Rustic blue house
Architecture,  Bulgaria,  Friendly Friday,  History

Stepping back in time in Bulgaria

Koprivshtitsa is not a regular sort of town; all the buildings of the town centre constitute a museum. Together they form a sort of time-capsule, encapsulating the atmosphere of the Bulgarian National Revival period of the 19th century. Wandering its streets you can feel yourself transported back in time; and exploring its historic houses opens your eyes to a difficult period in the country’s past.

The town was declared a museum in 1952 in order to preserve and promote its cultural and historical heritage. Since 1971 it has been protected as a national architectural and historical reservation, with a total of 388 architectural, historical, artistic, and ethnographic monuments.

There are various accounts of the founding of the town; but all agree that it dates back to the late 14th century. Back then the houses would have been built mainly of wood. Between 1793 to 1819, Koprivshtitsa suffered from destructive fires on three occasions. The third time the town was almost completely destroyed; it was after that the town that we see today was laid out, perhaps surprisingly still with many largely wooden houses.

But Koprivshtitsa is most famous for being one of the cradles of the April Uprising against the Ottoman domination, with the first shots fired here in 1876. Walking its streets today is like stepping back in time to those days, albeit much more peaceful.

Visiting the town

I came to Koprivshtitsa with a small group of Virtual Tourist friends on a private tour from Plovdiv where we were all staying for one of our annual Euromeets (sadly temporarily on hold for obvious reasons). Our guide Elena took us on a walking tour which visited most of the houses included in the admission ticket for the museum. Other properties here are privately owned; but some I believe could be visited on purchase of an additional ticket, which we didn’t have the time (or energy!) to do. But we did pass one such house near the start of our walking route, the Oslekov House. The owner (I assume) invited some of us inside the gate when she saw us trying to take photos.

The Dimcho Debelyanov house

The first house we went into was built in 1830. It is the former home of the Bulgarian poet Dimcho Debelyanov who was killed in Greece in WW2. Elena told us that while he did write some war poems (I asked, thinking he might be a Bulgarian equivalent of our own Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke), he was best known for his sad love poetry.

The display inside would have been more interesting had the signs been in English; but luckily we had Elena to point out the most interesting photos etc. However I would have liked to have been able to read one or two of the poems displayed on the walls, to give some context. I have since found English translations online. I have to say that I find them rather flowery compared to the English poets of that time, but see what you think: https://christopherbuxton.com/index.php/writing/translations/dimcho-debelyanov/

Debelyanov was buried in Greece, near where he fell; but his remains were later removed to the graveyard here in Koprivshtitsa. In the garden of his house is a copy of the statue that Ivan Lazarov designed for that grave. Elena told us that it represents motherhood, and all mothers waiting for their son to return from the war.

The Todor Kableshkov house

This was the point at which I started to wish that I had read more about Bulgarian history before my visit, as some of what Elena told us was a little lost on me. But as always I have done some research since and filled in the gaps!

The April Uprising

Several of the houses in Koprivshtitsa are associated with significant players in the 1876 April Uprising against Ottoman rule. The uprising failed, but the brutalities committed by the Turks while suppressing it led to widespread condemnation across Europe which was the trigger for the Russo-Turkish War. This ended in Turkish defeat; therefore the April Uprising can be seen as having thus eventually achieved its original aim, the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.

Kableshkov was the head of the local revolutionary committee in Koprivshtitsa and led a band of rebels during the uprising. He was captured and later tortured in prison. He eventually committed suicide while in police custody at the age of just 25.

Elena’s talk focused mainly on Kableshkov himself; but a sign in this house, helpfully in English as well as Bulgarian, told me more about the architecture:

‘The Kableshkov House was built in 1845 by Koprivshtitsa master Ghentcho Mladenov. With its three symmetrical façades, a beautiful yoke-shaped pediment and a glazed kiosk, it is a veritable pearl of the Bulgarian genius of architecture that flourished during the National Revival era. Wood-carving on closet doors, room doors and ceilings represents the decoration conveying the main ideas and trends of that time. The drawing room at the second floor comes as a surprise to viewers with its high round ceiling light that resembles a dome. It displays a shining wood-carved sun with interwoven wheat ears – symbols of the fertility of Bulgarian fields and of the striving for freedom.’

I somehow omitted to take a photo of that ceiling so here’s one from Wikimedia (public domain use license granted).

Looking up at domed ceiling
From Wikimedia – attribution: TwoWings

Lyutova house museum

This attractive house was built in 1854 by an influential Koprivshtitsa tax collector Stefan Topalov. Then in 1906 it was sold to a wealthy merchant, Petko Lyutov. Hence it is sometimes known as the Lyutova house and sometimes the Topalova house. Today it serves as an ethnographic museum. There was a small fee of one lev to take photos, which I happily paid.

The museum has several rooms restored and decorated in the style of the mid 19th century when the house was built. There are some lovely delicate murals on some of the walls and around the edge of the beautiful wooden ceiling of the central hall.

Displays included lots of old photos (with signs helpfully in English), costumes and some intricate lace in a local style known as keneta. Elena explained that this was sewn (rather than made in traditional lace-making fashion) and incorporated horsehair to give it strength.

The Lyuben Karavelov house

This is actually three structures in a single group. There is a separate winter house, summer house and a third housing the family business, making the famous Koprivshtitsa sausages. The oldest part is the yellow winter house, built in 1810. The sausage-making part was added in 1820; and the summer house, with its first-floor open terrace for semi outdoor living, in 1836.

This was the birthplace of two important Koprivshtitsa residents, the brothers Lyuben (1835-1879) and Petko (1843-1903). One was a propagandist, writer, and revolutionary; and the other served as Prime Minister, a minister, and a financier who helped build modern Bulgaria. There is a bust of Lyuben in the garden of the house.

This house is primarily a museum devoted to the life and work of Petko. I decided (like a number of those in our group) not to go inside but instead enjoyed relaxing in the pretty garden.

The Church of the Assumption

This is one of two churches in the town, the older of the two, and is dedicated to The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It was built in 1817 on the site of an older church.

I chose to pay the required five leva to take photos inside. This was really worth doing as the light was very atmospheric albeit difficult for photography. The real bonus came when my photo permit allowed me to video the priest who kindly sang an Orthodox chant for us which really added to the atmosphere. The picture quality isn’t great because of the low light levels, but thankfully the sound is clear – do listen!

The church of course has lots of icons. Elena pointed out three that were the work of a famous painter, Zaharij Zograf, including one of the Assumption and another of St George, which date from 1837/38.

Around the town

As much as visiting the houses I enjoyed walking around the town, taking photos of the quaint scenes and buildings.

Koprivshtitsa really is a time capsule, so a perfect place to share for this week’s Friendly Friday challenge.

I visited Bulgaria in 2019

37 Comments

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I did somewhat, especially on those cobbled lanes. I would have liked to have more time just to wander around and take photos, but we had lunch arranged at a winery and had to leave after visiting the houses. Maybe I’ll get to go back one day!

  • Marie

    Gosh – there’s so much to see there….
    I was in Bulgaria in 1985 – Sunny Beach! – different times…..
    I’d like to go back and see a bit of the country. XXXMarie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Marie 😀 Yes, very different times back then, and I don’t think many people from this country would have thought of visiting rural Bulgaria! But today the country has loads to offer – I loved Sofia and Plovdiv, and all the other places we went to in our short stay too!

  • Nancy Gordon

    Interesting that the whole town is now a museum. Beautiful architecture and interiors, it’s nice you were invited inside 🙂 Sad story about how Kableshkov commit suicide and did not live to see the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire 🙁

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Nancy 🙂 Yes, as the whole town is a museum it’s set up for interior visits at all the houses. And I was pleased I was allowed to take photos inside, even if I did have to pay a small amount extra at a couple of places. You would have loved this if you’d been able to join this meet!

  • Forestwood

    I saved reading this post until I had a few more moments to soak up the beauty in this place. I so enjoyed reading all about this place and seeing the incredible architecture. The builders really took pride in their work. I like that colour they used to. That yoke pediment on the Lytova house is exceptional! These are the sorts of places in Europe I would love to visit. Often I am envious of your travel posts, Sarah. I get itchy feet when I read them. Thanks for letting me visit from the comfort of my home. How ever did you group find that private tour?
    (Excellent post for the Friendly Friday theme)

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Amanda – for the lovely comment and for making the time to digest this properly. The colours of the houses ARE beautiful and you’re right about that yoke pediment too 🙂 I can’t remember now how I found this company – I think they were recommended on an official tourist guide website perhaps. Our host for the meet had organised activities for the Saturday and Sunday but a smaller number of us planned to be there on the Friday and Monday too and wanted to see a bit more of Bulgaria. So I offered to track down possible tours and ended up booking two through this company – this one on the Friday, which also included an afternoon at a winery with lunch and a tasting, and the stop at Staro Zhelezare; and the visit to Buzludzha which was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog 🙂 There’s more from that second tour to write about one day too!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          You mean Bulgaria as a whole Amanda? Yes, it’s a super country to explore from what I saw of it and I’d love to go back. I liked Plovdiv and Sofia a lot too and would love to visit with my husband one day as I know he’d like them, especially Sofia 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Josie – it was a lovely day out, wasn’t it? At least, it was once I’d got over the panic at the hotel when the driver told Colin we had no guide booked and he didn’t speak English!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That got me thinking Margaret but no, the camera was invented some time before 1876 when the April Uprising happened and was even around in its earliest forms when many of these houses were built, at the start of the 19th century. Some of the houses had old photos of the inhabitants, especially those involved in the uprising.

      • margaret21

        But they will have been mainly posed, on a slow shutter speed, non? It’s like comparing old family albums with the immediacy of Instagram, maybe. Both have their places, and it’s good to have them.

  • wanderlustig

    Wonderful report and photos 😊. The houses, especially their interiors, remind me of museum houses I saw in Plovdiv. While in Bulgaria I made it to Sofia, the Rila Monastry and Plovdiv. I tried to visit the Batschkowo Monastry, but there was a landslide blocking the road. I walked and even hitchhiked on the way back, but could only see the beautiful building of the monastry from the outside. I absolutely adored Plovdiv! Would like to go back to that fascinating country…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah yes, there are some houses in Plovdiv in very much this style – I saw them there but didn’t have time to visit. I didn’t get to Rila but I did visit Bachkovo – absolutely stunning! I must post about that some day. And I too would love to go back, and take my husband along. I think he would enjoy Sofia in particular 🙂

  • CliffClaven

    Koprivshtitsa. This brought back memories, even though I was last there more than 40 years before you! Many of the names you mention are familiar; I spent two months one summer researching the 1876 Uprising at the university and national library in Sofia. Day after day of poring over dusty 19th century texts and taking an occasional break to practise Bulgarian with the girls working in the cafe. I am not sure that the historical knowledge I acquired was ever useful professionally, but the Bulgarian I learned in the cafe certainly proved useful!
    Thanks, Sarah, for another great read with evocative photos,

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Michael – glad to have brought back so many memories for you 🙂 It would have been good to have you along on this trip. We could have tested your knowledge of the history 😆

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow, that is a walk back into another century for sure! Never heard of Koprivshtitsa (can’t even pronounce the name), but thanks for sharing all these photo’s – I’ve enjoyed the walk through town. And you’re right, the priest singing definitely added to the atmosphere 👍🏻.

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