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Kotel, Stronghold of Spirit

The beautiful small town of Kotel, often dubbed "The Stronghold of Bulgarian Spirit", lies in a small, picturesque valley in the Balkan Range. It is a lush, green area with pure air and fresh mountain water and is a significant cultural and historic centre. Kotel is a fascinating place, rich in architectural heritage and history. The old town contains around a hundred houses from the 18th and 19th century, which survived many Ottoman attacks and raging fires.

 

The houses built predominantly from wood fill the town with the pleasant scent of oak and transport the visitor back in time to a land where time has somehow stood still. In the summer Kotel is a lively and busy place to be and is rapidly becoming a "must see" for foreign tourists with around 50,000 visiting the town each year. Its idyllic mountain location makes it a popular health resort and its proximity to the Black Sea coast adds a bonus.

 

The Karakachani

Many of the people who inhabit Kotel are known as Karakachani and many people incorrectly associate them with Bulgaria’s Roma population. In fact, if you label the Karakachini as Roma you are very likely to offend. The Karakachani is one of Bulgaria's most economically successful and integrated minorities. They originated from ethnic Greeks espousing Eastern Orthodox beliefs and later from the South Rhodope Mountains.

They are famous for raising their own breed of sheepdogs, called karakachanska ovcharka and for their ornate, traditional costumes. Many Bulgarians actually equate the Karakachani ethnicity with huge business success.

The Karakachani descended from 10,000 Greek shepherds, who, fleeing oppression in the early 19th century, settled in southern Bulgaria. At that time both Bulgaria and parts of Greece belonged to the Ottoman Empire, where there was much persecution particularly in northern Greece under the reign of Pasha Ali. The Karakachani legend tells that Christian shepherds and their families, accustomed to a nomadic life, decided to migrate north to escape his brutality and each family carried “one horse load” of possessions. In their nomadic tradition they moved to the southern Rhodope Mountains during the summer, making shacks from tree branches and producing cheese and Bulgarian yoghurt to sell. In the winter they stayed on the plains.

In 1954, communism brought an end to their nomadic existence by ordering them to settle permanently. In 1958, because of their unwillingness to comply, the authorities nationalised their property. After this blow, the Karakachani settled in a few small towns. They built their first houses, usually in the suburbs. Many established themselves in Sliven, Karnobat and Kazanlak
in southern Bulgaria, but they could also be found north of the Balkan mountain range – in Karlovo, Sopot, and as far north as Vratsa and Montana near the Danube.

For several decades this minority intermarried and merged with ethnic Bulgarians. They tried to avoid being too conspicuous, fearing social, rather than state, oppression. After the demise of communism, the Karakachani prospered very quickly - their children were highly educated, which helped to avoid the fate of other Bulgarian minorities. In 1991 they were given the right to study their native Greek language at school.

Many of them survived the economic crisis of the early 1990s by travelling to Greece for seasonal work. Unlike other Bulgarians, who also sought employment in Greece, the Karakachani had the advantage of knowing the language and they also received preferential treatment from the Greek authorities, making it easier to acquire long-term visas and work permits.

In the mid 1990s, hundreds of them opened businesses in Bulgarian towns like Kotel and, in time, they became the wealthier citizens of places like Sliven and Karnobat. This is a rare tribe, which have learned to work in the old fashioned customs in modern society – a very hardworking people who also live and love life as it provides to them.

A dip back in time

At the onset of Ottoman rule, Bulgarians from neighbouring towns and villages, who sought refuge from the cruel Turks, inhabited Kotel. A Turkish register from 1486 shows that the dominant population was the so-called Derventdgii, who were special Bulgarian guards in charge of defending the mountain passes and roads and the Dzhelepi, who were cattle traders. Kotel enjoyed a degree of independence and municipal self-government, with an independently elected governor, who prohibited Turkish citizens from settling there.

During the Renaissance period of the 18th and 19th centuries, the town prospered economically and became a lively center for Bulgarian culture and education. Orthodox beliefs were passionate around this time and many of the town’s inhabitants used to travel to Jerusalem and to the holy shrine of Sveta Gora.

The town is the birthplace or a number of leading revolutionaries known as haidouts. One of Bulgaria’s most famous revolutionaries, Vassil Levski set up his headquarters and revolutionary committee here. The town suffered hard times during the Kurdzhalii Turkish raids and in 1848 and 1863 Kotel was set ablaze destroying much of the towns heritage, yet the most devastating fire took place after the liberation in 1894, when a large part of the town was burned to the ground leaving only the present quarter known as Galata as a reminder of what Kotel used to look like.

 

Getting there

Kotel lies in the southeastern of the country, 47 km northeast of Sliven and around 100 km from the Black Sea coastal city of Bourgas with an international airport. The local bus service is highly reliable with regular buses to neighbouring Shoumen. Veliki Preslav, Targovishte, Omurtag and Sliven.

 


To see in Kotel

Kotel has been declared an architectural and historical reserve and first stop on a list of its sights should be the charming old quarter of Galata and the well-preserved cobbled streets, which together contain over one hundred traditional houses from the National Revival Period.

The houses are made in what is known as the Kamchiya style from stone and wood and contain brilliant woodcarvings, huge broad eves, curved roofs and small walled courtyards.

When you stroll around Kotel’s cobbled streets there are more delights from the Bulgarian Revival to discover. The Kiorpeev House contains the Ethnography Museum, which displays authentic folk costumes and many household objects that mirror traditional life here. Another interesting sight is the sarcophagus, which contains the body of Georgi Sava Rakovski as well as Dr. Peter Beron’s heart and manuscripts by Vassil Levski and Sofronii Vrachanski.

The town is famous for its interesting cultural displays of local rites and customs such as the charming Christmas rituals, jolly Easter celebrations and unique Kotel weddings. Its rich folk traditions have been handed down from generation to generation. If you want to immerse yourself in this tradition visit the Philip Koutev National High School of Folklore, which educates visitors with traditional musical performances.

The well-manicured Izvorite Park in the northern part of the town contains three natural mineral springs, which give out 2,000 litres of fresh water per second. It is little known that the whole town is supplied from the natural mineral springs. Imagine, your own mineral water supply straight out of your own tap at home!

The park is also home to the Museum of Nature and Science, which contains around 30,000 exhibits, gathered from the natural environment in the area. Also well worth seeing are the Sveta Troitsa Church and the Church of Saints Peter and Pavel. Both churches contain some ornate woodcarvings from the respected Tryavna School of Art.

In the centre of the newer part of town is a huge impressive building set in a massive town square. This now houses a museum and was built during the communist period. From the central square you have a magnificent 360 degree views of the mountains.

 

Carpet Weaving

Kotel is world renowned for its hand woven carpets; it is Bulgaria’s oldest centre for artistic fabrics and even has its own unique weaving school.

The ornate rugs intertwined with geometrical figures are handmade using old techniques including the same type of natural dyes used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Internationally Kotel carpets are on a par with the renowned Persian carpets and they enjoy large sales worldwide. You don’t have to search very long to see an example of Kotel’s dazzling woolen rugs – the carpets crafted in bright red, green, yellow and other attractive colours are displayed all over the town and the Carpet museum at the Galata School displays a unique collection of rugs along with the development of carpet weaving in the region. The school has many brightly coloured carpets on display and a one room demonstrates the skilled use of the straight loom in carpet weaving.

 

Eat, sleep and drink

For a town of its size, Kotel offers some excellent accommodation. The Crystal Hotel in the centre of town is a modern hotel with all mod cons. There is also the brand new Casino Hotel and yes, even complete with its own small casino. There are several small bed and breakfasts and self catering houses in the old quarter where you can revel in the authentic atmosphere.

By far the most attractive and comfortable accommodation can be found at the Starata Vodenitsa or Old Watermill on the edge of Izvorite Park.

This beautiful example of Revival architecture has been restored to its former glory and each room is an example of how a traditional Revival house would look.

 

There are several restaurants offering good local cuisine in the town such as the Diavena Restaurant and the Elenite Restaurant. The restaurant at the Old Watermill is also a haven for fine dining and well worth a visit for authentic Bulgarian dishes.