Unlike other traditional villages and towns in Bulgaria stuck in their museum-feel, Tryavna, a town in the central Stara Planina mountains, is alive. Ordinary people still live in its fine Revival Period houses and the cobbled streets are busy with townsfolk, hurrying about their business.
Tryavna is arguably the only Bulgarian city with a completely preserved Revival Period centre, combining all the elements of 18-19th centuries cityscape: homes and shops, a school and a stone bridge, a church and a clock tower. There were many towns like Tryavna, but their faces were forever lost in the whirlwind of "modernisation" of the 1970s-1980s which saw the replacement of old centres with uniform squares.
Huddled on the banks of the Trevnenska River, Tryavna appeared in 1565 as a village of Derventdzhii – people in the Ottoman Empire whose task was to keep the mountain passes safe for travellers. In the following two centuries, trade and crafts flourished. In the 17th century, a local icon painting school was formed, and today its disciples are still among the most revered icon-painters in Bulgaria. Woodcarving expanded too, forming another school of talented artisans.
The centre of Tryavna today is a living exhibition to the skills and crafts of local masters. Every detail in the old buildings – from the carved wooden beams supporting projecting windows to the big iron nail heads in the wooden doors – shows the desire of old-time masters to create things of beauty and of endurance.
There are several places in Tryavna where the artistic skills of local craftsmen are at their best. The wooden ceilings of the Daskalova Kashta, or The Daskalov House were carved during a competition between a master woodcarver and his ambitious apprentice. Both men carved suns and it is still hard to decide which one is better – the heavy summer sun made by the seasoned master or the young apprentice's sprightly spring sun.
There is more in the Sveti Archangel Mihail, or St Archangel Michael church. Built it the 17th century, it is the oldest in Tryavna, but what you see today is a reconstruction from the early 19th century. Inside, the iconostasis is covered with the intricate woodcarvings of the best Tryavna masters, and the icons are on a par; superb examples of the art of the local icon-painting tradition.
If you want to see more icons, visit the Icon Museum at the so-called Tsarski Paraklis, or King's Chapel, built by Bulgarian Queen Ioanna.
For many, walking Tryavna's cobblestones – not to mention drinking sand-brewed coffee or trying Rakiya in the restaurants – is immersion enough in the old-time atmosphere. For a fuller experience, however, do visit some of the museum houses. Slaveykovata Kashta, or The Slaveykov House, is unchanged from the mid-19th century, when poet Petko Slaveykov and his family lived there. The home of revolutionary Angel Kanchev is another fine example of local Revival Period architecture, and the house of the first Bulgarian professor of Chemistry, Penko Raykov, presents a Europeanised Bulgarian lifestyle from the second half of the 19th century.
Tryavna's main landmark is the 21-metre Clock Tower in the city centre beside the humpback stone bridge. The tower was built in 1814 and a year later had a clockwork mechanism installed to regulate the working hours of the town's merchants and craftsmen. The clockwork is still operational.
What makes Tryavna even more special is that it is not completely stuck in the Revival Period. In the former city public baths' building there is one of the most peculiar museums in Bulgaria, the Museum of Asian and African Art.