ARTICLES 
Some autumn alternatives
Article by Clive Leviev-Sawyer, The Sofia Echo, 23rd - 29th September 2005

A little late in the year for the seaside, somewhat too early for the ski resorts; if you are drinking white wine or mastika, it is because you do not want summers warming embrace to slip away; if you are drinking red wine or dark beer, you long to sense the icy overture to winter.

I returned from a four-day weekend earlier this month with a missionary zeal about my discovery that there is an alternative to the oscillations of the year between sea and ski. I found it shamefacedly I must admit after almost four years in the country after we attended the wedding of friends who married at the Sokolski Monastery and held their reception in the hamlet of Kmetovtsi. Up in the mountains of central Bulgaria, where villages resound only with serenity, history is preserved in a tasteful way, and some innkeepers are trying for the competitive edge by offering satellite television and mini-bars.
To get your bearings, the nearest large places in the region are Veliko Turnovo and Gabrovo. We used the weekend of the wedding to explore the region, and these are a few notes from the trip.
Taking the road from Plovdiv towards Gabrovo, we drove amid a countryside unusually lush for the time of year, a by-product of the heavy rains this summer. I was determined to finally make the pilgrimage to the monument at Shipka Peak, and pay my respects to those who lost their lives in the fighting that opened the way for Bulgarias liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Before we reached the summit of Shipka, from far off glinted the golden onion domes of the Church of the Nativity.
Consecrated on September 27 1902, in the style of 17th-century Russian churches, the church is in magnificent condition, thanks successively to help from the Russian Orthodox Church (under communism an event commemorated with a marble plaque affixed to an outer wall, topped by the hammer-and-sickle and CCCP) and European funds.


Memorably, among our fellow visitors at that hour was Zhan Videnov, whose socialist government presided over Bulgarias 1997 financial collapse. While I cannot guarantee that anyone who follows our route would experience a similar moment of political irony, I may recommend the area just below the church as a place to buy crafts and other memorabilia, including souvenir bottles of rose liqueur from Kazanluk.

As we made our way up the road to Shipka Peak, I cast my appraising eye, that of a former soldier, at the dense forestation, and imagined the bloody and agonising exercise that it would be to lead a platoon in an infantry engagement on those unforgiving slopes.
Later, from paintings and sketches in the museum, I saw that the slopes were portrayed as having been mostly bare at the time of the battles. A choice between terrain that offers an enemy plentiful cover or one that offers either side none is not a choice anyone would like to face.
The day was unseasonably cold, and the memorial, reached by ascending a calf-crunchingly long flight of stone steps, was framed against a bleak and forbidding sky. There was an entrance fee to enter the museum within the monument, with different prices for Bulgarians and foreigners, and an additional charge for taking photographs inside foreigner prices by the way, with an additional fee for photos and video, was standard practice at every place we visited in those four days. So much for the Cabinet directive of December 2004 outlawing the practice.


Inside the Shipka monument, each floor within depicted scenes from the battle, and some of the figures who took part, with notes in a number of languages, including English. Among the battlefield memorabilia are rifles and bayonets used by the forces.
Seeing the rifle number stamped on one many veterans remember their rifle numbers for the rest of their lives brought home that it was an individual who had grasped this weapon. I wondered what had become of him. Up a narrow staircase and through a narrow door, we reached the top deck, and stood briefly in the slicing wind, contemplating the countryside over which the battle was fought.
Down the winding road of the pass, to Tryavna (about 22km east of Gabrovo), where at the lower altitude, the afternoon was warmer than on the peak. Wandering the architectural reserve, created by an initiative some decades back that thankfully preserved much of the Revival architecture, we came on the Museum of Woodcarving and Icon-Painting. As someone who was caned at school for gross incompetence in woodwork, I could but stand in wonder at the two wood-carved ceilings on display, representing stylised interpretations of the sun. They were created in the early 1800s by rival master woodcarvers Dimitar Oshanina and Ivan Bochukovetsa. I declared it a draw. Elsewhere in the architectural reserve, there is a wealth of houses and churches, and I noted that Swiss and European Union money was helping to keep it going.

An experience similar to the delight in discovering Tryavna was a visit to the ethnographic museum village at Etar, nine km from Gabrovo. Work on the open-air museum began in 1963, and by using several actual structures and modelling the rest of the complex on records, the designers produced a seven-hectare 19th-century Bulgarian mountain town. Happily avoiding the kitsch of a theme park, the Etar complex offers the chance to see craftspeople at work, and buy what they have produced. A sad exception was the magnificent work of the baker, who had not taken into account that it was a long weekend, thus not anticipating demand, and opted for supplying the on-site restaurant rather than his queuing customers. I write with the disappointment of one who was second from the head of the queue when he made his decision. Still, there were many consolations, including the gentle atmosphere of the place, the coffee at a tavern in the cobbled street, and the sight of two young German tourists happily enthusiastic at themselves being photographed in the costumes of Bulgarian peasants of the 1800s.

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