A Little of Bansko’s Past
If you think that Bansko is a Balkan village suddenly catapulted to fame and fortune by its latter-day development as a ski-centre, then think again. Bansko was one of nineteenth-century Bulgaria’s richest towns, and the monuments are still here to prove it.
Bansko owes its wealth to a central position on key inland caravan routes, which lead from the Aegean port of Thessaloniki to the cities of central Europe. As well as providing food and lodging to the caravan drovers, Bansko folk became traders themselves, warehousing rich silks from the east and fine furniture from the west.
The caravan trade died out in the late nineteenth century when it became more convenient to transport goods on steamships and trains rather than on the backs of donkeys. Bansko continued to flourish as an agricultural centre rich in goats, sheep and cattle, and enjoyed a considerable political role in the years before World War I when it was an important centre of the anti-Ottoman revolutionary movement.
The nineteenth-century houses lining central Bansko’s cobbled alleyways provide enduring evidence of the town’s historical importance. When you visit, look for the old fortified houses in the old town with their barred windows, high walls, hidden rooms and underground passageways.
Bansko is among those Bulgarian towns which played a noteworthy role in the historic development of the nation especially during the Revival Period. The historic character of the town remains in the unique houses of Banskhali with their tall pinewood gates and carved-wood ceilings, and in the architecture and the fine iconostasis of churches. The past and present are interwoven in a way that is at once distinctive and original.
The most impressive side of Bansko are the preserved traditions and the spirit of the old quarter with its stone houses and traditional Bulgarian restaurants (mehanas). In every restaurant you one can taste excellent local cuisine cooked over a fire and famous red wine and listen to the traditional folklore music which accompanies almost every event and social gathering.
Located in the town graveyard, near the railway station, this cemetery chapel was built in 1774. Semi-submerged in order to comply with Ottoman restrictions, and illuminated by four tiny windows, it has the feel of a mysterious grotto. The intricate wood-carved iconostasis is a masterpiece of eighteenth-century folk-influenced art, and is filled with icons by local painter Toma Vishanov. Unfortunately, the chapel is rarely open, and may only be accessible at mass times on certain Sundays throughout the year. The tourist office may be able to advise on the best time to wander down and take a look
Built in 1835, Bansko’s Holy Trinity Church was the biggest church in Bulgaria in the nineteenth century, and is still one of the most attractive.
Ottoman restrictions specified that Christian churches should never be higher than a man on horseback, ensuring that most nineteenth-century Bulgarian churches were squat structures built slightly underground. Bansko’s elders decided to ignore these restrictions, confident that the town’s importance as a trading centre would dissuade the Turkish sultan from taking any action. The churchyard’s high wall was erected first, concealing the rest of the building site from prying Ottoman officials.
The church is entered via a lovely porch lined with wooden benches. Inside, elegant pillars rise above rows of wooden pews. The main icon screen is an extravagantly detailed piece of wood carving, featuring exquisitely-rendered floral shapes, birds, dragons and other traditional folk motifs. At the back, wooden grilles serve to barrier off the rear part of the church, traditionally reserved for female worshippers.
Best time to visit the church is the Sunday morning service, when many of Bansko’s older women attend in traditional costume.
Icon Museum – During the nineteenth century Bansko was an important centre of icon-painting workshops. Bansko-trained painters decorated monasteries and churches throughout the region, many of them working on Bulgaria’s most famous monastic foundation, Rila Monastery, 70km to the northwest.
Bansko’s icon-painting traditions began with local boy Toma Vishanov, who accompanied local merchants on a trip to Vienna in the late eighteenth century and came back with a book of Austrian religious prints. Setting up his own painting studio, Vishanov (subsequently nicknamed “Moler” by the locals after the German word for painter, Mahler) went on to produce a stream of icons that combined both eastern Orthodox and modern western styles. Vishanov’s son Dimitar Molerov and grandson Simeon Molerov carried on the family tradition – Dimitar is reckoned to be the most talented of the bunch.
Bansko’s icon museum occupies a nineteenth-century metoh, a small monastery-cum-lodging house where monks journeying between Mount Athos and Rila Monastery would rest up for the night. The metoh also took in orphans and taught them basic crafts.
The metoh’s former cells and workshops are now occupied by a display devoted to Vishanov and his followers. On the opposite side of the metoh’s courtyard, the former stables now house a gallery of nineteenth century icons, with Vishanov and his descendants featuring prominently.
Neofit Rilski House – Lurking behind a stone wall round the back of the Holy Trinity church is the birthplace of Neofit Rilski, (1793-1881), the monk and scholar who presided over the development of primary education in nineteenth-century Bulgaria. The part of the display devoted to Rilski’s life and works is rather boring, to be quite frank, but there’s plenty to enjoy in the period rooms of the house itself. Neofit’s father served as Bansko’s parish priest, and used one room in the house to teach reading, writing and bible study to the local kids. Pupils wrote in wooden boxes filled with sand, examples of which can still be seen today. The family’s main living room features an open hearth on which meals were cooked, and a low central table –nineteenth-century Bulgarians ate sitting on the floor.
“Name Days” are celebrated in addition to birthdays in Bulgaria. Truth be known, most Bulgarians value their ‘Name Day’ more than their birthday. A Name Day, or “Saints Day” is celebrated by people named after that Saint (eg. everyone named Peter celebrates Saint Peter’s day). We could accurately say that a “Name Day” is the feast day of the saint after whom one is named. Bulgaria is largely a Christian country. On their ‘Name Day’ the person is to light a candle in the local church. These special ‘Name Days’ (“immen den” in Bulgarian) are celebrated with a family meal. It is appropriate that a religious icon commemorating the saint after whom a Christian is named is given as a gift on such occasions.