WHAT IS KARLOVO?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Small mountain town bespeaks entrepreneurial, charitable spirit of Bulgaria of yore

centre of bulgaria

Great changes often spread from inconspicuous places, and Karlovo is a case in point. This town at the southern foot of the Stara Planina mountain range looks quiet and quaint now: some old, Revival Period houses huddled between newer construction lining a long street that funnels much of the traffic on the Sofia-Burgas road. You might think that nothing of importance has ever happened in Karlovo, but the first impression, as most first impressions, is wrong.

In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, Karlovo produced a disproportionate number of men and women who influenced this nation's history: educators and wealthy merchants, benefactors and actors, artists and revolutionaries. Karlovo is also the hometown of the first Bulgarian female adventurer, Anka Lambreva, who travelled round the world, and the brothers Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi, who sponsored the construction of Sofia University.

karlovo

Karlovo is nestled at the foot of the Stara Planina

Most Bulgarians associate Karlovo with one person in particular. Vasil Kunchev, commonly known as Levski, meaning Lion, was born here in 1837. He took his monastic vows in Karlovo, in 1858, but left soon afterwards and became a revolutionary with an unmatched talent for organising rebellion against the Ottomans.

The reason why relatively small Karlovo produced so many impressive personalities was mainly economic. At present, the town is hardly a powerhouse, but back in the day it was a centre of textile manufacturing and and rose oil production. This resulted in a lively community whose members travelled far and wide. After Bulgaria's liberation, when the Ottoman markets were lost and local manufacturing was replaced by cheaper industrial production, Karlovo started to lose its importance. Its most entrepreneurial citizens departed for places that offered better opportunities, such as Plovdiv and Sofia.

Today Karlovo is quiet, but the inquisitive visitor can still find some rewarding curiosities and delights in and around it.

vasil levski

Levski's monument in central Karlovo

The family home and museum of Vasil Levski is the obvious focus of interest. A tiny and rather austere place, the 19th century house is a place of pilgrimage for modern Bulgarians where school children from all over the land are taken on bus trips.

Unless you stray off the main street and drive a couple of blocks south you might miss Levski's monument. Erected in 1907, Levski stands proud, a lion by his side: an excellent rendition of the 19th century man that by far outshines many modern attempts at heroic sculpture.

The area around is also a delight. Old Karlovo is a mosaic of sensitively restored Revival Period houses, some of which are now B&Bs.

Two churches in the old quarter are easily recognised by their Baroque-inspired belfries. By the northern wall of St Nicholas, built in 1847, there is a small grave where Gina Kuncheva, Levski's mother, was interred. On the other side of the church a milestone claims to mark the geographical centre of Bulgaria. In actual fact, the geographical centre of Bulgaria is on the northern side of the Stara Planina, in the area of Uzana, near Gabrovo.

old mosque karlovo

The porch of Karlovo mosque

The Holy Mother of God Church (1858) stands on the site of an older church, which was destroyed by fire. Its marble floor is decorated with a relief of a two-headed eagle, the symbol of the Constantinople Patriarchate. This indicates the subservience to Constantinople of the church and its parish at the time the church was erected. A mural of Vasil Levski is depicted inside. There have been several efforts to canonise him, but so far they have been turned down by the Orthodox Church.

When you venture out of the area you will see Karlovo's other faces: beautiful modernist houses from the early 20th century, a Communist-era central square and pedestrian street, apartment blocks and infrastructure for the servicemen of the local military base. Among these are scattered newer, post-1990s business and residential buildings.

When you are wandering around central Karlovo, do pay attention to signs of the rich charity and donation culture that existed in the town during its heyday. Today, Karlovo residents get married in a beautiful house built in 1896 by a local women's association called Education. On the main street stands the small, and sadly abandoned, Lazarovo School donated to the town in 1892 by a local merchant involved in international business.

bulgarian rose

Rose oil production is a traditional Karlovo craft

The grandest of these is the woollen textile factory built in 1891 by the Georgievi Brothers on the road to the nearby waterfall. Their idea was to provide Karlovo, which was already feeling the brunt of the changed economy, with an industry and jobs fit for modern times. Machinery and factory plans were imported from England. When Evlogi Georgiev died, the wool factory became the property of the municipality of Karlovo. After the Communist takeover in 1944, it was nationalised and eventually transformed into a silk printing and stamping facility. When Communism collapsed, it was privatised. Its assets were then quickly sold off, and the factory closed. It remains so to this day.

Karlovo has also preserved some remnants of its earlier history. The town appeared in the late 15th century, when the area was given to a high-ranking Ottoman official, Karlizade Bey, for his personal use. Gradually, his name was transferred to the settlement itself. In the centre of Karlovo there remains a beautifully painted mosque dating from those times. On the opposite side of the street there is a beautifully preserved Ottoman inn that is now a hotel. Do not be deceived by the old clock tower, however. It is a recent restoration of the original, which used to stand beside the Ottoman-era market and was demolished in 1944 to make room for new urban construction.

old karlovo

Old Karlovo is beautifully preserved

A short walk from the centre of Karlovo leads to one of Bulgaria's most delightful waterfalls. Both its names, Suchurum or Karlovsko Praskalo, are tongue twisters, but you can just ask around for the waterfall, and you will be understood. It falls eight metres through massive boulders and has been a favourite spot for picnics and walks for generations of locals. In 1926 a small power plant was built at the foot of the waterfall, and inaugurated in the presence of King Boris III. Unlike the wool factory, it operates today, its original Made-in-Germany turbines still doing their job. 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.