Ethnographic groups

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Ethnographic groups

Danubian Bulgaria is a colourful mix of ethnographic groups, each having its own distinctive appearance.   Starting from the Zlatorozhie region to the West and reaching as far as Dobrudzha to the East, you can come across Wallachians who traditionally inhabit the Danube valley and make their living as fishermen. Turlaks are the rulers of the North-West Balkan Mountains, the residents of Novo Selo Municipality are by themselves unique in the Vidin region, while Banat Bulgarians deftly cultivated the fertile soils of Vratsa and Pleven regions. The Kapantsi in Razgrad region cherish the traditions of Bulgarians from the times of Khan Asparuh. The Alians are a mystical Muslim community in the Ludogorie region, who live in harmony with the rest of the world. The population of Greben Mountain, and also the Lipovans, Tatars and Pomaks make the colourful picture complete in the North-East region. The mixture of traditions whereby they are shared, as well as the typical hospitality of those populations, are all enablers of our spirit of explorers.


Banat Bulgarians: memories about different times and people

Chiprovtsi and Banat area trigger emotional, rather than geographical connotations, to a relatively small Bulgarian community. Banat Bulgarians are descendants of Bulgarian Roman Catholics who fled their homes after the defeat of the Chiprovtsi Uprising in 1688. For over two centuries they lived in Austria-Hungary which granted them special rights to settle in the then deserted area of Banat. Throughout this period, the community turned the region into a flourishing Bulgarian colony with its own churches, schools, modern agriculture and trade.

All that time Banat Bulgarians cherished the memory of their homeland. They call themselves Paulicians (with variations of the spelling) in remembrance of their past. The once numerous Paulician community, pronounced to be heretical, was gradually assimilated by adopting Orthodoxy and Islam, although the most unbending members resisted for a long period. By keeping apart from Orthodoxy, most of them embraced Roman Catholicism from missionaries sent by Rome. In the wake of the Chiprovtsi Uprising, Ottoman authorities were suspicious of Bulgarian Catholics, considering them a conduit of influence by the Habsburg Monarchy.

In 1688, the local population of Chiprovtsi fled across the Danube in the months following the defeat of the uprising. Years of nomadic life ensued until Empress Maria Theresa of Austria granted them special rights to settle in Banat. During the decades that followed, Bulgarian Catholics from the regions of Nikopol and Svishtov joined their fellows in Banat and the small community gradually expanded. The Liberation in 1878 marked the beginning of their return. The direct descendants of the first Chiprovtsi emigrants live nowadays in Assenovo village, Nikopol region, while Burdarski Geran is populated mostly by descendants of Catholics originating from Svishtov and Nikopol. The rest of the Banat Bulgarians settled in the villages of Gostilya, Dragomirovo and Bregare.

There are several celebrations throughout the year which show the traditional customs and lifestyle of the population. In Burdarski Geran, these are the Farsang (or Fasching)[1] Masquerade and the Masked Ball. During their resettlement in our country, the population brought back music and instruments influenced by Hungarian-Austrian traditions. The main instrument is the violin. It is captivating to listen to Banat songs in their old-fashioned dialect preserved from the times before the Chiprovtsi Uprising. The Paulician dialect has been documented and studied, and according to scientists it belongs to the group of Rupchoski dialects after the same-name region in the Central Rhodopes.

Assenovo village, in the region of Nikopol, hosts an international culinary festival in August called Banat Savouries. The traditional Banat dishes are smoked pork meat and sausages, smoked pork belly, a type of sweet buns, fluffy pastry products, goulash and Easter bread. The traditional gastronomy uses a lot of lard and meat, while pork belly and sausages are smoked in a traditional way, hanging by cooks under the chimney. The Banat love for pork and pastry is due to their long-year communication with Hungarians and the specific features of the Banat region. Pork scratchings – small pieces that remain after pork rind melts – are served with bread rolls and are also used with sweet pastry. The traditional versions of home-made freshly prepared dough additives are also remembered and used for various dishes. They are sometimes cooked on their own: fried, with some cheese. There are still no restaurants serving original Banat dishes, but recipes may be provided by local community centres and are also available on the website of the Organisation of Banat Bulgarians (, so you can try and cook them yourselves.

The Banat population borrowed many customs from their co-habitation with Austrians and Hungarians, however they have preserved a number of traditions from their Paulician past. The Farsang, for example, is a fancy-dress masquerade that marks the beginning of the Long Lent in the Catholic world. At culinary fests nowadays, the skills of the Banats in making pastry products are obvious. The ceremonial pig slaughter (“ubivanje”) is linked to ancient times; this is a form of offering that today has culinary meaning only. A few generations ago, Banat people were famous for breeding geese for down and meat.

Getting to know this culture, so close and at the same time so different from the rest of Bulgaria, is unforgettable experience. It seems to carry us over time and perhaps shows us what we would be like, if we remained part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire a few centuries ago.


Turlaks: Rulers of the Balkan Mountains

They are highlanders and leave the impression that an old Bulgarian legend has come to life. Turlaks live in the regions of Belogradchik, Chuprene, Chiprovtsi, even Knjaževac and Niš in Serbia. Those living in the South are called Torlaks, while the ones in the North are Turlaks. A prominent representative of this old ethnographic group is writer Stoyan the Turlak Nikolov who described the lifestyle of Govezhda village in his books. You can hardly guess how many prominent Bulgarians are of Turlak origin. They can be recognized by their height and by their broad smiles, as well as the philosophical ease by which they address any obstacles on their way and tackle them with no delay. Many a Turlak men wear a big moustache, yet another of their characteristics.

Turlaks were into stock-breeding mostly, given the harsh mountainous conditions. The landscape, along with their quest for self-preservation, often placed them in isolation, which is probably an explanation for their sometimes reckless pursuit of rebellion. According to one of the assumptions, the name Turlak originates from the word torlo/turlo, i.e. a circular open pen for the sheep. Their lifestyle and the mountainous landscape are the reasons that their cuisine is rich in dairy products, leafy vegetables and other veggies. Their famous dishes are white man (fresh cheese and flour) and mower’s sour soup. The latter resembles the prototype of today’s tarator soup. It consisted of finely chopped cucumbers, a dried chili pepper, plenty of vinegar and water. It was mainly eaten when the weather was hot; a small bowl was enough to cool one off. Dried red peppers, green tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are often used in the Turlak cuisine, along with leeks, nettle and spinach. Tomatoes are used green because they ripen late in the mountains and look greenish most of the times anyway. That is why the Turlak version of lyutenitsa (tomato-based dip) could be green. Poverty made Turlak housewives invent virtuoso recipes: bread crumbs, “white fried stuff”, bean dishes, and a dish for several people containing only flour, a few eggs and paprika. Believe it or not, they are very tasty.

Authentic Turlak cuisine may be also tasted at any Turlak fair. The largest one is held in Chuprene in early June and its motto, “Kada kum prase I ti vrechu”, translated from Torlakian dialect means “Get what is being offered to you without thinking twice”. This dialect is a strange mix of Bulgarian and Serbian, and if Turlaks happen to talk to you, you will probably understand them. The authentic dialect and traditions are preserved by Zhdrebche Turlak Association which regularly gathers the community on both sides of the border.

Turlak culture, dialect and traditions are worth preserving. One-time Turlakia is among the fastest depopulated regions both on the Bulgarian side and on the Serbian side. And it deserves to be visited: because of the food, the people and the immaculate nature of the Western Balkan Mountains.


Wallachians: fishermen and jokesters

Their origin can be traced back to the old times of Ottoman rule. Their customs and clothing resemble Romanian ones, but it’s not certain if their origin is from Wallachia or they just used to live there. Wallachians live in the Danubian valley and there are large communities in Belene, while around Vidin there are entire Wallachian villages. Traditionally, they make their living by fishing and therefore their cuisine is rich in fish. In the region of Vidin, smaller fish are baked on a tin plate, boned and then put in clear broth; this is how Wallachian fish soup is made. Kačamak[2] and sarmas seem to be memories from Wallachia. Sarmas wrapped in cabbage leaves are Wallachian speciality: they are quite large and are usually stewed in clay pots.

Wallachian customs have been carefully studied by ethnographic experts throughout the years; they are inherited from ancient Bulgarian and Romanian traditions, and also traditions that perhaps date back to Thracian times. The origin of the typical architecture of Wallachian villages can be identified for sure: it is an almost exact replica of 19-century Romanian architecture and in particular the famous Brancoveanu style, a mix of Eastern European, Renaissance and rural elements. A distinctive feature are short columns supporting façade arches. Many such examples can be seen in Wallachian villages, and some houses look like small countryside mansions. Churches are particularly impressive, the same as Romanian churches.  Their bell towers are strikingly different from the ones in Bulgarian villages, having nothing in common with the Neo-Byzantine style, with spiked roofs and in light colours. Wallachians are entirely Orthodox, like most Romanians. One of the versions of their origin is Bulgarian-based; some historians believe that they are ethnic Bulgarians who settled temporarily in the region of Wallachia during the Ottoman Empire’s oppressive periods. Then they returned, but their fellow countrymen got used to calling them “Wallachians”. To support this assumption, a number of local historians describe common family names in the villages, which have preserved the generic memory about ethnic Bulgarians, but were called Wallachians by the rest of the population.

Other researchers assume that their origin is rooted in Wallachia. At a certain point of time, they started crossing the Danube regularly and initially built up fishing huts. Then they seem to have settled gradually and larger-scale settlements and neighbourhoods appeared. This theory is supported by evidence about Osman Pazvantoğlu. At the end of 18 century, this breakaway governor from Vidin often plundered the region of Wallachia and harassed the local population, while he ensured protection of all ethnic groups living in the lands ruled by him. Lured by this opportunity, Wallachians chose Pazvantoğlu’s dominance and settled there permanently. This assumption raises a question though: the Vidin governor ensured protection mostly in the North West region and ruled lands in Central North Bulgaria only for a short period. This implies that Wallachians should be present only in the North West. Ethnically speaking, they look like an ancient Balkan population: light-haired, often blond, and slender, while women are usually very beautiful, with classical facial features. The language they speak sounds like old Romanian language. It is somewhat different from present-day Romanian, but Romanians have no trouble understanding them, like we understand Banat Bulgarians. Many young Wallachians have forgotten their old language and speak Bulgarian only, the way many Banat Bulgarians have forgotten Bulgarian unlike Romanian.


An excerpt from the luxury edition of Ciela with a lot of photographs

“From the Balkan Mountain to the Danube. Danubian Bulgaria – Travel Ideas” (2018)


[1] TN: maize porridge similar to the Italian polenta

[2] TN: the Bulgarian pronunciation is closer to the Hungarian Farsang than to the German equivalent Fasching  

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