Uber Bulgaria. By October, Uber Bulgaria announced a “temporary” halt to its services.


Leah with tomatoAs I wrote in my August 27 post “The Glass Is Half Empty,” Bulgarians repeatedly rank first in the annals of European Union unhappiness, dissatisfaction, misery, and distrust. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, chose the International Day of Happiness to confirm this fact anew. But Bulgarians still know that they have the best tomatoes in the world!




cryptology 2015Eurocrypt 2015 was held April 26-30 in Sofia. This was the first time the International Conference on the Theory and Applications of Cryptographic Techniques was held in Bulgaria. Fortunately, the word for “cryptography” in Bulgaria needs no Alan Turing to break the code; it’s криптография.



Nikolai GrozevNikolai Grozev, mayor of Nova Zagora, determined that sugar may very well be good for one’s health, especially if sprinkled on roads rather than on one’s food.



Greek euroBulgaria showed little sympathy for the financial troubles of its neighbor to the south. Having survived its own financial meltdown in the mid-1990s, Bulgaria’s people and politicians thought Greece should suck it up and do what needs to be done.



Trimona yogurtNPR recognizes Atanas Valev for his Trimona yogurt, naturally made with lactobacillus bulgaricus.




хълмът ТрапесицаThe government of Azerbaijan donates 1.2 million Euros to fund work on the restoration of the archaeological structures on Trapesitsa Hill in Veliko Turnovo. On the one hand, it’s money from a country notable for human rights violations. On the other hand, it’s money sorely needed to restore one of Bulgaria’s archeological treasures. A moral quandary.


The Last SupperIn celebration of Bulgaria’s independence day on September 22, a diving club in Bulgaria attached waterproof replicas of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa” to a reef 26 feet under water.



World Puzzle FederationThe 24th World Puzzle Championship took place on October 11 – 18, 2015 in Sofia. Go figure.




Kristalina declares that Kristalina Georgieva, European Commission vice president and chair of the UN High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, intends to run for the job of UN Secretary-General. Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term expires at the end of 2016.


Junior Eurovision held its competition in Sofia on November 21. Bulgaria didn’t win this year, but you can see its entry. Bulgaria’s young musicians did receive second place in 2014.


Miss Bulgaria inspires a meme simply by excitedly gesturing to encourage Miss Phillipines, the winner of the Miss Universe 2015 contest, to receive her crown. Being a good sport is apparently newsworthy.

Snowdrops / Кокичета


The other day, we were talking on Skype to relatives in Bulgaria. In the obligatory exchange about the weather here in DC versus there in Kozlodui, we discovered that it has been unusually warm in both places. So warm, they told us, that in Kozlodui they had already seen кокичета (kokeecheta, snowdrops) blooming. Snowdrops, in December! It doesn’t feel quite right.

snowdrops in shot glass2Snowdrops are the first flowers to appear, sometimes not even waiting until the snow thaws, and are therefore the harbinger of spring. Too small to fit in even the smallest vase and quick to wilt once picked, many people are still irresistibly drawn to pluck a few and put them in a small drinking glass—perhaps the one normally used for 50 grams of rakiya—to proclaim even indoors that spring is truly on its way.

Each bulb produces a single six-petaled white flower no more than six inches tall that points down to the earth it just arose from, in contrast to the many-petaled yellow sunflower the height of a grown man, which points up to the blazing high summer sun. In Bulgaria, the snowdrop grows in mountains and plains, around low bushes and in thick forests, in river valleys and in open glades. One can say the snowdrop is beloved both for its modest size and its vast domain.

Snowdrops apparently do not merely gladden the eye. They also contain alkaloids to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. Bulgarians have also used snowdrops to treat polio. But for most, what is important is simply the enjoyment of the flower and its symbol of the spring to come—not its potential medicinal uses.

St. Clair graveIn 1869, British officer Stanislas Graham Bower St. Clair and British consul Charles A. Brophy published A residence in Bulgaria; or, Notes on the resources and administration of Turkey: the condition and character, manners, customs, and language of the Christian and Musselman populations, with reference to the Eastern question. Inordinately patronizing—even sneering and jeering—and often erroneous, they did manage to capture some of the manners and mores of Bulgaria in the last years under the Ottoman Empire. St. Clair and Brophy note that on feast days, a Bulgarian man changes his sheepskin hat for a small red cap (perhaps the fez) “in which he sticks, if flowers are procurable, a bunch or two of roses or snowdrops…” It is worth noting that St. Clair took the name Hidayet Bey, fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 on the Turkish side, and for a time controlled a large area in the Rhodope mountains. Photos of his gravesite show no snowdrops planted.

Честита Баба МартаIn most years, snowdrops begin to poke up at about the same time as Bulgarians celebrate Баба Марта (Baba Marta) on March 1. The ancient, pre-Christian holiday of Baba Marta brings the end of the cold and the beginning of spring. So it is appropriate that the red and white мартеници (martenitzi), donned on that day and worn until the vernal equinox signals spring has truly arrived, are sometimes garlanded with snowdrops and greeting cards join the two iconic spring symbols.

Perhaps climate change is responsible for this year’s early sighting of snowdrops in the Danubian plain. Perhaps snowdrops will bloom ever earlier as time goes on. Will they lose their role as spring’s harbinger, one they’ve held since time immemorial? Maybe in years to come the sighting of the snowdrop around the winter solstice will signal the cold winds of winter rather than the soft breezes of a spring just a few weeks away.