I’ve only been dreaming of coming back Zheravna for the last thirty five years.
My first visit, part of a middle school trip, was brief and hectic. But once you’ve seen this magical flock of red roofed houses, scattered above the small valley and gently shielded by the soft hills of the Eastern Balkans, you can’t easily forget it. And so I dreamed…
As I was making my way from Kazanluk, my navigation tried to steer me to stay on main roads but I stubbornly chose the scenic one. It’s only fitting to weave your way through the magnificent mountain when your final destination is Zheravna - one of the most picturesque examples of Bulgarian National Revival architecture, so significant for the country’s culture and heritage that it is now a national architectural reserve.
The village dates back to the XII-XIV century and like many Bulgarian villages from this period, it emerged in an area that was hard to access and easy to defend - all the better to preserve the Bulgarian culture and identity during Ottoman rule. A beautiful legend narrates that the lands around the village were owned by the sister of Bulgaria’s last ruler before the country’s fall under Ottoman domination in 1396. Kera Tamara was famous for her exceptional beauty beyond the borders of her homeland. When her brother Tsar Ivan Shishman was forced to become a Turkish vassal, Sultan Murad I demanded his sister for a wife as a guarantee of peace between the two countries. Ivan Shishman conceded. Kera Tamara entered the sultan’s harem but kept her Christian faith and used her influence to protect Zheravna from Turkish invasion.
While it is easy to think that the name of the village comes from the Bulgarian word for crane - zherav - that is the least likely explanation. The much more plausible one, given the village’s rich textile and crafts tradition, is that it's derived from the words "zherna", “zherka" or "jerkov" - old Slavic words meaning watermill.
While there are several wonderful museums and a beautiful art gallery, there is only one must-do activity for any traveler who reaches this gentle poetry of stone and wood - walk. Walk the cobblestone streets, weave your way up and down, get lost again and again. There are no wrong turns here - behind every corner another wide-eaved house demurely reveals its beautiful white face. Then at sunset walk some more - hike your way up the hill that lies North above the village. Don’t mind the dozens of tiny scratches the thorny field will leave you with, like I did last night. The view of the pink and orange clouds hugging the Balkan Mountain peaks is a worthy reward. And if you are lucky like I was, the bells of a herd of sheep and goats will be the soundtrack to a sunset over a village you won’t easily forget.