Friday, 28 July 2017

La Dolce Vita in Koprivshtitsa: Then and Now

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
“What do you think? Koprishtitsa was a republic for centuries, without senates and ministers, without charters and presidents, ten times more liberal than the French, a hundred times more democratic than the American,” Zahari Stoyanov wrote in his Notes on the Bulgarian Uprisings at the end of the nineteenth century.

Of course, these words were not meant in earnest. It is true that the chronicler of the Bulgarian Liberation Movement was somewhat provincial but not to such an extent as to make such assertions. He was simply angry, because – while his associates were tormenting themselves over how to destroy Turkish rule, both politically and physically, the more affluent folk of Koprivshtitsa were living it up.

Between 1850 and 1870, the town – situated on the 1,060 metre-high plateau of the Sredna Gora Mountain, was bubbling with life. The local people, most of whom were well-educated, made fortunes from the breeding of goats and sheep and the processing and sale of wool, cheese and milk. As a result, they built splendid houses and led a lively secular existence.

This is how Zahari Stoyanov described their daily life: “Here, on these banks (of the Topolnitsa River), under the leafy willows, the beglikchiyski muhabet [or ‘tax-collectors’ chat’] lasted entire days and nights, here the chorbadzhii (or ‘landlords’) of the Vulkov, Stoyanov, Doganov, Karavelov, etc. clans ate and drank to the sound of twenty bagpipes and rebecks, here the village governor, or the subash, made coffee for the delibashii (the Turkish soldiers), humble and obedient, polite and respectful.” In his chronicle, he announced with great contempt that the Koprishtentsi, Koprivshtitsa’s citizens, were ubiquitous – they were scattered in every village and town, across the entire Ottoman Empire, including Romania and Serbia.

The people who lived in the town in the mid-nineteenth century were quite emancipated European citizens and the problem – in Zahari Stoyanov’s view, was that they didn’t spent their time and money in support of the Bulgarian independence cause but rather lived blissfully together with the Turks.

The chronicler’s disapproval was influenced by the Koprivshtitsa-born Georgi Benkovski. This “long-time wanderer in Asia Minor and Egypt, who later took to Romania” was one of the ideologues of the April Uprising in 1876, through which Bulgaria attempted to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, though it ended with a blood-bath fiasco.

In an ironic twist of fate, his monument now rises in the town and his house has been turned into a museum, but – according to Zahari Stoyanov’s arguments, Benkovski hated Koprivshtitsa. As an émigré, he changed his name (he was born Gavrail Hlatev) and kept his birthplace a secret.

“Benkovski really didn’t like Koprivshtentsi. During the time of the uprising, I invited him a few times to go to that village but he always refused. He would say: ‘My entry into Koprishtica has to be preceded by the chopping off of a hundred heads.’”

The April Uprising nearly caused the town to be destroyed, because the enraged bashibozutsi (an irregular Turkish army consisting of the Tatars and Circassians who were driven away from Russia) decided to set it on fire. The day was saved by a few well-to-do villagers who managed to bribe them.

Thus the town’s present-day treasure – 380 magnificent antique houses were saved not by Benkovski’s band but by its social enemies. Eventually, probably not without Communist influence, national values came on top of local ones and nowadays there is hardly a place or a street in Koprivshtitsa not named after dates or people connected to the April Uprising.

Yet, a walk along the cobbled streets of Koprivshtitsa quickly reveals that this town has given Bulgaria more easy-going people than the stern Benkovski. One of the beautifully wall-painted houses is the birthplace of Dimcho Debelyanov, a Bulgarian symbolist poet who died at 29, having been killed during the First World War in Greece.

Other remarkable Bulgarians who were born in Koprivshtitsa are Petko and Luyben Karavelovi. The former is the founder of liberalism in Bulgaria (immediately after it became an independent state in 1878) and one of the most honest prime ministers the country has ever had. The latter was among the ideologists of the Bulgarian armed resistance, but his moderate views set him apart from his initial associates. The Karavelov Family Museum in the town houses the printing press, used by Luyben to issue the revolutionary newspapers Svoboda (Freedom) and Nezavisimost (Independence), which urged Bulgarians to fight for an independent state.

But even those of Koprivshtitsa’s nineteenth-century inhabitants who did not leave quite as deep a trace in Bulgaria’s history were surprisingly cosmopolitan. Both the Olekova and the Luytova houses were built by people who were far more modern and advanced than the historical clichés would have you believe.

Nincho Oslekov traveled widely in connection to his trading business and managed to supply his home with cedar wood pillars imported from Lebanon. His house’s façade is painted with views from Padua, Rome and Venice – cities he knew and loved. His home proves that, at that time – just like today, one of the most profitable jobs was that of a tax inspector – a position held by Oslekov during most of his life.

Scenes and landscapes from big European cities also decorate the walls of the Luytova house. It was built for a affluent yogurt merchant in 1854.

Nowadays, Koprivshtitsa is no longer “a republic without senates and ministers, without charters and presidents.” The separation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 was a triumph for all Bulgarians, but it brought bad news for the town – commerce shifted to settlement in the lowlands and it gradually turned into a historical reserve.

In the shell from the past, which bears the traces of the relatively good life the Bulgarians enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire, there is a new kind of sweet existence established today.

Entirely dependent on tourism, but still having a quiet, provincial and Bulgarian life of its own, Koprivshtitsa remains one of the most pleasant places in which to escape from the big city. Many of the houses have been transformed into hotels with green, quiet yards – apple trees and piles of cut wood scattered around them. Often, they come with hosts, who cook delicious home-made food.

In the morning, the town’s sleepy streets are enveloped in fog, which gets replaced by the sun for a short time around noon.

At an equal distance from Sofia and Plovdiv – about 100 kilometres, Koprivshtitsa fills up over the weekends but it does not get noisy. Most of the visitors come here in order to get some rest in the quiet old houses, eat food cooked over a fire and walk around in a city atmosphere that doesn’t make one tired and where the forest starts after the fifth row of houses.

In autumn, Sredna Gora – the low (according to Bulgarian standards) mountain in which the town is situated, starts to emit a certain soft melancholy. It seeps into the cobblestones and the tress and mutes the noises, enveloping Koprivshtitsa in quietness. This must have had a bad effect on Benkovski’s mood, but it was surely welcomed by his fellow townsmen, tired from the summer’s outings and frolicking.




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