In a Dying Village, Signs of Life

A dispatch from the Bulgarian village of Stoilovo, population fifty, all adults, no children, history and wildlife galore

By / June 2013

Everyone in Stoilovo was wearing the same blue, button-up coat. Whether plucking weeds from the garden, herding goats down the street, or lounging on the porch for a midday swill, the people in this remote Bulgarian village in the Strandja mountains donned identical navy jackets. They were characters in costume for a story I could not understand.

My lodging, a four-room bed and breakfast so unpretentious as to lack a name, was on the square in Stoilovo. My host was the effervescent Zlatina. Hristo, her husband, had built the sturdy two-floor structure with his own hands five years prior. Upon arrival I quickly discovered that the couple didn’t know English. Without a shared language we had no way to navigate room keys and breakfast plans beyond smiles and gestures. And I had no way to ask about blue coats, much less the host of other questions cluttering my mind.

The village of Stoilovo, population fifty (all adults, no children), is the oldest within Strandja National Park, a nature preserve tucked into the far southeast corner of Bulgaria in the far southeast corner of Europe. I had come in June to purposely lose myself for three days in the expansive forest, some 10,000 square kilometers of bubbling rivers, dense flora, and thriving wildlife.

Isolated as a Soviet border zone for over 50 years and still absent any industrial footprint, Strandja boasts one of the few pristine, unaltered river systems in Europe. The reserve supports a remarkable biodiversity including majestic black storks and playful river otters. But beyond the natural beauty, it was the villages sprinkled throughout Strandja’s gorgeous landscape that captured my curiosity. Who were these people? How long had they been here? And how did they survive? Wherever I went my queries went unsatisfied. The most strained attempts to extract an English word or two came up empty. I was on the European continent but obviously pushing against its borders.

Photograph by Brian McKanna Bridge over the Veleka River

As I hiked and drove my way through the forest, I encountered numerous small outcroppings of homes and impoverished villages. Without fail there would always be a small Orthodox church in the center of town. Malko Turnovo, the largest of the settlements with a population of 3,000, had a school, two churches, and a phone booth-sized souvenir shop peddling magnets, astrological jewelry, and colorful hand-woven pouches. The village of Brashlian, north of Malko, was a definite anomaly in the region, featuring many well-preserved wooden homes in the bungalow style.

Still further north, Zvezdets looked like a town with more history than future. On the way, I followed the signs down a narrow, rolling road to Petro Niva (Peter’s Field) where a monument, museum, and church mark the site of the 1903 uprising of Bulgarian rebels against the occupying Ottomans. The day I visited, a lone caretaker handled a sickle to slice tall grass on a hillside overlooking the magnificent Veleka River valley. Far across the gorge and atop the hills beyond, small Stoilovo came back into view.

The village was full of wooden shacks slowly collapsing under time. Trucks hobbled by flat tires had been left in the streets to rust. Stray donkeys loitered in the gravel alleys. But curtained windows and tended vegetable gardens revealed that a few homes were still occupied. Across from my lodgings, a collection of laminated papers attached to the front of a crude shanty caught my eye. Written in Cyrillic, an ancient Slavic script, each page featured a person’s photograph accompanied by a description. Again I was left to wonder. Were they announcements, political ads, or missing person posters?

As the evening sky began to pale, I saw a man walking toward me, his arms bulging with three large bottles of liquor. As it turned out, he was returning from the town’s only store, also run by Zlatina. On the shelves were bread, chocolates, water, and a smattering of local potables— the only food available for miles. The next evening, after a day trip to the Black Sea, I made my way back north up the road toward Zvezdets. Low in the valley, beside the cold Veleka River, I tumbled upon a small guesthouse and restaurant called Kovach. My 20-year-old waiter, Stamen Iliev, spoke some English.

Photograph by Brian McKannaTrout baked in tomato chutney from Kovach

A first-year student at the University of Food Technologies in the major Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, Stamen is studying wine and beer production. He spends weekends and summers in the Strandja valley waiting tables at his family’s restaurant. Although Plovdiv has much to offer, he calls Strandja home. “I like the water,” he says. “I can’t live without these rivers or the sea.”

I asked him my backlog of questions. He told me about the culture of Strandja. Still today, he said, in the village of Bulgar, firewalkers (called nestinari) perform a ritual ceremony dancing barefoot across burning coals. In a mélange of ancient paganism and Eastern Orthodoxy, these performances fall on celebration days for patron saints such as Constantine and Helena.

Stamen went on to explain the pictures I had seen in Stoilovo and other villages. Whenever someone from these village dies, he said, friends and family post a public obituary at a significant location. Every subsequent year, on the anniversary of the death, they rehang a memorial. The tradition goes on until there is no one left to remember. Slowly, Stamen explained, the villagers and the villages are dying off. “There are more donkeys than people in Stoilovo now,” he added. “When someone dies, their donkey is left to roam free.”

After a dinner offering of homemade pork sausages, fresh fish, and cheeses made from water buffalo milk, I returned again to Stoilovo. A British couple sat on benches outside the bed and breakfast next to Zlatina. To my surprise, retired teachers Kathy and Steve were not guests of the inn. They were residents of Stoilovo, having retired to the village four years ago. Kathy has picked up Bulgarian and now helps Zlatina with her shop and guesthouse. Steve, while not as fluent in the language, is best friends with Zlatina’s husband, Hristo. Both in their late 50’s, they are among the youngest people in town.

Photograph by Brian McKanna Zlatina outside of her inn in Stoilovo

Steve and Hristo keep busy restoring buildings in the village. On the side, Hristo farms a small plot of land. His father-in-law milks goats every day for cheese, yogurt, and butter. Hristo and the village men hunt wild boar every October. Steve told me that Hristo made 500 liters of red wine from his vineyard last year. Along with the 50 or so permanent residents of Stoilovo, he tries to make the best of what’s left.

Through my newfound translators, Hristo explained more about the history of Stoilovo. Some 440 years ago it was founded by one of his ancestors. Today, everyone left in the village is related in one way or another to him. The elderly that remain make do with a measly pension check and their garden yield. The Strandja region, located on the border with Turkey, had once been a part of the Ottoman Empire. Later, it came under Soviet control and swarmed with Russian and Bulgarian troops. No longer occupied, the towns now have more freedom. But they have also lost the economic benefit of a military presence.

When I get around to asking about the blue coats, Hristo slides out a smile and Steve quickly answers, “Bulgarians don’t spend money if they don’t have to.” The coats are leftovers of the communist era, a time when Zlatina, Hristo, and many of the townspeople were required to make the 70 kilometer journey to Burgas on the Black Sea coast to work in factories. The jackets that keep them warm on Stoilovo’s cool nights today are the same ones they wore on the line back then.

That was twenty years ago. And it shows in many ways how the small community of Stoilovo still lives in the past, isolated from the present. But the sense of stasis, of hewing to the old ways, carries its own kind of charm. With its thousand-year-old traditions and unspoiled rivers, Stoilovo is not an escape from reality so much as a return to it. As we parted, Kathy and Steve joined Zlatino and Hristo in the shop to finish the day over a beer. Why they would want to retire in such a place was the one question I didn’t need to ask.


Brian McKanna is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.