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Bulgarian traditional architecture
Traditional Bulgarian architecture reflects the twists of history in the region. The long Ottoman rule during 14 - 19 centuries has stamped and shaped most of medieval architectural practices and styles. The late Renaissance 18 and 19 century housing styles, which can be still found in Bulgaria, in reality, are modified Ottoman wooden houses similar to those in Northern Turkey (Safranbolu, Amasya).
Traditionally Bulgarian houses have 2 or 3 stories. Timber is used as a skeleton for the house, the ground floor will be stone-built with a great deal of craftsmanship and engineering skills, whilst the first and second floors will be built using mud and straw. Later on, in the early 20th century, some houses were plastered or whitewashed. Roofs were made using stone slabs, which puts an extraordinary load on the foundations and the wooden structure. These roofs are difficult to maintain, however give the charm and the uniqueness of traditional Bulgarian houses.
Rich owners usually had a double door to allow carts in. Bulgarian houses had small inner courts surrounded by up to 3-4 meters high stone-built walls, reminiscent of Arab and Ottoman riyads. Ground floor spaces were where animals and various storage facilities were housed.
Stairs would normally lead to the first floor which is the "chardak". This is a very deep open terrace, often taking up the whole space of the first floor, where the family had its daily activities. Larger houses had up to 10 to 12 small rooms.
Best places to find original traditional Bulgarian architecture are the mountains - most villages along the Balkan mountains, as well as Rhodopi mountains. Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital of Bulgaria and the old quarter in Plovdiv are the centers of well-preserved traditional architecture in Bulgaria.
We are passionate about traditional Bulgarian houses. We have undertaken the restoration of several old houses and can help you with the selection and restoration of a traditional Bulgarian house.
Traditional Bulgarian Musical Instruments
Bulgarian folk music covers a wealth of subjects and a variety of artistic forms, rhythms and melodies. But its unique character is due primarily to its distinctive musical instruments.
Musical instruments have been part of Bulgarian life since ancient times. All sorts of tools and simple objects that could produce sounds were used as musical instruments (spoons, tongs, small bells, clappers, bird call whistles, etc.). As lifestyles evolved over the centuries, musical taste and instruments also developed along with them. The older rudimentary instruments were replaced by much improved models that satisfied new tastes.
Bulgarians play musical instruments on a variety of occasions: in taverns, at dinner, for weddings, at parties and even when they work. This diversity of use requires a diversity of instruments. Some instruments are very old while others of foreign origin were imported much later but have nonetheless found a place in people's lives.
Typically Bulgarian instruments include the caval (an end-blown flute), the duduk (whistle flute), the gaïda (bagpipe) from the family of aerophones; the gadulka and the gusla (kinds of rebecs or bowed stringed instruments) from the family of chordophones; the tupan (double-headed cylindrical drum) and the tarambuke of the membranophone family and many instruments from the family of idiophones such as bells, clappers, rattles, tongs, etc., although most of these are also known in other Balkan countries as well as the Near East.
These instruments are hand-made by artisans or the musicians themselves and reflect regional characteristics. Instruments may have different names depending on the region.
The caval is a folk instrument made of wood that belongs to the family of aerophones. Its origins date Back a very long way and it is now played throughout all the folk regions of Bulgaria.
The caval is an end-blown flute comprising a cylinder in three pieces, each one fitting neatly into the next as a result of a cone-shaped end . Each is built with a particular purpose:
- the first: to blow into through the mouthpiece;
- the second: that has eight finger holes; and
- the third: in which four holes called "evil's holes" are pierced to make contact with the outside air.
The caval is carved in wood, sometimes dogwood, cherry, maple or plum but mainly of yew. The basic tone depends on the dimensions of the instrument. You can see both small cavals (ordinary) and large cavals (up to one meter in length) in Bulgaria. The instrument has a wide range of light, pleasant and full tones in the medium register and clear and thin tones in the upper register.
The caval can be played as a solo or an accompanying instrument. It harmonizes well with the gadulka, gaïda and tambura and performs a basic role in folk orchestras. In modern times, the caval has found a new significance. By improving their playing technique, some musicians have succeeded in using the caval to interpret jazz music and in creating duets with the human voice. Recently, composers have written new symphonic works for caval and orchestra.
The gaïda is a Bulgarian folk instrument that belongs to the family of aerophones. It is a sort of bagpipe, a well known instrument in Europe, Asia and Africa.
There are two varieties of gaïda known in Bulgaria: the large bagpipes, called the kaba with a low register; and the small one called the djoura with a high-pitched register. The main part of the gaïda is the gaidounitza (a small wooden cylindrical chanter with eight finger holes). The upper mouthpiece includes a single beating reed on which a thread is wound to lengthen or shorten it and thus tune the instrument. The tone depends on a goose feather inserted into a small hole in the gaidounitza.
The routchilo is another part of the gaïda made of three or four wooden cylinders. A piscoune (kind of whistle) that makes a high-pitched sound is attached to the upper opening of the second cylinder.
Today, as they play, musicians change the gaidounitza and the routchilo to change the register of the instrument. The bellows or air bag made of kid or sheep skin has another wooden cylinder through which air is stored and then emptied by means of the gaidounitza and the routchilo. The gaïda is a two-voiced (chanter and drone) instrument with a limited range but with considerable rhythmic and ornamental sonority that explains why it is played in every contemporary folk group.
The tupan (bass drum)
The tupan is a percussion membranophone with two vibrating bodies. It has a cylindrical wooden body on which two goat or sheep skins are stretched by means of a hoop and lacing. The tupan is held in front of the player, suspended over the shoulder by a long strap attached to the drum.
The drum is hit with two different sized drumsticks. The right hand holds the larger and fatter stick with the padded end called the tokmak. The other stick in the left hand is smaller and thinner. The large drumstick beats out the measure, while the small switch plays quicker rhythms thus allowing the musician to play complex combinations.
The tupan is of foreign origin but is nonetheless deeply rooted in Bulgarian musical life. It is found throughout the south west and in the Standja Mountains region. The rhythmic deep sound of the drum is heard during weddings, village dances, bear folk games, the performances of koukers (traditional Bulgarian masques) and the nestinar (dancers who walk on hot coals).
The tupan is primarily an accompanying instrument that marks the rhythm but it can also be played as a solo instrument. Well-tuned and with good acoustic construction, it has a beautiful tone. An accomplished musician can get sounds from it not only by hitting the different sections of the drum heads but also by hitting the hoops and the body or even by rubbing the skins (friction percussion).
In modern folk groups, the tupan is usually used to mark the beat. On the other hand, it can be played as a solo instrument to emphasize an important moment in a dance.
The tarambuke is an instrument with a single vibrating body that belongs to the family of membranophones. Musicians obtain sounds from it by hitting it with both their palms and fingers.
The tarambuke is made of a long narrow earthenware cask shaped like a bottomless vase. A skin is stretched taut over its largest opening while the smaller opening is left open. The musician holds the instrument under the left arm or between the knees. The left hand rests on the hoop that attaches the skin head leaving the four fingers free to produce light quick compound rhythms. The palm and fingers of the right hand emphasize the basic rhythm.
The tone of the tarambuke is soft, light, tender and very unique. It is an accompanying instrument that goes well with other traditional instruments like the zourna (a kind of shawm), the caval (end-blown flute) and the tambura (lute) as well as voices. It can be found over a wide area especially in the Pirin Mountains. The instrument originated in the Middle East.
The gadulka is a simply-made Bulgarian folk instrument of the chordophone family, known mainly in Thrace, the Balkans and central Bulgaria. Sound is produced by rubbing its strings with a bow.
The gadulka is pear-shaped with a long neck ending in a "head", all carved from a single piece of wood (sycamore, walnut or pear). The body is hollowed out to make a soundbox. There are three keys in the "head" on which the strings are wound. They then pass over the bridge and are held in place by the tailpiece. The upper surface of the body has two openings (sound holes) that allow the air from the inside to come into contact with air on the outside. To the right of the bridge on the soundbox is a little wooden stick called the soundpost that transmits the vibrations of the strings to the enclosed air. The bow is curved and is made of dogwood or willow. The hair of the bow is horse tail.
The strings are made of sheep gut or metal. The number of strings can vary from three to four strings depending on the region of the country and their tuning can also vary. Modern gadulkas have seven to ten extra strings that are thinner and placed at a lower level than the others. They make the instrument sound louder.
Musicians make sounds by pressing the first string with their fingernails and the two others with their fingertips. The instrument has a pleasant, tremulous sound that is quite soft. Today, some musicians play jazz improvisations and modern music on the gadulka.
A folk instrument of the chordophone family of supposedly Turkish or Persian-Arab origin, the tambura is found mainly in the south east of Bulgaria and in the mountainous Pirin region.
The tambura is a piriform lute with a body made of sycamore or pear wood. The soundboard has two or more sound holes. The instrument has a long neck with a straight fingerboard and keys to adjust the string tension. The strings pass over the bridge and are held in place by a piece of beech wood called a "button". The number of frets can vary between 12 and 18, depending on the dimensions and type of tambura. They are placed all along the keyboard and are made of metal, string, sheep gut or linen thread. The tambura strings are metal, wrapped with copper thread that makes the tone soft and tender. The strings are plucked with a small cherry bark plectrum to produce the sound.
Bulgarian tambura come in different sizes, with different numbers of strings, in different tunings and are played in various positions. Today, the best known tambura has 8 strings, 18 frets, chromatic tuning and a wide range.
In the past, only men played the tambura to accompany their songs. In modern orchestras and groups, the tambura most often plays harmony or rhythm. Nonetheless, accomplished musicians can play solos of remarkable technique and virtuosity.
Ancient Bulgarian culture has paved the way for traditional festivals and customs which remain very much alive today.
Bulgaria was the Slav land of Orpheus and Spartacus. It holds countless treasures, burial tombs and magnificent art and frescos reminiscent of centuries past, offering visitors the opportunity to tour numerous museums and monuments to understand Bulgaria’s rich cultural heritage.
Today, culturally the Bulgarians remember the days when men tried to appease the natural elements and trembled before their power! Rich with beauty, gaiety, mystical voices, fiery dances and brightly colored costumes, Bulgarian folklore has to be seen, felt and experienced…
Fire dancing is the most ancient and mysterious ritual, where barefoot dancers perform on burning embers. This religious and mystical ritual for expelling illness, for health and fruitfulness is one that must be seen to be believed.
The Festival of Roses is celebrated at the foot of the Balkan mountain range, in the Rose Valley near the town of Kazanluk. Celebrated on the first weekend of every June, the festival is a pageant of beauty in the unique Rose Valley. In the run-up of the event, a Queen Rose beauty contest is held in several rounds. Artists, actors, circus performers, writers and singers flock to Kazanluk at the start of June.
The Bulgarian Oleaginous rose yields 70 % of the world's roses, used as an essential component by perfume companies worldwide.
The story goes that in 1270, during the Crusades, Count de Gruye brought the Damascus rose from Syria to the valley of Kazanlak where conditions proved excellent for its growth. The Bulgarian roses and rose oil owe their unique properties to the local climate and soil. February temperatures, when roses bud, are ideal in the valley. The blossom is picked in May and June, when high humidity is very important.
Kukeri Carnival is held in the region of Dupnitsa and Pernik to mark the beginning of Spring and is a splendid festival of brightly coloured masks and costumes. Every participant makes his own multi-coloured personalised mask, covered with beads, ribbons and wool tassels. The heavy swaying of the main dance represents wheat, heavy with grain. Bells, tied around the waist, are intended to drive away the evil spirits and the sickness.
Bulgarian voices remain a complete mystery! Experts are still trying to explain the incredible range of the Bulgarian voice and the variety of its songs. The unique sound was universally acknowledged by the fact that the popular Rhodope song "Izlel e Delyu hiadutin", sung by the talented singer Valya Balkanska, was recorded on a gold record and was sent as a message to outer space on the American spaceship Voyager in 1977.
The world is rediscovering it at major folklore and song contests in Italy, France, England and Ireland from which the Bulgarian music and dance ensembles invariably win the first prizes.
The folk festivals "Pirin Sings" and “Rozhen Sings” are the most famous Bulgarian folklore festivals. Last year some 150,000 visitors from Bulgaria and abroad witnessed the show with 4,000 performers in each festival. Spectators came not only for these inspiring events, but also to learn about the curious world of Bulgarian folklore.
Easter in Bulgaria is an Orthodox tradition, symbolized by a red egg (or Pascha). Nowadays other colors are used as well and the eggs are colored on Holy Thursday after the Divine Liturgy.
The eggs are cracked after the midnight church service and during the next days. One egg is cracked on the wall of the church, being the first egg eaten after the long fast. The ritual of cracking the rest of the eggs takes place before Easter lunch. Each person selects his/her egg. Then people take turns tapping their egg against the eggs of others, and the person who ends up with the last unbroken egg is believed to have a year of good luck.
On 14th February each year Bulgarians celebrate Trifon Zarezan, an ancient holiday rite inherited from the Thracians. Dressed in their Sunday-best, vine growers prune the vines and sprinkle them with wine for a good harvest. Everyone then gathers for a delicious meal.
On 1st March each year Bulgarians present to relatives and friends martenitsa, a double red and white tassel - to bring health and happiness. This is a pagan tradition and symbolizes the end of the cold winter and the coming of the spring.
Martenitsa-s are supposed to be worn until the person sees the first stork (although there are not many in the cities)! Then they are thrown onto a tree. The red and white colours signify snow and blood from a traditional story in which a stork brings the blessing for health to a small child from its parents, who are far away. The arrival of the stork indicates Spring has arrived.
Applied crafts have gradually emerged home cottage industries to become a national art. Bulgarian embroidery, with its intricate geometrical figures, rugs, with their vibrant colours, exquisitely painted Bulgarian ceramics and superbly fashioned Bulgarian jewellery are but some of the typical crafts.
Handicraft Museums can be found at
- The Samovodene Market in Veliko Turnovo,
- The Permanent National Exhibition of Folk Art in Oreshak near Troyan
- The Etura architectural and ethnographic complex near Gabrovo
You are sure to find a souvenir from Bulgaria here, eg. a carved wooden wine decanter, a Troyan pottery set, a fleecy Rhodope rug, an original piece of silver jewellery, or a finely embroidered silk blouse…
The National Palace of Culture is the largest multifunctional complex in Southeastern Europe. It is located in the heart of the capital, Sofia, amidst a beautiful park with magnificent views of Vitosha Mountain in the distance. It is rich with museums, historical and cultural sites of interest, financial institutions and some of the best hotels and restaurants in the country.
The palace boasts 16 halls, with seating capacity ranging from 50 to 4 000, which are equipped with modern technology, providing simultaneous interpretation in 14 languages, a press center, phones, fax, telex, e-mail. In addition there are cafes, bars, restaurants, night clubs, bowling and shops.