It's easy to fall in love with the Rhodope's past and present in Zlatograd
The waitress in the café approaches the table, carrying a tray with two small cups of steaming Turkish coffee. Then she stops nearby and starts spinning the tray round and round in the air, the cups rapidly turning upside down. You might think that she has gone mad and you are going to end up with coffee all over your clothes, but this doesn't happen and in a few seconds you are enjoying the so-called coffee on sand. This is a specialty one must definitely try when in Zlatograd. The coffee is boiled on heated sand and then spun around several times to get a unique dense taste that can make you forget all about espresso.
Zlatograd, or the Town of Gold, is worth visiting not only for that special coffee. Situated in the southern part of the Rhodope, a few kilometres from the border with Greece, it is a site of rich history and culture, and home to a remarkable privately-owned ethnographic complex, where romantic white houses represent the architecture and the typical environment of the Bulgarian Revival Period. The stunning whiteness of the houses is believed to have been the reason for the old name of the place – Belovidovo, or White Town. The name was later changed to Zlatograd because of the gold ore found in the region. Stone paved streets lead you to the doors of ateliers where craftsmen turn leather into saddles and bridles, pieces of gold become jewellery and you can try weaving on a traditional loom.
Wandering around you come across boys and girls wearing traditional national costume, but you haven't actually gone back in time – they are most probably dancers, invited to entertain the guests at a celebration. The ethnographic complex in Zlatograd is a popular site for weddings, which are conducted along the lines of traditional ceremonies and rites of the region.
The woodcarver in the museum complex willingly plays the gayda
The Ethnographic Museum, situated in a building from the second half of the 19th Century, shows exactly how people lived in Zlatograd centuries ago. On entering the museum you are welcomed by a woman wearing traditional local costume, who will willingly accompany you around the museum and tell you everything about the lifestyle, clothing and culture of the people of Zlatograd. It is interesting to see how the people of Zlatograd used to furnish and decorate their homes – the rooms were furnished with a touch of what is now referred to as minimalism. In the museum you can also see an archaeological exhibition with items found locally from the Thracian, Roman and Byzantine heritage of Bulgaria.
Another fascinating spot is the Museum of Communications, which is one of a kind in Bulgaria. Early telephones and telegraphs are on show, accompanied by photos, some of which will surprise you. Most ordinary Bulgarians are not aware that decades ago letters and packages were distributed around the country by postmen riding camels. If you'd like to see how the local schools looked in the Revival Period you can visit the Museum of Education, which tells the history of education in this part of the Rhodope from way back.
Movement and colour draw attention to the weaver's workshop, where a skilled lady sits behind a loom and weaves threads to produce cloth. More than two centuries ago Zlatograd was known as a centre of the craft, which has been preserved here. The workshop is usually full of tourists, some of them just absorbed in the weaving process, others choosing fabrics and homespun cloth to bring home for a present. The bravest sit at the loom and try for themselves the magic of weaving, guided by the experienced weaver.
The notorious Zlatograd coffee on sand is strong and sweet
Just near the weaver's you can pop into the tailor’s workshop and see how the craft of sewing is applied in the production of modern clothes. You can also have a look at the collection of irons and sewing machines, which show the transformation they have undergone throughout the years.
The old part of the town has been turned into an open-air ethnographic museum by a local entrepreneur. The reconstruction was funded by EU SAPARD and Phare programmes
If you are keen on jewellery the goldsmith's workshop is the place to visit. There you can learn about the ores and crystals found in the Zlatograd area, as well as the traditional items of jewellery used on special occasions and in different rituals. There are also pieces for sale and you can go home with a unique handmade ring or bracelet, safe in the knowledge that no one else will be wearing one the same. Nature lovers can take an eco path and climb one of the three hills that form the Krastata Gora area. Each hill has a church on top – Sts Constantine and Elena, St Atanas and St Nedelya. From the hilltop, if the sky is clear, you can see the glittering waters of the Aegean Sea in the distance. The Zlatograd Dam and the Varbitsa River provide the option for fishing as well.
Zlatograd has a significant Muslim population
Walking all round Zlatograd can be tiring, and the best place to finish your tour and have a rest is in one of the taverns in the complex. It is a delightful experience, sipping a glass of local red wine while listening to the sounds of a pipe and traditional Rhodope songs. Try the regional specialties like patatnik, a baked potato pancake, or klin, a pastry with a spicy rice filling, and you won't regret it. You can find these in taverns in big cities in Bulgaria as well, but their real taste can only be experienced here, where they are prepared from local ingredients and by skilled chefs who know the traditional recipes down to the last detail.
THE MONUMENT OF DELYU VOYVODA
Have you ever heard of the song "Izlel e Delyu Haydutin" sung by the Bulgarian folk singer Valya Balkanska? It has been traveling in space since 1977 as part of the Voyager Golden Record selection of music included in the two Voyager spacecraft. The song tells the story of Delyu Haydutin, who was born in Zlatograd in the 18th Century. According to the legend, Delyu was the leader of a group fighting against the forced Islamisation of Bulgarians under the Ottoman rule, and is considered a national hero. There are many accounts on Delyu and his deeds. One of them has it that neither a bullet nor a sword could kill him, so his enemies had to make a special silver bullet that finally ended his life. The monument stands just at the spot where Delyu is supposed to have been killed by the Turks and can be seen as you enter the town of Zlatograd.
In Zlatograd two brooks meet, giving birth to the Varbitsa
THE USPENIE BOGORODICHNO CHURCH
In the very centre of Zlatograd is one of the oldest churches in the Rhodope, the Uspenie Bogorodichno, or the church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin. In 1834 it was built on the ruins of an earlier church in just 40 days, as the legend has it. The church was erected with special permission from Sultan Mahmud II, but its construction was marked by many difficulties. Bulgarian mastercraftsmen were working by day, but by night some local Ottoman fanatics tried to demolish it. At a certain point the Bulgarians got angry and ambushed and killed three Ottomans, who were coming to destroy the work again. This did not go unnoticed and the building process was stopped by the authorities. It took the Bulgarians much effort and many bribes to get new permission, but even then the builders had to do their job under a hail of stones, thrown by angry passers-by. To protect themselves, they built a fence round the church and, unlike the traditional houses in Zlatograd, they made the roof of the church out of stone slabs, to keep it safe. Some of the icons in the church are contemporary, and all the rest date back to the Revival Period.
Museum of Communications in Zlatograd
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.