Monday, 21 August 2017

A Carefree Weekend in Lovech, Bulgaria: Revival and Baroque Architecture in the Balkan Mountain

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
Lovech is full of views fit for postcards, it is quiet and stands under the elevated mountainous land, which constantly reminds you of your proximity to nature. July is one of the most pleasant months in which to visit this splendid and very Bulgarian town, as cool breezes blow from the peaks of the Balkan Mountain , the houses’ gardens are covered in the deep shade of tree leaves and very few pleasures can compare with a lunch on a wooden table in one of them.

You sink into a blissful lazy afternoon in the greenery of the old town of Lovech, Varosha, and adopt a carefree existence, guarded by the fortress wall, the revolutionary Vasil Levski and the mountain, which has given its name to the entire Balkan Peninsula.

Not be missed:

Seeing the Covered Bridge with new eyes: The covered bridge built by the Bulgarian Revival architect and sculptor Kolyo Ficheto is something that one should see at least twice in one’s life – once before and once after seeing its Florentine counterpart, Ponte Vecchio. In the least, to make sure that it isn’t more impressive than Europe’s best known Medieval bridge.

What makes the one in Lovech different are the buildings on its two sides, the soft traces of socialism and the way it is currently used. The Italian one, too, is in the hands of tradesmen, but they only stretch as far as the small space they’ve had at their disposal since the bridge was built lets them, and aren’t allowed to make any changes or improvements to it. In Lovech, that isn’t quite the case – from the stores for souvenirs and jewellery to those for pizza by the slice, the venues have an unsettlingly modern look and were actually added on during the bridge’s last reconstruction. This partly kills the atmosphere, but the series of wooden columns and white domes contribute to the authenticity of the place. The original bridge over the Osam River, built in 1874, burnt to the ground in 1925. The current structure is a replica of it from 1931, with slight additions from the 1970s.

Seeing the erstwhile splendour of Lovech in Varosha: With its church, ethnographic complex and the monument of the revolutionary Vasil Levski, this little quarter, built in the Revival architecture style, is the most memorable part of the town. You don’t need too much imagination in order to understand why, between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, Lovech was called Altın, or ‘Golden’, in the Ottoman Empire’s chronicles. Its merchants went around Europe and the near parts of the Orient and in 1768, a wealthy enough man from the town, Hadji Vasilii, arranged for the decoration of the John the Baptist chapel of the Zograph Monastery in Mount Athos.

Remembering the priest Krastyo as an innocent man: Pay attention to the sign by the entrance of the Virgin Mary church, underneath the monument to Vasil Levski – it rehabilitates the memory of the priest Krastyo, who for decades was considered as the man who betrayed Levski to the Ottoman authorities. According to newer findings, however, dishonest enemies falsely accused the priest of participating in the historical drama. On the black plate, it says he was “a fighter for ecclesiastical, national and social freedoms. His memory was darkened for 120 years.”

The Baroque Houses of Lovech with their freshly painted façades are on the other side of the bridge and are a pleasant counterpoint of the Revival architecture, a window into Bulgaria’s urban life at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Discovering Staro Stefanovo (Old Stefanovo):The village is still one of Bulgaria’s hidden treasures. Small and authentic, it is located about 20 kilometres from Lovech, and although a hotel complex was built there is recent years, it still remains largely untouched by tourism. The road leading to it enters the village and does not go any further – it just merges into the river just after crossing the ravine. The village is quiet and mostly crumbling, although more and more houses are being renovated each year, and it is impressively beautiful. It has the shape of a horseshoe and in its middle stands a church from 1864, built by a craftsman from the town of Tryavna. Over the ravine to the right, the hollow trunk of a 1,300-year-old tree protrudes, and locals say a homeless man used to live inside it.

How to get there?

The distance to Lovech from Sofia is about 158 km, 72 of which are on the Hemus Highway. Lovech is located about 20 km north of the main highway linking Sofia to Varna, and the exit before the one for Sevlievo should be taken. To get to the village of Staro Stefanovo from Lovech, you take the road towards Troyan and 5 km after exiting the city, you turn left towards Kazachevo. You continue along that road until you see the Sofia-Varna highway above. The entrance to the village is 3 km further, and a sign marks the right turn to the ethnographic reserve of Staro Stefanovo.

Where to stay?

In Lovech:
The four-star Presidium Palace hotel (, 068 687 501) is for those who like modern chic: it is airy, shiny and comfortable. It is located between the row of Baroque houses and the river, although it doesn’t have direct access to its banks. The Varosha Hotel (, 068 603 377), on Todor Kirkov Square over the Covered Bridge, is a family place with a relatively good restaurant – Drakata. The small scale of all the buildings on the square is a welcome relief from big city spaces. Other interesting options are the Oasis Hotel next to the river, which has been furnished in a traditional style and boasts a decent restaurant with live music, and hotel Varosha 2003 (, 068 622 277) – a restored Revival house which serves breakfast in the garden.

In Staro Stefanovo:
The hotel complex Dedovite Kashti, which only recently opened for tourists in the village (+359 6910 2728), is housed in several restored houses. It also has a restaurant – Ranyata.

Where to eat?

The situation in Lovech is similar to that of Koprivshtitsa – it is filled with ‘ethno’ restaurants offering traditional Bulgaria dishes.

Drakata on Todor Kirkov square boasts an ambitious menu of national cuisine – the offerings vary from
kachamak – a dish similar to polenta: corn flour puree with cheese, and stuffed peppers to the “white man” desert, and the dishes are decently prepared. Three restaurants that have pleasant gardens and simple daily menus are Pri Voyvodite, Galeria and Varosha – all of them clustered around the ethnographic complex and the path to the Levski monument. Most places in town are quite noisy and seem to consider ceaseless music as a natural way to lift their clients’ mood. Even if that’s not your thing, the Revival atmosphere of the place is worth the effort.

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