Chiprovtsi: The great treasures of a small town

The New Gold of Chiprovtsi
24 March 2020
The hut above Vratsa was built with donations and voluntary work
23 December 2020

Chiprovtsi: The great treasures of a small town

Chiprovtsi is more than a geographical location. One doesn't come here for grandiose fortresses, entertainment or landmarks with household names. What is captivating here is the legacy of the many centuries that have left us with a region with perhaps the strangest fate in the Balkans. Everyone who passed through Chiprovtsi area has left a footfall replete with wealth and culture. None of this has vanished without a trace, so please ignore the silence that has taken over the town today. Chiprovtsi still hides its myriad treasures, which made it famous throughout the Balkan Peninsula, while its inhabitants travelled and shipped them from Venice to Damascus.

Chiprovtsi's great treasure nowadays are the local carpets, now officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each thread is hand-woven by local women-artisans who once were the mainstay of family economies. Historical sources tell us about them participating in exhibitions and getting prizes, as well as about commerce taking place in markets beyond the former Ottoman Empire. The carpets of Chiprovtsi were so highly prized that the merchants once made requests and paid in advance with gold and silver to receive the goods. You stand a chance to find out why they did it when you see the goods live. the Chiprovtsi Carpet Fest is held every year in early May, with carpets, tapestries, pillows and various other artefacts made by local craftsmen on sale. Outside of the festival, you can just stroll around the city, look around and find the places where these stunning rugs are being woven.


Old glory

The first historical evidence of carpet weaving hails from the time following the Chiprovtsi Uprising. There might have been a related craft previously that didn't enjoy such a high profile in the area. The 1688 uprising was a watershed moment that fundamentally changed Chiprovtsi and the fate of a large group of Bulgarians. Its cruel suppression not only stifled the hopes for freedom, but also nipped the early Bulgarian Renaissance in the bud. It had already been brewing among the Chiprovtsi community and also rubbed off on those who had contact with them in the course of 16th-17th centuries. It was a weird destiny that befell Chiprovtsi: as one historian summarized it, when the rest of the Bulgarian lands were ravaged, Chiprovtsi enjoyed a self-styled heyday, but then things turned upside down. Since scant material evidence was left from the time before the uprising, all available footprints are that bit more valuable.

The town enjoyed considerable privileges from antiquity until 1688 because of its well-developed mining. After Bulgaria's succumbing to Ottoman rule, it is believed that families from the medieval Bulgarian aristocracy found refuge in the area. Very little has remained of the magnificent homes and wealth described in 16th and 17th century sources. The local History Museum shows the coats of arms that represented some aristocratic families from Chiprovtsi, e.g. Peyachevich, Parchevich, Soimirovich. Specimens of the Chiprovtsi Goldsmith's School are also on display with their extremely fine and expensive work with gold and silver filigree - a drawn and twisted thread that forms the artefact. Works by local craftsmen can be seen in many museums, monasteries and churches throughout the Balkan Peninsula. Chiprovtsi goldsmiths made church utensils, jewelled gospel binding, as well as jewellery, vessels, among which the famous Chiprovski chalices, once in high demand on Venetian markets. banished after the uprising, goldsmiths never returned to Chiprovtsi, but in neighbouring Berkovitsa they are trying to sustain the craft. You can buy jewellery in the style of the Chiprovtsi goldsmith's school at the museum as well as from the shop behind the Clock Tower in Berkovitsa. Similar wares are also offered at county fairs around the Northwest.


Memories of other times

The stalls of the Chiprovtsi History Museum offer a detailed presentation of local mining history – the sites, tools and techniques used in the extraction of precious metals. During the Middle Ages, the industry was developed by Saxon miners, whose origins have not yet been clearly identified. There are speculations that the Saxons presence was the main reason for Chiprovtsi being a Catholic settlement, but a deeper look into historical evidence has failed to corroborate this. the foundations of the Catholic cathedral of Santa Maria have been found in the immediate vicinity of the museum. Built in 1371, it was destroyed during the Chiprovtsi uprising, along with residential buildings, artisan workshops, the Chiprovtsi monastery and probably the Gushovski monastery as well. A distant echo of the wealth demolished back then has remained with the Banat Bulgarians. The first wave of migrants fled immediately after the uprising across the Danube, to eventually settle in the Banat area in Romania. Direct descendants of former Chiprovans still live there or in Asenovo village near Pleven. The Banat Bulgarians' distinctive costumes are fairly reminiscent of rich boyar clothing. Several outfits are on display in the museum, along with photographs and testimonies of the life of exiled Bulgarians. Chiprovtsi rug heritage, the region's calling card, Is also on display.

The bloody suppression of Chiprovtsi rebellion destroyed a well-developed early Renaissance culture that had emerged more than a century earlier than the Bulgarian Revival as we all know it. The Chiprovtsi Literary School is among the peaks of Bulgarian enlightenment: the first modern Bulgarian school, today the Petar Parchevich Primary School, was opened here as early as in 1624 by Bishop Iliya Marinov. In 2017, Prof. Lilia Ilieva made a groundbreaking historical discovery. In the library of Modena in Italy she found the original manuscript of the first History of Bulgaria, written by Peter Bogdan Bakshev.

Peter Bogdan of Chiprovtsi wrote a historical treatise on the Bulgarian people a century prior to the well-known Slavic-Bulgarian history of father Paisii. It was written in Latin as most of the historiography of that time was. Interestingly, even in these distant times, Peter Bogdan described his homeland as "Bulgaria", with the idea of restoring Bulgarian statehood. Work on translating and publishing the manuscript began immediately after it was found. Thus, thanks to Prof. Ilieva and other researchers, other manuscripts have gradually emerged from oblivion and gained publicity. The manuscripts are kept in various libraries and archives across Western and Central Europe and we hope that copies of them will make their way to Chiprovtsi sooner rather than later. Another example of the importance of Chiprovtsi's Literary School is the first Bulgarian printed book, the 1651 so-called Abagarus, written by Philip Stanislavov, born in Oresh, who lived and worked in Chiprovtsi.

Like Peter Bogdan and some other writers, the future bishop of Nikopol Philip Stanislavov also hails from the Catholic community. With the support of Rome, schools were opened in Bulgaria's northwest and several places further down the Danube, and boys were sent for schooling overseas. The Chiprovtsi Monastery used to keep a raft of valuable manuscripts, books and documents from medieval Bulgaria in store. Their fate is unknown - some may have been saved, others destroyed. the monastery fell into disuse for a long time before a bunch of Orthodox monks had it restored to its present form. Actions to revive the Catholic heritage of the city have only been taken in recent years. The municipality of Rakovski, home to descendants of Chiprovtsi survivors from the uprising, will support the construction of a Catholic chapel in Chiprovtsi, where the bones of Peter Bogdan will be laid.


Torlak land

Traditional local cuisine is Torlak/Turlak – as rural populations in north-western Bulgaria and some regions in Serbia, Romania, Albania and Macedonia are called. peppers stuffed with beans are the kingpin, accompanied by banitsa made of phyllo, which is pulled thin, roasted on the stovetop and cooked with different stuffing. The hotel-cum-restaurant in downtown Chiprovtsi offers typical local cuisine. You can find out more about the Torlak lifestyle and culture from the collection in Catherina's House, a part of the museum compound.

A few historical remains are preserved in the area around Chiprovtsi, including the ruins of the Gushovski Monastery. Precious little evidence regarding the monastery is available, but it has long been revered as a holy place, even after its destruction. Every year in early September, Chiprovtsi locals flock to the site to make ritual meat soup (kurban) and celebrate the Chiprovtsi feast. Govezhda is a nearby village, the birthplace of contemporary writer Stoyan Nikolov-Torlak, who described in a unique north-western dialect some charming Torlak characters in the three parts of his North-western Novel. Govezhda is where the action takes place; most of the imagery reflects real places, which can be seen if you visit the place.

The nature around Chiprovtsi is beautiful at any time of the year. The Deyanitsa eco-trail starts from the Gushovski Monastery, finishing at the 18 meter-high Chiprovski Waterfall. The path is clearly marked; there are sightseeing and recreation spots all along the way. The 8.5 km trail is worming through a highland terrain, so be well-equipped.

There are many protected bird species in the area as well as rare mountain plants. The guest houses in the area offer opportunities to become immersed in the Torlak lifestyle and the beauty of the mountain. The climate in the Chiprovtsi area is quite agreeable, with snowy winters, outstandingly beautiful springs and autumns, and cool summers. Chiprovtsi sits at just over 500 meters above sea level.

There is a new stadium in town, hosted by the local Miner-Kiprovets team. Follow their agenda and if you're a football fan, watch them live. In one word, Chiprovtsi has a lot to tell you - and you'll want to hear some more stories and come back to the place again and again.

Ways to get there: Chiprovtsi can only reached by car or bus. The town is 40 km from Montana, 75 km from Vratsa, 140 km from Sofia (via Petrokhan). There are regular buses to Montana, the district centre.

Places to stay: There are guest houses and a hotel in Chiprovtsi, plus a holiday village in Govezhda; Chuprene has a tourist lodge.

The right season: All the way from early spring to late fall.

Not to be missed: The Chiprovtsi Carpet Fest in May.

In the vicinity: Chiprovski Monastery, Kopren Ecopath, Chuprene Biosphere Reserve

Well-suited for: rural and eco tourism, cycle tourism, culinary tourism.

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