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.
Triavna 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.
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.