SPRING IN BOZHENTSI VILLAGE

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Traditional village balances idyllic landscape, old history, new development

bozhentsi village.jpg

When spring in Bulgaria is in full swing, something marvellous happens. At night, songbirds go crazy. When darkness descends, nightingales, orioles, larks and gold finches sing, chirp and improvise for hours, as if their lives depended on it, creating a symphony celebrating life itself.

Urban dwellers are mostly oblivious to the birds' spring concerts, but if you head to the countryside you will discover the glory of springtime birdsong at its best. This is only one of the many perks of getting out of the city in the season when nature reawakens, the sun is warm, the sky is blue and the trees and grass are forty shades of green.

For years, Bozhentsi village has been a preferred getaway for people fed up with urban living, a place of arcadian atmosphere and rustic architecture.

Nestled in the Stara Planina, less than 10 miles from Gabrovo, by the 1960s Bozhentsi was almost deserted. A few old people used to live in the spacious but rundown houses built by wealthy merchants two centuries previously. The younger generation had left in search of jobs in Gabrovo and elsewhere.

Bozhentsi Village, Bulgaria

The traditional village is full of charming details, such as the heavy old gates that still guard gardens and houses

In 1962, Bozhentsi's old houses with their whitewashed façades, stone walls, dark brown beams, and tiled roofs caught the attention of conservationists. It was the time when old houses in richer and livelier villages and towns were being demolished in the process of establishing a "modern" Socialist lifestyle. Places like Bozhentsi had become a rarity, and this saved the village. Its houses were restored and in 1964 the village received the status of historical and architectural preservation. Tourists started to arrive, and then came the writers.

The writers' invasion of Bozhentsi started at the end of the 1960s, when a Communist Bulgarian literature bigwig bought a house in the village, turning it into a rural escape where he could entertain friends and party apparatchiks. Soon, the writers' colony in Bozhentsi expanded. The change was so sudden and so unexpected that even the local press criticised the intellectuals for their "bourgeois" behaviour.

 Bozhentsi Village, Bulgaria

You will find only traditional, and quite overpriced, restaurants in Bozhentsi

In the following years, many houses in Bozhentsi were bought, restored and turned into private villas or hotels.

Today Bozhentsi is small and isolated, but it was not always so. According to a legend, when the Ottomans captured the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo in 1393, an aristocratic lady called Bozhana escaped the ensuing massacre with her sons and a group of servants. They ran until they reached an inaccessible part of the Stara Planina, a valley shielded by high peaks from both the cold winter winds of the north and the heat from the south. They settled there. The hamlet grew and took the name of Bozhana, its founder.

People who believe the legend holds a kernel of truth, have pointed out several "telling" facts that aristocratic blood might still run in the veins of the inhabitants of Bozhentsi. The traditional costume of the local women, for example, includes the regal sokay, a tall headdress resembling a crown. And what about the fact that instead of making a living as shepherds like their neighbours, the people of Bozhentsi were merchants?

Bozhentsi Village, Bulgaria

Once the village thrived on commerce through the Stara Planina, now the shops offer local arts and crafts

In fact, the sokay is not a Bozhentsi exclusive and can be seen in other villages and towns in the area. As for the merchants, it was not that strange. A well-preserved Roman road leading from Bozhentsi to Gabrovo shows that in Antiquity many people used to pass through the Stara Planina at this point.

The first documented evidence of the existence of the hamlet of Bozhentsi is an Ottoman tax register from 1611. In it, about 40 families of merchants, itinerant stone masons and moneylenders were included. Two centuries later the merchants were selling leather, wool, bees wax and honey to the Ottoman army. The village grew bigger and wealthier, and soon around the cobble-stoned streets large two-storey mansions began to appear.

The people of Bozhentsi were down-to-earth, but sometimes miracles happened in their village. One day, some of them were busy digging when their spades unearthed an icon of St Elijah and a wooden cross. When the first church in Bozhentsi was built in 1839, the relics were placed in it.

Like other Bulgarians of that era, the villagers were aware that a good education was needed if you wanted to be a successful merchant. A primary school was set up in the church, and in 1872 it was moved into a new building. In 1878, they also established a community centre. A theatre troupe soon followed.

Bozhentsi Village, Bulgaria

Located in a relatively pristine part of the Stara Planina, Bozhentsi is a verdant paradise in spring

By that time, however, it was already clear that there was no future for Bozhentsi in independent Bulgaria. The lucrative Ottoman market was lost, cheap industrial cloth from the West stifled local production, and people began to leave the hamlet. Then Communism with its forced urbanisation and industrialisation accelerated the process. The 1960s restorations partly reversed the process – at least at the weekends, when weary city folk come from far and near to enjoy the peace, fresh air and local rakiya under the heavy stone roofs of the Bozhentsi houses.

Unfortunately, nothing can compare to the boom of the 2000s, when the little village of Bozhentsi was turned into a theme park settlement, where there are no local inhabitants save for the dozens of service staff who operate the restaurants, taverns and hotels. What Communism with all its vices failed to do, capitalism achieved within a decade. Bozhentsi is now a miniature version of any of the big Black Sea resorts, with their display of Balkan consumerism.

 

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