From Sofia we drove north-east towards the old Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo and its impressive UNESCO-protected citadel Tsarevets. We were going deeper into the Stara Planina (Old Mountain) and the scenery was lovely.
It was this mountain range’s Turkish name, Balkan, meaning “a wooded mountain”, that gave our peculiar region its name. In the early 19th century a German geographer Zeune, wanted to find a suitable mountain range, like the Apennines and the Pyrenees, to name the easternmost and most mountainous European peninsula, and he went for the Balkans, despite the fact that it is neither the tallest, nor the longest mountain range in the region. Zeune could have also gone for the range’s Thracian/Greek name, Haemus, by which it was known in antiquity and up to 19th century, yet given the Ottoman presence in those times, the Balkan probably seemed more appropriate.
Since Zeune’s time, which was roughly the period when Balkan nations started fighting for their independence from the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires, the name got its sinister overtones due to the many bloody wars it took to reach the current stable(ish) state of affairs. Now, even to some Balkanites, “Balkan” is considered a term of disparagement. Western nations of the peninsula shun the designation and insist on being “Central European”, while the euphemistic, coldly technical “South Eastern Europe” seems to be preferred these days. The Balkans’ bad rep gave birth to “balkanisation” (fragmentation into smaller, mutually hostile groups), as well as to “balkanism”, Orientalism’s western and conceptually slightly different brother, most associated with Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian historian. Todorova’s 1997 book, “Imagining the Balkans” (a must read for those interested in the region), popularised the concept and examined why the Balkans got their bad reputation and how the image of beastly people enjoying sharp liquor, slaughter, and, well, dancing bears persisted into our times.
Looking through the window, the Balkan seemed peaceful and green, and not a foreboding skeletal hulk I expected it to be in the back of my mind. As we were passing hills and forests, I thought about how misunderstood our region is and how beautifully normal and pleasantly unremarkable the Balkans really are.
A few moments later, a balkanist image par-excellence stopped my musings. We were in the middle of nowhere when we saw a few women walking by the road in 40C heat. I was wondering what they might be up to, but once they flashed us – desperately rather than seductively – it was clear. A few meters down the road we saw a truck stopping. Although I’ve seen these exact scenes in Spain and Italy, I had to sigh for the Balkans and these poor women.
The suburbs of Veliko Tarnovo were unremarkable, but as we got closer to its old core the scenery became impressive. The river Yantra cuts through the mountain to produce several promontories, most of them dotted with ancient ruins of former parts of this former imperial capital, which for a while was considered “the Third Rome”, for its scholarship, wealth and cosmopolitanism. Tucked in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by the Yantra’s canyon, Tsarevets fortress wtill looked imposing and impregnable, even though most of its ramparts were badly damaged more than six centuries ago, when in 1393 its fall to the Ottomans marked the end of the Second Bulgarian empire.
Like any self-respecting cultural site east of Vienna, Tsarevets did not offer much explanation of its importance and history, let alone stoop to providing tourist-friendly illustrations or interactive points. East of Vienna, you needed to approach an ancient site informed, and not expect it to entertain you. Once we gave up on trawling through Wikipedia in mid-day heat, we still managed to entertain ourselves in one of the reconstructed towers, where we could pose as if we are chopping each other’s heads off. After some more sightseeing and photos at the cliff where one of the patriarchs’ met his demise, we went up to the church/museum at the top of the citadel and admired the fantastic scenery around us.
The heat put the stop to any suggestions of exploring more, and we crossed to the wonderful old town to find food and beer. The charm of old houses clinging to sheer cliffs, and lovely gardens, was dimmed by our exhaustion as we scrambled to no.2 Tripadvisor-recommended restaurant, Hadji Nikoli’s han. It took a cold, restorative Bolyarka, a local beer, to make us appreciate the beauty of this former merchants’ inn and its undulating balconies. Sated and rested, we only took a brief look down the picturesque merchant street and went on to our next stop: Zheravna.
When G. introduced Zherevana as an ethnographic village, I expected a few houses and an inn, surrounded by a lot of sheep and an even more of nothing. Yet, Zheravna was a proper historic small town, with about a hundred amazingly preserved stone and timber houses, which seemed frozen in time. Built in 18th and 19th century, during the Bulgarian renaissance, Zheravna was (and still is) a folk craft centre. Although the place does seem to rely on tourism, it still keeps a sense of mystery and self-respect. Beautiful tradesmen’s houses and their gardens now serve as fantastic homestays, while the dependable inns serve honest, very affordable fare in beautiful gardens under starry skies. Zheravna, in many ways, is the Balkans at its best: unexpectedly beautiful, calm and seemingly lost in time.
When we started walking around in the golden dusk, we felt like we were in a picture-book village and behaved accordingly. We walked along the high walls of lush gardens and stole wild plums. We followed stray cats around many of Zhervna’s sterams and saw a very elderly lady play with them. At last, but not the least, we indulged in local rakia in the oldest of local taverns, and then slept like babies.
The next day, after a hike around the hills and a hearty breakfast of Bulgarian cheese, jam and friend bread, we walked around the village a bit more. N. and S. wanted to get some of the handicrafts, but after being offered shirts for EUR 40, they contented themselves with a photo of them looking old-school Bulgarian. We stopped by the village’s fantastic church, and read a rather florid descriptions of the village’s history. Fully recovered, and ready to swap the calm of Zheravna for the movida of the Bulgarian riviera, we left the Balkan mountains and continued to Varna.