by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

For a small town, Troyan has a serious claim to fame.

judgement day mural.jpg

Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.

Then, there is the Troyanksi Pass, a precipitous road that reaches an altitude of 1,595m before leading down, south of the Stara Planina.

Troyan's other attraction, however, doesn't have anything to do with merry living or geography. It is spiritual.

Located just out of town, the Troyan Monastery is the third largest and one of the most beautiful in Bulgaria.

Unlike the larger and more famous Rila and Bachkovski monasteries, the one at Troyan does not have medieval origins. The Assumption of the Mother of Christ appeared around 1600, on the banks of the Cherni Osam river, founded by a monk or a pair of monks (legends disagree) who came from the monastic community of Mount Athos.

Soon, pilgrims and monks began to flock to Troyan, attracted by the supposedly miraculous copy of an icon of the Mother of Christ from Mount Athos that is still kept in the monastery. The icon has three silver hands attached to it and, according to lore, was brought here by a monk from Athos on his way to Wallachia. The monk stopped at the then small Troyan monastery, and spent some time there. When he tried to continue his travels, the icon would not let him leave. Finally, he got the message and and left the icon in Troyan, continuing on to Wallachia empty-handed.

Troyan Monastery

The monastic church is hidden in the innermost yard of the complex


The monastery did well in the centuries that followed the event, although it was attacked at least once by Ottoman brigands. By the first half of the 18th century it was large and prosperous, and was instrumental in reviving Bulgarian education, as the home of an early elementary school. After 1785, the abbot initiated the complete renovation of the complex, which continued for more than 30 years. The result was the two- and three-storey living quarters that you see today, forming the two inner courtyards of the monastery.

The small, stone church in the inner yard is younger. It was built in 1835, on the site of a predecessor dating from 1780. In 1848-1849, Bulgaria's finest painter of the period, Zahariy Zograf, decorated it, and his frescoes are now one of the main reasons why Troyan Monastery is recognised as a gem of art.

To understand this, you need to know that Bulgarian art at that stage had not progressed from medieval times. The centuries under Ottoman domination and isolation from the West had taken their toll: Bulgarian artists painted solely religious scenes, keeping strictly to the old Byzantine rules of ecclesiastical art. In the first half of the 19th century, change finally arrived and the Baroque and Rococo trends and styles long out of fashion in the West permeated Bulgarian art.

Zahariy Zograf was the man who incorporated this new sensibility most skilfully into the stagnant local art. His frescoes depict not medieval Byzantine saints, but his fellow Bulgarians thinly disguised as Old and New Testaments characters.

The frescoes at Troyan Monastery are masterpieces pure and simple. All of Zograf's favourite topics are there: the fashionable, rich people of his day in the grab of devils and demons in the Last Judgement fresco; the philosophical Wheel of Life scene that is an allegory of the course of human life; and Zahariy Zograf's self-portrait. The latter is the first portrait in Bulgarian art (Zograf did at least one more), a bold statement that broke with medieval anonymity in an attempt to tell: death might conquer all, but art still prevails. Particularly, we shall add, if you can add to your philosophical questioning a small Troyanska Slivova in a pot tumbler with the distinctive Troyan design.

Troyan Monastery

The Wheel of Life scene is a meditation on the futility of human existence and its passions 


Troyan Monastery

 European art influences are clearly visible in this Biblical scene of Jesus and the Pharisee


Troyan Monastery

Zahariy Zograf broke with mediaeval tradition, depicting himself (right) in the church 


Troyan Monastery

 The urban female dresses, painted in great detail in a Last Judgement scene, were influenced by contemporary European fashion like Regency style


America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh 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.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on 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 for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on 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

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

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.