Discover the ghost village in the Western Rhodope that has become a popular tourist destination after years of turmoil and neglect
Issue 37, October 2009
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
If the wooden sign at the edge of the village, crafted in a style widely regarded as "traditional" in today's Bulgaria, is not enough to convince you that you are entering a popular mountain tourism destination, the local banitsa certainly will. Sweet-smelling, fluffy, full of cheese and fresh out of the oven at the small restaurant in the village centre, it has nothing in common with the dubious products of Sofia's bakeries. The same goes for its price. A banitsa costs 4 leva in Kovachevitsa.
This price, however, is one of the few things that ties in with the picture of a typical holiday village turned tourist attraction (think Sozopol, Nesebar or Arbanasi). Kovachevitsa, in the Western Rhodope, is a maze of cobbled streets lined with threehundred- year-old houses. Built from stone, with overhanging wooden verandas and roofs covered with stone tiles, the three and four storey houses resemble small fortresses. The village is full of tourists: families, romantic couples and enthusiastic groups of elderly citizens from provincial pensioners' clubs. Nowhere in Kovachevitsa will you encounter the kitsch of a nouveau riche villa, nor will you come across a massive spa hotel either. Kovachevitsa's hotels occupy traditional houses, with no more than a dozen rooms, whose prices (unlike that of the banitsa) are simply rock-bottom.
Beneath the cobbles of the village, which has been an architectural and cultural heritage site since 1977, there lies one more proof of Kovachevitsa's uniqueness. It is probably the only village in Bulgaria that has a secret subterranean tunnel. Nobody knows exactly where its entrance and exit are, nor its exact route, but it is there somewhere, according to local legend. Dug at the beginning of the 20th Century, it allowed the insurgents who fought against the Ottoman authorities to pass through the village without putting the inhabitants at risk.
Back then, the people of Kovachevitsa knew well what the price of safety was. Their predecessors, who founded the village in the first half of the 17th Century, came from far and near. According to popular history, the first to settle on the steep eastern bank of the Kanina River were fleeing the forcible Islamisation of the Eastern Rhodope. They were soon joined by fugitives from far-off Tarnovo, seeking refuge from the plague raging in their lands. A third wave of settlers arrived at the beginning of the 18th Century – this time from an area that is now in the western part of the Republic of Macedonia.
Each group of settlers established their own separate hamlet, and these combined into a village under a new threat. When the power of the sultan began to decline in the second half of the 18th Century, chaos and brigandry spread throughout his empire. The inhabitants of the hamlets had already accumulated some wealth and to protect their property from the raids of roving bands they joined forces to create a single village at whose centre the richest built fortified houses. These had strong gates and windowless outer walls, except for a few narrow openings, which ventilated the ground floor stables and storage rooms, and acted as loopholes.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers