Do you know where in Bulgaria they throw both a carnival and a ball? Where is this magical place with straight streets sunk in greenery, where winter smells of smoked pork and phyllo soup and summer is overflowing with delicious fruits and vegetables? This is the capital of Banat Bulgarians - Berdarski Geran!
This is a village that knows its exact founding year and is much younger than the traditions and history its people preserve. In 1887, with the personal clearance of Prince Ferdinand, a group of Bulgarians came from the Romanian Banat area to Bulgaria. They settled in an abandoned plot of land a few kilometres north of Byala Slatina. As a gift for their newly liberated homeland, they brought their heritage of ancient Bulgarian virtues, Austro-Hungarian culture and Catholic traditions.
Today their preserved holidays and lifestyle make for one of the most picturesque and original places for tourism in Bulgaria. The Banat Bulgarians are descendants of the paulicians and Catholics who were persecuted and fled the Ottoman Empire in the decades following the Chiprovtsi uprising. They originate from the Northwest or from Svishtov and Nikopol; their history can be traced back all the way to the first years of the Bulgarian state. They call themselves 'palikene', 'palkene' or 'paulikene', although they have long since abandoned their former Paulician faith, which had been denounced as heresy. Throughout their history, they have preserved their language and their Bulgarian identity, while some of their traditional festivals, such as the well-known Fershangi, take us far back, in the times of medieval carnivals and pagan cults designed to banish the winter freeze and evil spirits.
Over the course of time, carnival traditions have been preserved and developed in Catholic countries, with Bulgarian Catholics voluntarily adopting them and probably adding them on top of their ancient customs. Today, Fershangi is celebrated in February, shortly before or during the first days of Lent. In 2011, the local carnival morphed into an international festival. All participants are masked, men typically decked out in dresses and women clad in men's clothes, walking the streets together. There are no strict cross-dressing rules, what matters is that everyone has fun. Fershangi offers you an occasion to also taste typical Banat cuisine, with pork specialties taking centre stage.
The Berdarski Geran Ball is a more recent but no less entertaining event. Held in August, it sees locals donning their 'light' costumes, playing Banat dances and having fun as they once did in Austria-Hungary.
Today, most of Banat's historic district is in Romania, but before World War I it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs. Another Banat portion is in present-day Serbia, with migrants coming to Berdarski Geran from it as well. The Austro-Hungarian influence is clearly evident in the clothing, livelihoods and cuisine of Banat Bulgarians. Their ball is also a throw-back to the Habsburg days, replete with Hungarian and Austrian dances. The 'lights' are the costumes brought from Banat - their name is taken from their soft, comfortable and multi-coloured cotton fabric, comprising shirts, skirts, and a white apron with cut embroidery. Their other costume is a memory of the old times in Chiprovtsi and the Paulician faith. These costumes are heavy, two-aproned, with a lot of embellishment and a special hat, seen in no other Bulgarian region. Men's clothing is quite basic, made of light cotton fabrics, with a black vest and a distinctive little cap. Recent years have seen Berdarski Geran striving to preserve traditional costumes to a T and sewing new replicas entirely in line with the book. If you wish, you can order a true Banat costume through the community centre in the village or just visit a festivity and take in the spirit of the past live for yourselves.
The Banat Bulgarians' cuisine is rather unique. It includes forgotten Bulgarian dishes, and Austria-Hungary has lent them its preference for sweets and pastries. These peculiar ways to prepare products from a pig are found only in their community. There was a time when pigs were bred in each house, and they found their way into sausages or jerky meat, cured under the house chimney. Today the local Ethnographic Museum displays a little room where masonry stoves slowly matured pork delicacies. Lard was widely used, as well as meatless bacon, which can even be material for sweets. The manner of pig's slaughtering is reminiscent of the sacrifices of ancient times. Their cult meaning is lost; what has remained is a delicious feast.
A typical Berdarski Geran dish is 'chorba lista'. As the name suggests, it is made with thinly rolled phyllo intended to add to its density. It is served after the killing of the pig, along with sarmas and sweets called “kroffli”. There is a lot to write about the Berdarski Geran and Banat cuisine, but going there and tasting for yourself is the best possible move.
It is yet one more place ill-suited for vegans. Apart from their pigs, Banatians were well-known for their fine geese, bred for their fluffy feathers and tasty meat. The Paulician housewife used lard widely and possessed high expertise in pastry and homemade sweets. Talking about food, the house and its spatial arrangements were subject to its growing and cooking.
Berdarski Geran features a well-preserved typical Central European architecture. The houses are one-storey, with a short side facing the street, and the long side jutting into the yard. The middle section of the house is occupied by the room with the chimney where pork and sausages were smoked and the stoves were lit. Over time, many of the old houses were demolished to give way to up-to-date, two-storey, larger homes. Yet quite a few old ones are still well preserved and maintained. The village has been planned by architects since its birth, with perfectly straight streets, sidewalks and green strips separating the houses strung in single lines. All this was done in late 19th and early 20th century and sustained thereafter. Berdarski Geran has multiple times been cited as an example of cleanliness and order, with foreign guests being walked around during the communist regime to be shown an exemplary Bulgarian village. It became a natural setting of the popular film, "The Three Reservists".
When Berdarski Geran was being founded, the Banat housewives came in with their white cotton towels, tablecloths and sheets, decorated with embroidery and knitted lace. The Berdarski Geran Museum represents a typical Banat house, showcasing porcelain household utensils and old house furniture. The beds are in the same space that was used for a living room and a dining room. there is a small separate room for food storage and cooking, as well as another one used "for guests". The drawers and wardrobes are made of solid wood, as are the beds. The newlyweds' bed is special - it has a superstructure, from which a tight curtain hangs down to fully conceal the bed and those sleeping in it. The typical Banat house is comfortable, easy to maintain and with the smallest details thought out.
Locals practice their faith in the well maintained and smoothly functioning St. Joseph's Cathedral. The Blessed Evgeny Bosilkov served in it as a priest, to be later murdered by the communist regime, along with other Catholic clergy. Nowadays past suffering is forgiven and locals are looking forward to the future.
Together with the Banat Bulgarians, Berdarski Geran was initially populated with "Schwabians", i.e. Germans who had been living with the Bulgarians in Banat. They fled Berdarski Geran in 1944, but the German Quarter was preserved. Like the whole village, it was neatly designed, with the German Church still towering the area. Long abandoned, the building now needs renovation, but its magnificent architecture is still impressive. The murals of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius in its interior are its landmark, and its bell tower is visible far into the surrounding valley. There used to be a German school as well, with a kindergarten and a convent for Benedictine sisters, but all these were nationalized after 1944. Their buildings are still preserved in a style probably unseen anywhere else in Bulgaria.
Ways to get there: Berdarski Geran is close to Byala Slatina. There is a single 8 km road connecting the two. If you come from Sofia via Vratsa, the village is one hour away from the regional town (58 km). If you come from Pleven, the road threads via Knezha and Byala Slatina. The distance to Pleven is 70 km. There is another route from Sofia, through Lukovit and Cherven Bryag to Knezha (the distance to Sofia is 170 km, to Rousse – 220 km, and to Plovdiv – 300 km).
Places to stay: There are several family hotels in Byala Slatina (8 km) and Knezha (20 km). You are well-advised to make an earlier booking at fest times.
Not to be missed: Ethnographic Museum in Berdarski Geran, Fershangi in February, the Ball in August, the German Quarter, the Saedinenie-1923 Community Centre, where your tour is likely to begin.
In the vicinity: Oryahovo with its two galleries and its fair in August, Selanovtsi with the community centre and the Little Prince fountain, Vratsa with its Regional Museum of History, where you can see the famous Thracian silver treasure from Rogozina, Kozloduy with the Radetsky ship.
Well-suited for: Rural tourism, culinary fests, musical events.