Tag Archives: Bansko

Neofit Rilski / Неофит Рилски

Neofit RilskiMonks of many faiths, perhaps all, take vows of one kind or another. These are generally along the lines of chastity, poverty, and obedience—precisely the sorts of things that minimize distractions and maximize stability in a monastic order. Often the monk (or nun) will adopt a new name to show the thorough and permanent break from the old life to the new. But it perhaps takes a special kind of humility to adopt and retain the name of “Neophyte”—even after long years of leadership and the acquisition of expertise have made one the precise opposite of a neophyte. Even after making an incalculable contribution to the building of one’s nation.

signNikola Poppetrov Benin (1793–January 4, 1881), however, became the Neophyte of Rila, Неофит Рилски (Neofit Rilski). Born in Bansko, Neofit Rilski was the son of a monk who taught in a monastery school. He took up both of his father’s professions, first continuing his vocation and studies at Rila Monastery and then inaugurating his teaching career there. His boyhood home in Bansko is a lovely example of the traditional architecture of that time. The first floor is dedicated to the common needs (kitchen, food storage, farm animals) and the second to those of the family. It is beautifully preserved, and a wing has been built to house a detailed museum devoted to his life and work.

Rilski 20001Although he created the first popular Bulgarian translation of the New Testament (commissioned by American Protestant missionaries) he is more known and deservingly revered for his secular educational efforts. Professor Vera Boicheva notes in her Neofit Rilski: Creator of the Bulgarian National School that he was the first Bulgarian writer to champion the use of a pure Bulgarian language, rather than the Greek popularly used in education. It was a truly revolutionary idea: modern Bulgarian was not simply the language of the peasant or the market, but imperative to the continuing development of a national sensibility, culture, and identity without which the country would be ill prepared for independence from the Ottoman Empire.


къща музейNeofit Rilski lived through the worse years of that struggle for independence. The Bansko house constructed by his father is a tangible reminder. The walls are double built with space between them. This secret space could be entered by several entrances from the house should escape from Ottoman soldiers be necessary. Many houses throughout Bulgaria acted as mini-fortresses and hiding places.

By the time Neofit Rilski passed away at age 88 in Rila Monastery, the symbol of not only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but Bulgarian culture preserved for five centuries, autonomy had been won and nation-building well and truly underway.

In order for the various dialects of the Bulgarian language to be unified, there had to be a way to teach the language in the same way students were already learning the languages of other countries. To that end, Neofit Rilski published the first Bulgarian language grammar book—211 pages—in 1835. And not only did he write the grammar book, he developed the pedagogy to utilize it in schools nationwide. Neofit Rilski thus had an impact not simply on the schools he personally directed—particularly the first fully secular and public school, in Gabrovo—he influenced other schools throughout the country.

The Bulgarian National Revival that flowered throughout Neofit Rilski’s life was an intellectual movement that forwarded a nationalism perhaps unique in the region (Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States (Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe, Vol. 3/1)).

Rather than being conservative and inward-looking, Bulgarian nationalism was expansive and progressive with broad education of both men and women seen as key to the progress of the entire community. It is not incidental that the Slaveno-Bulgarian History of Paisii Hilendarski (also from Bansko) and Neofit Rilski’s Bolgarska grammatika 1835 [Hardcover] are not only the key publications of the early Revival but are meant to be educational. They are not a call to arms, not a political rallying cry, not dogmatic. They do not suggest circling the wagons. They suggest by their very nature that education is the revolution and education is critical to create a strong and independent nation. Nationalism, then, is not best expressed by attempts to expand the borders without but the minds within.

Bansko and Dedo Pene’s

Bankso is due south of Sofia, but with a car you must curve your way west of the Vitosha and Rila mountains. It’s best known for skiing, but we like it year round. Our favorite place to eat and hang out is the Dedo Pene kruchma and inn. Kruchma is perhaps best translated as an informal and homey cross between a tavern and a restaurant. Originally opened in 1820, the family was able to get the property restituted after 1989 and it reopened in January 1991. The current patriarch long ago discarded his real name for that of the kruchma’s founder. Today’s Dedo Pene is not a tall man or a fat man, but he exudes bigness. He has the large, strong hands of someone who has done manual labor, close-cropped white hair, and hearty appetites. When a doctor asked him if he drank, he declared, “Doctor, I drink wine like water.” But, he pointed out, it’s his own red wine and what harm could come from that.

Dedo Penevoto merlot

There are multiple ways to enter Dedo Pene’s: the kruchma front, the rear double wood doors that lead to the rooms, a small side door that leads to a large space with sheepskins drying overhead. Somewhere en route from the inn’s ground floor to the ground floor kruchma on the other side is Dedo Pene’s workroom. There he can create and repair on an old Singer sewing machine the upholstery and rugs made from the sheepskins. The entire interior at Dedo Pene’s is something of a maze and as many times as I’ve been there I am completely unable to discern the floor plan.

Dedo Pene

Large wooden signs with raised block lettering of the kind seen in American “Ye Olde Ice-Cream Shoppe” signboards announce the kruchma, menu, and garden seating. A small table and stools made out of tree trunks complete the “authentic” made-for-tourist look. But inside is a style that can only be described as authentic made-by-Dedo Pene, he himself. Passing through a wood door, you immediately step down a stone step to meet a set of swinging wood doors that mark the true entrance to the kruchma. The cash register and kitchen entrance are to the immediate right and three main seating areas at various levels are full of wooden tables covered with red and black-checked tablecloths. An enormous fireplace topped by a rifle and a rack of deer antlers commands the focus of the largest seating area. It’s a working fireplace, used to roast meats as ordered but also an integral part of the heating system.

The walls are covered with things that Dedo Pene took an interest in, collected, bought, received as gifts from customers and friends in Bulgaria and abroad. A listing of it all could fill a catalog. A sampling: an old accordion hangs next to antique tools and a black-and-white ancestral photo. On the window ledge made deep by walls over a foot thick, there is an antique home movie projector, a classic typewriter using the Latin alphabet, and a Russian samovar. From the ceiling hangs a line of more than 20 animal bells—from small ones for goats to large ones for cows—frequently struck from one end to the other in a cacophonous call for attention or to celebrate someone’s arrival. Dented tin pan produce scales dangle from above as well as a hook scale that Dedo Peno allowed the children to hang from to test their strength, making suitable impressed sorts of noises that allowed them to strut off with superhero pride.

Dedo Pene hand

Before we came back to DC, my husband presented Dedo Peno with a photograph he had taken of him. Black and white, with Dedo Pene’s large hand thrust forward toward the camera so that even the whorls on his fingertips are clearly visible, the photo was added to the great mix of items that make up the main indoor area of the kruchma. We can’t imagine staying anywhere else. The rooms couldn’t be more charming, with wonderful alcoves and balconies and amazing views of the Pirin Mountains. Dedo Pene and his family made us feel at home and the kids felt free to run around.

Hiking with friends in the Pirin Mountains south and west of Bansko, the children lingered behind collecting wild raspberries and throwing carefully selected rocks and pinecones. Eventually, we made it to the Baikusheva Mura, at more than 1300 years old one of the oldest trees in the world. The roots of this fir snake on top of and through the large flat rocks surrounding a trunk that would take nearly all of us hand-in-hand to reach around. We continued past the Vihren Hostel, which seems not to have received much attention or maintenance since its 1980s heyday.


The path grew rockier, the grass sparser, and the air cooler as we climbed. Less than an hour later, we reached our hiking goal. Okoto, The Eye, is a small, almost perfectly round lake. Part of the lake’s curve is bordered by a sheer, often bare rock face and part by densely growing trees. But perhaps half of Okoto’s curve is surrounded by a gentle slope covered with grass.

Bansko old town

Back in old town Bansko, we naturally wound up at Dedo Pene’s for dinner. Very often at Dedo Pene kruchma, a group of musicians comes in to play traditional folk music. These are excellent musicians and one really shouldn’t complain, but no conversation can be had while six or seven men are playing the accordion, clarinet, violin, etc. and singing at full volume precisely behind your chair. But on this evening, as Dedo Pene was sitting with us and encouraging us to eat while the food was hot, he saw a group of young families enter with six children between them. This together with our group’s five children pleased him enormously. “It’s a whole kindergarten!” he cried, and he called to the musicians to play a “children’s horo.” Taking them by the hand, he began dancing with them, instructing them on the steps. The musicians stayed to play in honor of various people at our table—a song titled with one woman’s name, another a favorite of Dedo Pene and in which he joined in singing with an admirably powerful voice. It was our last night of this little vacation and we regretfully left shortly just before midnight, as always a memorable evening in Bansko.

10 Fun Facts for the Bulgaria Curious

  1. Bulgaria has been known since antiquity for its soothing and healing mineral baths. There are hundreds, some say over 1000, mineral springs and spas galore.
  2. Bulgarians are literally world-class pessimists, even when living the good life drinking expressos for hours in cafés and visiting their country cottages on the weekends and holidays.
  3. The world-class ski slopes of Bansko, Bulgaria host the Ski World Cup Races. Lindsey Vonn won in 2009 and 2012 in Bansko.
  4. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church leadership helped save the Bulgarian Jewish population from being sent to the concentration camps.
  5. Bulgarian wine is famous. Sir Winston Churchill reportedly ordered 500 liters of Bulgaria’s Melnik wine every year. Import your own or ask your local store.
  6. Балкан (Balkan) refers to the central mountain range running west to east so it’s no surprise that Bulgaria has great rock climbing opportunities throughout the country.
  7. Guerilla artists have been using the enormous Sofia monument to the Soviet army as a protest vehicle. Among other statements, they’ve memorialized the 1968 Prague Spring, the current state of affairs in Ukraine, and generally thumbed their collective creative noses at Russia.
  8. Ancient Thrace, where Orpheus sang, is today’s southeastern Bulgaria. Archeologists continue to uncover their tombs and treasures.
  9. Bulgaria maintains a tradition of mummery in towns and villages nationwide. Кукери (kukeri) wear elaborate costumes and re-enact ancient rituals to scare away evil spirits.
  10. The Bulgarians created the Cyrillic alphabet. So important do Bulgarians consider their alphabet that they celebrate its creation as part of Day of the Alphabet, Culture and Education each May 24.