Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal.
– Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
Bulgaria, a beautiful country in the heart of the Balkan peninsula is emerging. Together with all the others hidden behind the iron curtain, they race to catch up with ‘the modern nations’ that have been working within the modernist system of values for around a century. An issue that begs the question ‘which model should all emerging countries around the world be striving for?’ The unsustainable and catastrophic system of values of modern society? or should they rather act to lead the avant-garde of smarter, more new sustainable ways of living?
Tourism has been amongst the most successful exports of many countries and is routinely used as a prime example to show the emergence of the symbolic service economy. It is a way to bring foreign money into the country simply by promoting the cultural or natural capital of a place, and have people travel to witness it. There is one major caveat, however. Most of the time, the necessity for growth leads to a gentrified and bland product, where for example, tourists don’t want to eat traditional – and perhaps adventurous – local cuisine, but want burgers… And so, vast expanses of the Spanish coastline are dominated by massive concrete brutes simply because ‘more is better’. There are, however, alternatives to this modernist steamroller.
Travelling to Bulgaria to explore what tourism developed around the values of sustainability, locality and authenticity can look like, was refreshing. The highlight of this journey was the concept of craft. Craft goes beyond the physical object; it goes beyond the ‘thing’. It is a way of doing things with our heads, our hands and our hearts in unison. And because of this, the results of a craft process display a different character compared to that of the mass-produced.
The process of craft is also one of bringing together local capabilities and opportunities, combining them through deep-rooted wisdom and aligning within a local creative ecology. When we turn to traditional handicrafts, it becomes evident how the local climate, or the materials from that place lead the process. The very same thing is applied in all the designed aspects of everyday life, even tourism. It is unnecessary to ‘reinvent the wheel’ every time, but we must make use of the appropriate ‘wheels’ that better suit the paths we are faced with.
Our journey started in the flea market outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia where local embroidered textiles, traditional icons of saints and memorabilia from WWII and the communist era were on display. Leaving Sofia, we made our way towards the Devetaki Plateau, home of the Devetaki Plateu Association (DPA), our hosts for the trip.
The DPA is a Bulgarian initiative, established in 2008 that aims to stimulate the development, improve the quality of life and promote the region of Devetaki Plateau. The organization unite the people living in the nine villages on the Devetaki Plateau: Agatovo, Brestovo, Chavdartsi, Devetaki, Gorsko Slivovo, Kakrina, Kramolin, Krushuna, Karpachevo, Tepava. The main activities of DPA are aiming at preservation and development of the regional resources, increasing the capacity of local people to manage natural assets and make the Plateau an attractive place for tourism, outdoor recreation and learning.
On our way to Troyan, we spent a night in the EcoArt guest house at Drashkova Polyana. Our host, Encho Gankovski, a ceramist whose work has been exhibited around the world. We spent the night eating home-made meals and different types of rakia, the local brandy, kept us warm.
The following day, our first visit was the local crafts museum in Troyan. The different traditional crafts displayed, mastered in the region throughout the years is astonishing. Pottery is perhaps the central one, with its special jugs and urns that were created for both everyday life and special occasions. One prime example is a novelty jug to be used to test a young woman’s suitability for marriage. Through clever craftsmanship, the jug would not fill from the top, so would have to demonstrate wit by getting it filled in an unconventional way – a symbol of the struggles of married life and the value of patience. Other local crafts in this beautiful museum displayed high-skilled mastery in woodworking, metallurgy and textile weaving.
We also visited the covered bridge of Lovech, a stone bridge housing small shops of local artisans and craftspeople. The bridge connects the new town with the old part of the city. On one side, a building that is impossible to miss stands as if outside of time: the old public Hammam, a relic of the times the Ottomans ruled almost the entirety of the Balkans. Nowadays the old bathhouse has been renovated into a museum of water.
What stands out more that the historic and natural sights around the plateau, however, is its people. Warm, happy, proud of their place, opened their arms and hearts to visitors and listened carefully, yet critically, to what we had to say. A fine example for others, they have decided not to abandon their homes and move to the big cities, instead, to take the hard road and invest themselves in creating communities that work together to solve their everyday problems and improve their quality of life.
The next leg of our journey was towards the east. Passing by the amazing medieval capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo, a city with small alleys filled with traditional craft shops, amazing antiques and tasty cake, we made our way to the village of Osmar. We spent two nights in the incredible Osmarski Kashti guest house, the old house, built in 1881 by wood, stone and clay, and has been renovated completely and is surrounded by a fairy tale-like atmosphere. Perhaps the crown jewel of this beautiful guest house is the tavern, where you can try the delicious Osmarian cuisine taste, local aromatic wines and honey.
Our stay in Osmar was marked by participating in a community training session organised by the DPA. The aim of the workshop was to scale-up the model that has been successfully implemented in the plateau to other regions. During our break from the seminar we got to visit the capital of the kingdom of Tsar Simeon, Veliki Preslav, the second capital city of the first Bulgarian kingdom. The museum amongst the golden treasures hid a different gem. The crafts that exist today were present in the same place since the 7th century AD, pointing to a deep root of readily available local materials, unique problems and know-how.
The nights we got to spend hosted in different guest houses – and treated as if we were family – reminds me of a very simple fact: the same differentiating characteristics of scale character and quality that make a handmade jewel more beautiful that its mass-produced counterparts are evident in the craft of hospitality. And I would rather spend a night with authentic people under their roof than in any five, seven or ten-star hotel…
By making the most of local resources and creating new social, cultural and natural capital, we create the conditions for growth – real, meaningful growth, not a cancerous bulimic monster that eats away the very thing that makes a place unique and beautiful.
If you make it right, people will come.
Participants of this trip to Bulgaria were a group of adult educators who travelled on behalf of Sublime Magazine, supported by the EU’s Erasmus Plus programme. P.R.I.D.E project ‘Partnership for Rural Improvement and Development in Europe’ led by Grampus Heritage UK. The objectives were to hone training skills by completing a ‘Green Village’ training course in Community Engagement, Bulgarian style.