Monday, 21 August 2017

Tryavna, Central Bulgaria: A Picturesque Study in Contrasts

Text and photographs by Ekaterina Petrova   
The town of Tryavna is one of Bulgaria’s top 100 tourist sites and, as such, it attracts tourists from around the country and abroad with its well-maintained architecture, quaint streets and traditional crafts workshops.

But, as writer Ekaterina Petrova discovered, what makes the town truly picturesque is the combination of Tryavna’s beautiful sites with more contrasting views that are not so picture-perfect.

This photo story explores Tryavna’s traditional sights and juxtaposes them with more unusual, incidental and less attractive images of the town’s streets.

The quaint little town, located in the northern slopes of the Balkan Mountain in central Bulgaria, is known for the houses in its old part, built in the so-called Revivalist architectural style, in which the upper floor, topped by a dark stone roof, usually hangs over the narrower lower level, whose rough grey stones remain uncovered. The houses’ white-washed walls frame the rectangular wooden outlines of the windows, from which immaculate flower pots hang.

In the last couple of years, many of the houses in Tryavna have been restored and renovated. The town is a little tourist heaven, presenting a photo opportunity at every corner, with its well-maintained structures, numerous souvenir stores and the row of wood-carving and icon-painting workshops, where visitors can pop in and observe the craftsmen at work.

The Museum of Wood-Carving and Ethnographic Arts is located on the main square, across the street from the church. Standing at entrance to its internal courtyard, with intricately-carved wooden doors lined along its sides, leaning against the lower side of the building, is like peeking into another, long-gone world.

On a fall day, on the other side of the square, one can see art students painting, lined up by one of the town’s symbols – the Clock Tower, which dates to 1814.

Following the street that leads away from the square takes the visitor to the little stone bridge over the Trevnenska River. Here too, art students are painting, perched on the bridge – probably trying to capture the white houses’ reflection in the still water of the river.

The townscape really is beautiful. But in addition to the feeling of appreciation for the prettiness of the place, taking a stroll around Tryavna’s streets also gives rise to another feeling – the slightly eerie sense of having stepped into a film set – something about the whole picture seems artificial and kitschy; the whole town seems too quaint, too pretty and too well-maintained to be real.

But, upon closer inspection, the visitor can spot some cracks that ruin the town’s perfectly groomed façade and, in a strange way, they seem to bring comfort. There are many, if one averts his gaze long enough from what he is intended to see, in order to notice them:

For example, just a short distance from the bridge, an old house stands, which otherwise fits with the town’s traditional architecture, but it has crumbling paint and broken windows.

Or the absurd conglomeration of a building that rises at the entrance to the old town, surely constructed during communism with the idea of being modern, which provides an interesting contrast to the traditional houses after one gets over its ugliness.

Just off one of the old town’s pretty streets, a small courtyard also presents a wonderful view, although surely unintended as such: through a rusty wire, a faded plastic chair that was once red is visible, leaning against a white wall.

Not far from it, a house with unfinished walls also makes for an unexpectedly pleasant view: its bare bricks providing a nice background to the intensely green vine, heavy with dark purple grapes, that grows in front of them.

It is those things, combined with the pretty houses and quaint workshops that make Tryavna truly picturesque. Although these “shortcomings” are probably regarded as a nuisance by the locals who are willing to go as far as putting their trash containers behind wood-carved panels in order to have their picture-perfect town, they in fact save Tryavna from seeming entirely artificial.

As Orhan Pamuk wrote in his memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City, “… a house leaning to one side in a way that defies perspective, two houses leaning against each other in the way that cartoonists so love to depict, a cascade of domes and rooftops, a row of houses with crooked window casings — these things don’t look beautiful to the people who live among them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless hopeless neglect. Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins — invariably, we’re people who come from the outside.”

And while Tryavna is no Istanbul and its old town does not contain such extreme examples of “helpless hopeless neglect,” for the visiting outsider, the few spots that are not perfectly groomed provide a welcome break to the flawless townscape.

And, if one can manage to tear one’s sight away from the immaculate flowerpots for a moment, he will notice - right across from them, the unfinished wall of a house, with the temporary sheets of tin having become a permanent solution. And a very obvious plastic trash container by the front door.

And it is things like that – these unintended contrasts to the perfect order, that make the town truly picturesque and a real place, rather than an artificial set designed for tourists to walk through.

Practical Information: Tryavna is located almost at the centre of Bulgaria. It is about 230 kilometres east of the capital Sofia (driving time is between 3 and 3.5 hours), about 260 kilometres from the Black Sea port city of Varna (driving time is roughly 3.5 hours) and about 150 kilometres from Ruse on the Danube River (driving time is about 2 hours).

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