A few weeks ago a vacancy on an EU funded trip to the Devetaki Plateau to study traditional craft skills emerged before my awakening eyes. I leapt from the Ipad and my bed and straight onto the laptop. My WCMT Fellowship has taught me, a girl who nearly had a panic attack at the prospect of going to an unfamiliar coastal town last year, that I am far more capable of things than ever I thought, that travel and new horizons are essential to my practice and that I should grab every opportunity that comes my way.
It is not very often that I have a few weeks clear of commitments but I had an unusual gap in the diary which I had earmarked for some experimental work. But as someone who has a particular interest in the safeguarding and promotion of heritage crafts, seeing the celebration of traditional skills in a rural Bulgarian community where such skills are still intrinsically valued was not something to be missed. I also had a very personal reason for wanting to go. In my quest to better understand tapestry as a medieval art form, I have recently been exploring, both on and off the loom, medieval frescoes, especially Byzantine work, as another contemporaneous large-scale mural art form. Out in Bulgaria I knew there was a glimmer of hope I might, just might, get a chance to see some first-hand. Medieval frescoes of course were not the purpose of the wider project, the itinerary was clearly laid out taking in craft festivals and relevant museums. But I had a sneaking suspicion that out there I had better chance of clapping my eyes on Byzantine frescoes and those influenced by them, rather than in the industrial north of the UK. The trip seemed a perfect compliment to my Fellowship, it would mean I lost a couple of weeks in planning the next leg, but it seemed a worthwhile sacrifice. I was quite shocked and very thrilled when I got an email the next day saying my flights were being booked. And what luxury, no organisation to do myself, no travel arrangements, no itinerary to put together, no meetings to set up or accommodation to find, or documentation to produce. All I had to do was get myself to the airport.
Our first full day was spent in the capital, Sofia. This involved exploring the Roman city of Serdica, their ruins had been wonderfully incorporated into public spaces and buildings. Our first stop, however was the Rotunda of St George a Roman temple enveloped by a modern hotel and long ago converted into an Orthodox church. It was a Sunday so a mass was under way. No photographs were allowed, at least not without a fee. It was mesmerizing introduction to Bulgaria, the chanting, the intimacy of the mass, and yes, amazing ancient frescoes coating every surface of the tiny building.
We also visited the Church of Saint Sofia and its Roman necropolis and then onto the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The latter I had dismissed, it was relatively modern so of little personal interest to me. But nothing could prepare me for its size, its richness and of course the awe inspiring frescoes, very arts and crafts inspired. These frescoes very much marked the space as ‘other’, as something sacred, as something expressive (have a google for the interior).
Our final stop in the city was the Ethnographic exhibition where there was a wonderful display of traditional textiles and costumes. There I met a lovely tapestry weaver, Lydia Raeva who very kindly shared some images of her work. She used an amazing beater (sorry for the quality of the pic), made of iron, at least a hundred years old and passed to her by her teacher. At half a kilo, it was a wonderful weight. Stupidly I did not realise Bulgaria had a tradition of kilim making akin to that of nearby Anatolia. There was mid-nineteenth century example on display and Lydia was working on a piece inspired by such motifs for demonstration purposes.
We then hit the mountain coated roads to Gabrovo and the next day kicked off with a quick visit to a small monastery, Sokolski. Again coated in frescoes. It does not take long for them to get blacked over thanks to the candles and oils within the church and conservation work to remove such coatings have to be undertaken quite frequently.
Our main destination was Etar Open Air Museum of Traditional Crafts. It largely consisted of a recreated street, some of the buildings relocated from elsewhere, and each top and bottom floor houseing a traditional crafts person. These included wood turners, cow bell makers, potters, black smith, copper smith, icon painters, leather workers, wood cutters, and weavers and many more. Most pay rent and sell wares some, such as the the cow bell maker – and weirdly – the weaver, are sponsored as their crafts are so endangered. One weaver told me there are only 15 left, a figure I am struggling to believe and cannot be sure it is a translation issue as it just seems astounding. There are demonstrations at every corner and exhibitions too, including an International Craft Fair. One of the participants was a fourth generation potter with quite possibly the fifth generation either side of her. Bulgaria of course is signed up to UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, a stance demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding its heritage such as craft skills. The UK is one of the few who hasn’t.
Finally we headed to Gabrovo’s Museum of Humour. The town has a reputation of being misers, the Gabrovo Cat being one with its tail cut off so it does not take as long to get through an open door and thus let the heat out longer than necessary. The museum took self-deprecation to a new level, but also included a series of Adam and Eve inspired cartoon like tapestries and a large exhibition on nineteenth century frescoes. Of course I had long ago given up laughing at myself and my secret hope of sneaking in a look at a fresco, day two and already I had seen more than I could ever have hoped for.
The next day we started towards the Devtaki Plateau, stopping on the way at the medieval town and ancient capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. This was a change to the planned itinerary, one of the folklore festivals we had intended to visit having been rescheduled. The modern town was covered in public art and there was a street dedicated to craftsworkers. But a late night google had revealed a plethora of ancient churches in the area, one in particular within walking distance of the town. So while my fellow travellers headed for the ruins of the ancient fortress, I headed down the hill to the small church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
I was a bit peeved at the no photographs rule within churches. But the form of worship was very intimate, it seemed to focus on on personal interaction with icons rather than masses being done to a congregation at a set time, and I could appreciate that having tourists snapping away would be incredibly intrusive. But at the medieval church for a fee photographs were allowed and I had the whole place to myself. It was entirely awe inspiring, just as it was intended to be. There were three layers of frescoes. In the UK these would have been protected with plastic coverings, we would have been kept at a distance, but I was left entirely to my own devices, just me and the frescoes. I could not believe it.
Inside the church most frescoes dated to the early fifteenth century with a few dating to the thirteenth. More frescoes in an outer gallery dated to the sixteenth. It was engrossing to see in paint the very same images, motifs and details I had seen woven in wool and silk and precious materials during the course of my Fellowship. It was interesting to see actual textiles too, albeit painted, at the bottom of the paintings. I can’t wait to think all this through properly.
But it was, too soon, time to leave one paradise for another, namely The Herbal House in Gorsko Slivovo village. A huge gate from the road opened onto a magical garden and a beautiful guesthouse, freshly baked bread waiting for us on the kitchen table. Our hosts lived across the road and brought us our meals which were, quite frankly spectacular. I have never in my life eaten so well. In fact everything we ate in Bulgaria tasted differently, better, flavoursome, it made me realise how literally tasteless our food has become. Most households in the villages seemed largely self-sufficient and it showed in the sheer quality.
After a breakfast of a jam so sweet it was like the neighbour’s honey and doughnut like bread we headed to the spectacular Devetashka Cave and the Krushuna waterfalls. It was a great chance to see the impact the Devetaki Plateau Association, from which our week’s guide hailed had had on the region. Over the last few years they have branded together nine or so villages, offered training to guesthouse owners, promoted tourist attractions, organised first response, established wifi and organised festivals and much more and all seemingly with little central support. It was interesting waking one morning to read an article from the Beeb posted that day about the crumbling population in the villages of Bulgaria such as the one I was staying it. Every other house was abandoned, our hosts were the youngest we had seen. Its wide street was deserted apart from A4 sheets on every lamppost and doorway commemorating the dead like lost cat posters back home. I will confess it did seem that this small fight by the association against what seems an overwhelming tide, has a sense of inevitability about it, especially without political support which is clearly so lacking.
After the cave we stopped at the village’s cultural centre and its small museum. Once every house would have a loom, although wooden reeds seems to be all that remains of them now.
Apart from being amazing cooks, our hosts were also craftsfolk too. In the afternoon we had a demonstration in wire wrap jewellery. Most of my friends are jewellery makers but it is not something I have ever done myself and it is all a bit of a mystery so it was good to have a bit of insight now. It is fair to say we were all utterly gutted to leave The Herbal House.
En route we stopped off at a retirement club in Kramolin village in the corner of which were more textile implements on display including shuttles, swift, reeds and combs. This can’t have been for the benefit of the tourists, it was just evidence of the respect traditional crafts were held on a day-to-day basis. Some original costumes were on display, as they had been in just about every museum we visited and our guide and others we spoke to also had costumes in their wardrobe and they were used.
We had a picnic lunch in the ruins of a Byzantine town, Hotalich. Not all of it is excavated, but the houses we saw had belong to craftsmen, pottery still left in the kiln, suggesting its occupants had to flee. We had earlier that day seen some of the artefacts excavated from the site in the museum at nearby Sevlievo and which included loom weights.
By afternoon we had reached the the Guest House Eco Art in Drashkova Polyana. Here we were invited to take part in a ceramics workshop, and striclty between you and me it only took one series of the Great pottery Thrown Down for me to want to unceremoniously ditch my looms for a kiln, so a chance to have a go was something I was looking forward to hugely but I found myself suddenly empty of all energy and with heaps of regret I had to retreat to my room and rest. However I did get to see the work of my fellow travellers. Perhaps it was the work of the Loom Gods at play, realising how fickle I am and preventing me from getting my hands on some clay.
The following day we headed for Troyan Monastery, one of the largest in Bulgaria. A mass was underway to we couldn’t get in, but it was clear the extent of damage the frescoes suffer, half of them were almost completely blacked over, the other half were being cleaned. They were mid-nineteenth century and made by one of the most celebrated icon painters of the day. On a tanoy the priest sung the mass. He seemed to have a cold and every now and then a cough boomed out, but even that did not lessen the magic of it all.
Our next stop was the National Museum of Craft in Troyan. It was understandably focused on the ceramics on which the town is famous but there was also much to see in the way of textiles. Interestingly some of the decorations on the posts were inspired by the monastic paintings. The textiles included traditional costumes and rugs – woven as well as hand-tufted, and an exhibition on felted carpets.
We stopped briefly at a Roman fort on the way back to Sofia and the airport. All of us incredibly sad to be leaving and vowing to return.We all came to Bulgaria with our own interests and aims and inevitably I ended up focusing on the textiles, but to be honest it was all around me, all the time, it was impossible not to. I arrived home exhausted, overwhelmed, at 4.30am on Saturday morning and it has taken until now to write this post. There is so much for me to digest and already it is making me rethink the directions I am heading in and of course I’ll share all this as it happens. And I for one will never forget the quiet, the calm, the beauty, the history, the weather, the landscape, the goddamn food, the traditions and the friendliness. This project was part of PRIDE: Partnership for Rural Improvement & Development in Europe. One cannot help but feel devastated that we as a country are turning our back on Europe, and inevitably they are turning theirs on us. How ridiculous we are. This trip has had a huge effect on me and I know it did on the others too, quite significantly in fact, and in different far more profound and personal ways as well as professional. How tragic that such an amazing opportunity as this may now very likely be denied to others in a couple of years.