Going on your summer vacation to Greece? Returning from the Aegean? Whatever brings you to the southwest of Bulgaria, do take the time to divert from the main road and head to Teshovo.
To say that Teshovo is an out-of-the-way, off-off-off-the-beaten-track destination would be an understatement. Tucked into the hills south of Gotse Delchev, a mile at most from the border with Greece, it is an end-of-the-road settlement. It is now quiet and severely depopulated, though in the Communist period it sported a shoe factory.
Today, most of the houses are empty. Nature roams free, reclaiming the landscape that once teemed with human activity. Where in the Revival Period there was primitive iron ore production, the source of Teshovo's former wealth, there are now verdant forests and an abundance of wildlife. Sheep farming still survives, and a delicious variety of white cheese is still made from the local flocks.
Teshovo has two visible reminders from the time when history and the economy were more favourable: a stone fortification tower and one of the best rural churches you can see anywhere in Bulgaria.
The tower looks medieval, but no one knows when and why it was built. It is 13.5 m high, but in the 19th century it was taller. Like other towers erected in the Ottoman period, it had thick walls and what would have been relatively comfortable residential floors. Historians disagree on whether it was the residence of an Ottoman warlord or was part of a system of fortified communication towers in the region.
The origins of Teshovo's tower are unknown
By the 19th century the local memories about its past were already lost. The heavy door of the tower was removed and installed in the covered market in Serres, now in Greece. The locals used its stones for their church and houses. As late as the 1970s the village bakery was built with construction materials from the tower.
It now stands abandoned, right in the middle of the village, surrounded by houses whose inhabitants have long since died or moved elsewhere.
What makes Teshovo a real gem is its church, St Demetrius. It was built in 1844 and reconstructed in 1870-1871. Its belfry, which still has a working clock, was added in 1941. Its iconostasis is richly decorated with plants, animals, birds and angels, and most of its icons were painted by Dimitar Molerov, a famous Revival Period painter from Bansko.
The most remarkable thing about St Demetrius is the charmingly naive murals. Rather than making any attempt to conform to the Orthodox canon, they look like an imitation of European art – or even like modern Hindu religious painting.
The mural of the blinding of Vladimir Rasate is supposedly one-of-a-kind in Bulgaria
Teshovo's murals were painted in the 1880s by Master Mino and his sons, Marko and Teofil. In addition to the usual biblical scenes, they painted an event not usually depicted in Bulgarian churches: Prince Boris I's suppression of a revolt led by his son, Vladimir Rasate. Rasate rejected his father's conversion to Christianity and rose up in arms in defence of paganism. His punishment was to be blinded. This all happened in the 890s, and you can see a vivid if somewhat macabre depiction of it inside the church.
Some researchers claim that the Minkovi picture, entitled Vladimir's Punishment, is a form of Bulgarian propaganda, as the region where Teshovo is belonged to the Ottomans until the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.
The painters left their self-portrait as well: three moustachioed men with red fezzes, a glimpse of the time when Teshovo bustled with life.
Self-portrait of the painters who did the murals in St Demetrius Church
Satan and Hell gorge on sinners, a detail from the church murals
An open gallery circles the St Demetrius Church from three sides
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage 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.