Some are centuries old, with mediaeval murals and strong stone walls untouched by time. Others are the result of the revival of the Bulgarian national consciousness in villages that were once lively but are now inhabited mainly by tourists. Many are at village centres while others are remote from any inhabited place, the sole remnant of some long forgotten monastery, or a village submerged by some dam.
What unites all the churches of rural Bulgaria is their genuine atmosphere of spirituality, and the presence, prayers, hopes, tragedies and happiness of generations of people who have left their invisible marks on the worn-down thresholds and peeling murals, on the smoke-blackened frescoes and iconostases, the tombstones and the legends and stories surrounding the churches.
You do not need to be a believer to feel it. All you have to do is to venture off the beaten track, and discover the discreet charm of Bulgaria's village churches.
Assumption Chapel, Borovo
Where: The Northern Rhodope
Borovo village is the last inhabited place before one of Bulgaria's most famed religious sites – Krastova Gora, or Cross Mount. Since the early 1900s, people have been visiting the 1,413-metre high peak in the belief that a chunk of the Holy Cross is buried there, prompting miracles to occur from time to time. Sadly, the aggregation of new, soul-less churches and chapels in the area is a drawback for any non-religious or aesthetically fastidious visitor. The Assumption Chapel, on a slope outside the complex and visible from Borovo village, is a bit of a compensation. It is as new and as ugly as the churches on Krastova Gora, but its location atop a hill surrounded by towering mountains turns it into a place that, when looked at from a safe distance, inspires spirituality.
St Archangel Michael, Balgarevo
Where: Northeastern Bulgaria
Balgarevo is a village inhabited by one of this country's most intriguing minorities – the Gagauz, who speak an archaic version of the Turkish language, but are devout Christians. There are two churches in Balgarevo. Ss Peter and Paul was built in 1901, but recently underwent a restoration so severe that its old character has been completely destroyed. From the outside, the 1896 St Archangel Michael is not that imposing, but its dark interior and humble icons and furnishings make it a quiet, moving place that inspires a spiritual journey, at least for a couple of minutes.
The third house of prayer in Balgarevo is more eccentric. The village priest has built a whole new religious complex, the St Catherine monastery, in the yard of his own family house.
St Dimitar, Brashlyan
Where: The Strandzha
When: 17th Century
Low and half-dug into the ground, the church of Strandzha's best known traditional village is remarkable for its connection with, of all things, paganism. St Dimitar was built on the site of an ancient Thracian sanctuary to Dionysus, and the builders did not hesitate to use parts of the ancient temple for the Christian shrine. The base and the head of a marble column were turned into chandeliers, and the altar, with an ancient inscription to the old god, ended up as an altar to Christ. Sadly, due to the rules of the Eastern Orthodoxy, no layman – and especially no laywoman – can enter the altar doors and see the reused altar.
St Dimitar, Boboshevo
Where: Western Bulgaria
When: 15th Century
From the outside, the former monastery church appears unassuming – its unimpressive architecture is hardly enhanced by an ugly 19th Century narthex. But once inside, you will forget this: the western side of the original structure is covered with frescoes, dominated by the figures of Christ and the church's patron saint, St Dimitar, on horseback. Around them, there is a pandemonium of Doomsday saints, devils and sinners. More murals await in the church itself, including a sponsor's inscription that dates the frescoes in 1488. The paintings cover every square centimetre, and include some intriguing scenes, like Judas hanged under a table where two Pharisees count the infamous 30 pieces of silver.
St Nicholas, Gumoshtnik
Where: Central Stara Planina, near Sevlievo
Gumoshtnik is one of those quiet villages in the Stara Planina where few people live and tourists visit only occasionally. Two centuries ago, it was the opposite – Gumoshtnik had enough inhabitants to justify the building of a large church a few years after the Ottomans permitted new Christian places of worship to be erected. St Nicholas was decorated by the best icon-painters and woodcarvers in the region, and soon after its consecration a school was opened next to it to provide basic but much needed education to the local children. The murals and the woodcarvings are still there, the school is now a museum, and the churchyard is filled with lush grass and old tombstones. Most of the few visitors, however, visit St Nicholas for another reason – the small obelisk erected to the memory of eight young men from Gumoshtnik who perished with the Titanic in 1912.
St Nicholas, Kovachevitsa
Where: Southwestern Bulgaria
The whitewashed four-storey belfry of St Nicholas looks almost Mediterranean, but the church and the village that it belongs to are deep in the western Rhodope. St Nicholas was built at an important moment for the people of Kovachevitsa – they were already rich and numerous enough to replace their previous chapel with a new, modern church with fine murals. St Nicholas soon became the centre of village life, and in the following decades a school and a community centre appeared next to it. Things went quiet after the Communists took over in 1944. The once vital local economy was killed off by nationalisation and most young people moved to the cities. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bulgarian moviemakers discovered Kovachevitsa's intact old architecture made a great set for historical dramas, and tourism boomed. In spite of this, Kovachevitsa – and its church – remain quiet most of the time.
St Paraskeva, Leshten
Where: Southwestern Bulgaria
While Kovachevitsa was the home of the rich, the nearby village of Leshten was inhabited by poor but dextrous itinerant masons. Interestingly, they managed to build their own church devoted to St Paraskeva years before their rich neighbours in Kovachevitsa erected St Nicholas. St Paraskeva is small, domed and prettily perched on a slope amid the beautiful local houses, looking out at a vista of the Pirin. In the early 2010s, it suffered great damage in a fire, but was eventually restored and is again welcoming visitors, who arrive at Leshten mainly to enjoy the village's old architecture, beautiful landscapes and excellent food.
St John, near Potsarnentsi
Where: Near Pernik
When: 14th Century
Small and made of roughly hewn stones, the church of St John used to be the heart of Pchelintsi village, preserving frescoes from the 16th Century and the memories of generations of people. It all ended in the 1970s, when Pchelina Dam was constructed above the village. Only the church, located on a hill, was spared from the flood. Today, it is one of the most photogenic sites in the area. Visit any weekend, and you will find at least a couple of others who have come to sit on the old bench by the door of the church and to enjoy the magnificent views of the nearby hills and the reservoir.
Holy Mother of Christ, Shiroka Laka
Where: The Rhodope
The 1830s were times of significant changes in the mountainous community of Shiroka Laka. Reforms in the Ottoman Empire eased the procedure for the building of new non-Muslim places of worship, and the people were more than eager to pray in their own church. Their enthusiasm is reflected in a local story, which says the whole village participated in the building of the Holy Mother of Christ Church, which was finished in only 40 days. A year later, they founded a school beside it, followed through the decades by a belfry, a secondary school and a community hall. Today, the complex around the church is one of the major sights of Shiroka Laka.
St Ivan of Rila, Sennik
Where: Central Stara Planina, near Sevlievo
Built during the Great War and at a time of significant hardship for the Bulgarians, St Ivan of Rila is nevertheless imposing. It sits on the top of a hill and is visible from afar, a fine example of early 20th Century religious architecture. Moreover, it has two rare features. In 1920, the church was adorned with a clockwork mechanism that still tells the time while, twenty years later, Sennik's most famous native was buried in the churchyard. Born in 1892, Dan Koloff emigrated to the United States in 1909 and became a famous wrestler, winning several international championships. When his career ended, he returned to his native Sennik and donated all of his money to charities, before his early death from consumption.
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 opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.