In former times the River Tryavna turned the wheels of watermills and their rumble broke the silence of the valleys. Bears, lynx, deer and wild goat bred in the forests. Large trees were mirrored in the river's water and time flowed indolently. Here, near the ancient but small Bulgarian Church of the Holy Archangel, a relic of the days of the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan, the crowds, which had fled from the capital Turnovgrad, driven away by the Ottoman invaders, found a refuge. The place was hidden from the sight of the oppressors in so far as the abandoned church was overgrown with weeds, and a bear had settled in the altar, where a beautifully worked gold cross had been left untouched.
Old Tryavna was a lovely place, and was also hospitable. The troubled times seemed to spare this corner of the mountains where men lived a worthwhile life. But at the end of the 18th century Tryavna was attacked by the wandering hordes of Daalis and Kurdjalis. This happened on a cold winter day in February. The population barred the bridge over the river and put up a desperate defence for two whole weeks. But the bandits only withdrew after they had plundered the village and set fire to it. However, energetic, patient and stubborn, the Trevnentsi soon rebuilt their burnt homes. They surrounded the churchyard with stout walls, built a high stone tower with a clock, which catches the eye to this day with its beautiful proportions, and built a beautiful church to replace the small ruined one. Opposite it they built a large school. The village prospered and grew big. The dense forests, lush meadows, numerous flocks, water- and fulling-mills provided a rich livelihood, and the Trevnentsi were filled with self-confidence. They seemed to live in a village-state in the vast Ottoman Empire and considered themselves independent of the Turkish administration to such an extent that they even minted their own money made of square copper platelets with a small cross in relief. When these coins reached Turnovo, the authorities sent the craftsman who had made them to prison, but soon had to set him free, on the insistence of the Tryavna notables, on whom many things depended. The daring goldsmith Pencho Ghenyuv, who had minted the money, won the nickname of Tsar (King) Pencho, the only case in history when a king s title was given for civic daring! Anghel Kunchev, who took part in the national liberation struggle of the Bulgarians and gave his young life for freedom, was only six years old at the time, and it was in this freedom-loving and proud milieu that his fighting ideals were nurtured.
The Trevnentsi were known to be cultured, hospitable, polite and self-confident people. The men wore trousers, jackets and waist coats, some even wore frock coats, although they were made of thick homespun. The Tryavna ladies wore long skirts and short boleros with puffed sleeves and high collars. Before a wedding the bridegroom was obliged to present his bride with a velvet furlined jacket, edged with sable. After that, at a special ceremony, the young woman was presented with a beautiful piece of jewellery, called a sokai, composed of a silver-plated metal tiara, covered with beads and small coins, two chains of gold coins, and a long white head scarf, which hung down her back. The sokai gave the Tryavna lady a unique dignity, lending her height, and making her look slender and queenly.
To this day the amazing Tryavna houses line both sides of the long cobbled street; they have wide and impressive eaves with board eyebrows above the windows, their roofs are made of slates and they have tall white chimneys. Inside there were beautifully carved chests, and cupboards in which slivovitsa (plum brandy) and jam for visitors were always kept. But it is the ceilings above all which arouse admiration. They were carved to represent "suns" - symmetrical and severe, or full of movement like the ceilings in the celebrated Daskalov house.
The ground floor of each house was a shop or a workshop with a show window looking on to the street and covered at night with heavy wooden shutters. Here shoemakers made shoes and boots, cobblers measured people for slippers and clogs, furriers cut out fur caps and jackets, iron-workers made knives and other instruments, and blacksmiths made horseshoes and nails, while carpenters made painted carts and sleighs. It was a joyful, primitive life in which work and happiness went hand in hand. The town breathed, the streets lived feverishly. And at the same time indoors the rat-a-tat-tat of wooden looms was to be heard, at which the indefatigable Tryavna women wove cloths, covers, aprons, striped rugs, tufted and other blankets, and what have you!
Scented flowers grew in the wide courtyards surrounded by walls in which there were dark square niches, overgrown with ivy, and box trees and grass grew between the stone flags.
On holidays striped rugs were spread under the apple trees in blossom in the orchards. The men would get together for a good talk, while the women busily brought from the cellars the small lead flasks of brandy. The flasks would be handed round, each one drinking from the narrow opening, wiping his moustache on broad roughened palms. The housewife would already be laying tasty food in tinned copper dishes on the big table cloth, the highly spiced scent of the food mingling with that of the flowerbeds.
This was the picturesque and rich aspect of Old Tryavna, a town of craftsmen, original architecture and a great school of icon painting. Felix Kanitz, the Hungarian traveller and ethnographer, called it the Bulgarian Nuremberg because of its wonderful carvers and painters, whose works travelled far on both sides of the Balkan Range and were "eagerly sought after to decorate the homes of notables and the churches".
Today Tryavna is a climatic resort, and the old craft traditions continue in the machine-building plant, in the textile mills and the school of woodcarving - the traditions of yesterday, because the town has existed in this beautifully sheltered corner of Bulgaria for eight hundred years now.
Ventseslav Konstantinov, Tryavna
- In: "Resorts in Bulgaria", Sofia, No. 2, 1978.