by Linda Sipprelle (*)
While visiting Arbanasi, a village in north central Bulgaria, the gracious owner of a small shop gave me a vial of “Bulgarian Rose” perfume and told me that it takes more than 1,300 rose blossoms to create just one gram of rose oil. He added that roses are still distilled using traditional techniques, with farmers gathering the blooms by hand before 10 AM, when the oil yield is at its highest. Now that I’m back home in Princeton, I occasionally whiff my Bulgarian Rose to remind me of the beauty and fascinating history of that wonderful country. (Note: Before visiting the shop, our guide advised us that should we ask a yes or no question, we should be aware that the proprietor’s word and gesture will not seem to agree. Bulgarians shake their heads “yes” and nod their heads “no.”)
In Arbanasi, the magnificent Church of the Nativity is a must see! On the outside the church is a rather plain-looking building, but inside there is a forest of fresco painting, some 2,000 scenes along with icons and woodwork with biblical, philosophical and astrological themes. Although Ottoman rule was often tolerant, it is surmised that the Church was a secret, underground, Orthodox church.
The Church is comprised of a naos (men’s section) and narthex (women’s section). The oldest part of the church was erected in 1597, and the murals created at that time of “The Last Judgement” and “The Nativity” survive still. The murals (which cover the walls and the ceiling) in the women’s section were painted in 1638 by two married couples, Stamati and Kero and Stati and Theodora. They depict “The Life of the Virgin Mary”, “Doomsday,” and “Isaiah’s Tree” which tells the Biblical story of the lives of Christ’s predecessors. There were also frescoes depicting ancient philosophers and writers including Homer, Aristotle and Plato. Some of the paintings bear the names of Arbanasian donors – Stoyna, Keratsa, Niku, and Hadji Georgu. (Note: The latter, owing to his extensive generosity was depicted in two places.)
If you would like to see a spectacular natural wonder, be sure to put the Belogradchik Rocks on your bucket list of places to visit. Located near the town of Belogradchik in northwest Bulgaria, the rocks are made of limestone, are over a mile wide, 18 miles long and 650 feet high. They took shape more than 230 years age at the bottom of a shallow sea where sediment became compressed and eroded to form the rocks over a period of 43 million years. The rock formations look as if they were sculpted because they clearly depict well-known entities and each tells a story. They are named “Adam and Eve,” “The Schoolgirl,” “The Bear,” “The Madonna,” etc. My favorite is “The Schoolgirl” which tells the story of a beautiful girl who falls in love with a blacksmith. On finding out, her mean schoolmaster chases her right into the path of a waiting bear and before the animal can pounce, all three are instantly turned to stone. (Note: In 1984, the Belogradchik Rocks were placed on the Tentative List of places to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In September 2008, Belogradchik was named as one of the twenty finalists by the European Commission as a “European Destination of Excellence.” It would certainly get my vote!)
(*) Linda Sipprelle is a volunteer tutor of Friends of Davis International Friends of Princeton University.