My little French Renault Clio tightly hugs the curves of the tree-canopied country road. I lower the window and breath in the heady mix of wild flowers, herbs and afternoon sun. The signs read “Architectural reserve Bozhentsi”. It was that first part that had kept giving me pause and had steered me to other sites. I was worried Bozhentsi is too defined by orchestrated authenticity. Like so many of you, I crave the rough edges of the unadulteratedly true and unadorned. Bozhentsi is not exactly that. While its history goes back to the 16th century, when residents of the former Bulgarian capital Veliko Tarnovo fled the Ottoman Empire’s invasion, its current state is the result of carefully planned efforts. In the 1960s, when rustic was often snubbed as old fashioned, Bozhentsi became the focus of state-funded restoration and preservation efforts. And maybe it was luck but it was saved and allowed to keep its proud beauty and lush nature. And that’s how it greeted me.
It’s July and this summer has been hot in Bulgaria. But in the embrace of the mountains the heat is tamed, subdued. It hugs you gently and cradles you quietly. The air vibrates ever so slightly with summer breeze and the humming of bees. If summer is high season for travel to Bulgaria , that’s not evident in Bozhentsi. I barely encounter other people as I walk the cobblestone streets. Here and there, the shaded courtyards of cozy taverns reveal a table of guests, lingering over a late lunch.
The biggest attraction of Bozhentsi are the houses. Bulgaria had its quiet Renaissance centuries after Western Europe basked in hers. One of the treasures it created is the unmistakable architecture. Bozhentsi, nestled in the Northern edges of the Balkan Mountains, made its modest wealth in trade. Its merchants sold wool, furs, honey and beeswax. What they earned, they invested in their homes - some small and demure, some larger and more ornate. The wide eaves shade the characteristic wooden verandas, adorned with geraniums or climbing vines. Inside, carved wooden ceilings reveal the skill of craftsmen, who poured their hearts and talent into creating intricate patterns. As you walk the narrow cobblestone streets, a new architectural delight awaits behind every corner. A number of the houses have been turned into museums that take you back in time. But today, I skip the museums. I duck in and out of alleys, allowing myself to get lost and turning around every time a path takes me to the outskirts, where the mountain hills take over.
I make a quick stop at the local craft store. As souvenir shops go, the one in the center of the village is well curated and while light turquoise is not a color, typical for Bulgarian textiles, that’s what catches my eye and holds it so I leave the store with a small bell, attached to a striped woven band.
I wish I had planned a few days here. It would make for such a peaceful retreat to organize my travel notes and write but I have meetings in Sofia tomorrow so I have to leave. But not before I, too, partake in a slow, pleasant lunch of fresh vegetables. And when I see a salad that features thinly sliced local bacon, I can’t resist. Bulgarian bacon is more fatty than it’s Anglo-Saxon counterpart but when it’s prepared well - and this one is - it’s tender and rich, with a chewy-crunchy bite. The ever so slightly pale pink slices add such a nice salty kick to the flavorful heirloom tomatoes that I barely use any dressing at all.
On my way back to the parking at the entrance of the village, I stop by a local herbalist shop. The scent of herbs is strong, almost dizzying. I can’t resist walking away with an herbal tea blend that cures insomnia and a face salve made with bees wax and pollen. I’m extremely proud of having somehow stretched my available cash to cover my purchases exactly, leaving me with just a few cents in my wallet. That is, until I walk to the parking lot and remember it’s paid and it’s nearly unheard of to be able to pay for parking in Bulgaria in any way other than cash. I plead the most sincere mea culpa, the parking attendant shakes her head at the oblivious semi-foreigner who is walking around moneyless, makes a phone call to her manager, who clears her to let me go (what’s the alternative, really - the nearest ATM is a town away) and I am free to go. I am happy it all worked out but bummed I won’t be able to procure some local cheeses from the dairy farm I drove by on the way here. As with so many other places this summer, I promise myself to return before summer’s over. One of many broken promises.