Bansko, a hidden gem in the mountain

Have you been to a part of your country where you can’t understand the locals? This happened to me in Bansko. 🙂

Bansko is a very small mountain town and is well known as a winter resort for its ski attractions. I’ve never been there during the winter and probably would never go if it wasn’t for the Jazz Festival. It is situated in the Pirin mountain which is the far corner of Bulgaria from my point of view – from where I used to live, to study and to travel to. I’ve never been to these lands before, so I was quite happy to explore.

We arrived in Sofia and had a direct transfer from the airport to the hotel. After 3 hours in the air-conditioned car, we didn’t even realize how scorching hot it was outside. We enjoyed watching the scenery turning from wide open fields with animals and wheat, to huge mountains and tall trees. The road in front of us changed into a small curved path and we were passing by number of small and picturesque villages. We found Bansko hidden in between those amazing mountain peaks. So beautiful, so refreshing.

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It took me a few days of wondering where are all these people from. Obviously they are on a holiday and must be from Serbia or Macedonia, because I don’t understand a word they are saying. After a few funny situations, I realized they are Bulgarians – from this local part and they speak some odd form of dialect which is full of old authentic Bulgarian words.

We met a few locals on the streets which were very happy to talk to us and guide us through some of the main artifacts which would remain hidden if they didn’t reveal some of the Bansko secrets. The town is an interesting mixture of ski and tourist attractions in an old Bulgarian town full history and culture, a place where great historical heroes came from. It’s very common to see different crafts on display on the streets or try authentic dishes. I found amazing clues about the tribal ornaments I wrote about earlier on my blog, which made me so much more curious.

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One of the days there was an International Beer Show in our hotel. How lucky was that! We had the chance to try a new type of British Ale while sunbathing around the pool. I had the Iron Maiden beer. 😛

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So many people told us to go to the church, so we finally did. We met an old man there – the same one that would be telling us stories every evening when we pass by his house. For some reason, he kept talking in Russian to Robert, thinking – you’re obviously a foreigner, so I’ll speak a foreign language and you’d understand me. It made my translator’s job a bit more difficult, because I can only understand some bits and bobs which sound similar in Bulgarian. But it was fun.

The old man told us this amazing story why there is a Christian cross and a Muslim moon on the main entrance of the church. His story was confirmed the next day by a lady which guided us through a local museum.

Bulgaria was in an Ottoman rule (understand slavery) for 500 years in which they tried to convert us into Muslim. Turkish would go into most of the Bulgarian town and destroy the churches. For this reason the local writer/poet Peyo Yavorov told the people to make moons on the entrance right next to the cross on the church. When the Turkish soldiers came with the instruments to knock down the church, the first one saw the signs, bent down and said: It’s a holy place, move away from it. For this very reason, the church remains for us to see it.

The church has many secrets itself. Built with donations by the local tradesmen, Its thick stone walls make it a fortress. All the old houses have a secret escape tunnel in them which leads to the church underground. Once you get to the church and it’s locked, you’re save there. This particular church looks amazingly different than any other churches I have seen anywhere else in Bulgaria. Starting from the icons of people with obviously darker skin (normally we see Greek type of faces of the saints in Bulgaria), going through the paintings and ornaments which repeated those same tribal forms. When I asked why the church is painted that way, I only heard that a local master painted it when it was build, but nothing about what it meant and where the forms came from.

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Let’s move on the home of Neofit Rilski which is right next to the church and is a museum nowadays. The house is also made as a fortress with it’s 1-meter thick walls. Neofit Rilski was a great Bulgarian – a monk, a teacher and a painter. He’s the one who helped starting the first schools throughout the whole country during the Ottoman rule and insisted that before anything else, the kids need to receive education first and know mathematics, geography and be able to read and write in their own language.

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You can see a classroom in his house. Before they had notebooks, the kids used to write on sand boxes. Lots of other clues were the old rugs in his house dyed with natural colours still in full bloom until nowadays (from onions, peppers, etc.). I saw one chest draw in the house and when I asked why it’s painted this way, the lady said that actually found it in the church and brought here in the museum house, but they don’t know where it is from.

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The weather was just fine – not too hot as in the rest of country and only rained for one afternoon. After that rain though, the mountain got so cold that we asked for some woolen rugs while having our dinner outside.

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As you can see, a week in Bansko wasn’t even enough. We just tasted the food and I found fascinating history memories, spoke to amazing people, heard some nice jazz and it was time to leave.