The incredibly scenic small town of Koprivshtitsa might be the perfect place to experience the authentic Bulgarian spirit of yore. Tucked into the deep valley of the Topolnitsa River, among the forested hills of the Sredna Gora mountains between Sofia and Plovdiv, Koprivshtitsa is a true museum town and an architectural reserve. Just imagine the sight: hundreds of brightly-coloured Bulgarian Revival houses (danger: cuteness overload!) line the winding cobblestone alleys connected by little arched bridges.
Koprivshtitsa, once a prosperous town of well-educated merchants, is remembered all over Bulgaria as the birthplace of dozens of eminent writers and revolutionaries, including some of the leading figures of the Bulgarian Revival. In 1876, it was also the focal point of the epic and tragic April Uprising against Ottoman rule, a historic moment leading up to hard-fought Bulgarian independence.
With its dazzling mix of splendid traditional architecture, dramatic history and crispy fresh mountain air, Koprivshtitsa is one of the Balkans’ most beautiful towns and an incredible journey back in time. So stay a few days, enjoy the hearty food and the strong rakia, delve into the local lore and explore the surroundings. But before you go, read on to get acquainted with Koprivshtitsa, the jewel of the Bulgarian Revival!
When to go to Koprivshtitsa
If you’re into historical reenactments, then by all means mark the date 1 May for your visit. It’s when the heroic outbreak of the April Uprising (on 20 April Old Style) is reenacted by over 200 volunteers, with Bulgarian rebels taking a stand against the Ottoman military. This is also Koprivshtitsa’s town feast, so expect lots of visitors for the day.
Another good idea would be to travel to Koprivshtitsa for the National Fair of Bulgarian Folk Art, a major folklore fair in August. Started in 1965, the fair takes place every year, though it’s every five years (next in 2020 and 2025) that it truly takes centre stage. Then, thousands of participants and guests flock to the Voyvodenets meadows above town for an unforgettable three-day show of Bulgarian song and dance.
Otherwise, Koprivshtitsa is worth a visit in all seasons. It’s a popular weekend destination for Bulgarians, so during weekdays you’ll encounter much fewer tourists. Mind that some of the museum houses are closed on Monday or Tuesday though.
Koprivshtitsa sits at 1060m above sea level, so expect a long snowy winter, a late spring, a refreshingly cool summer (temperatures very rarely above 30°C) and an autumn chill already noticeable on early September nights.
How to go to Koprivshtitsa
The most convenient way to get to Koprivshtitsa from Sofia might be by train. The scenic journey takes 1.5 to 2.5 hours from the Sofia Central Station. The 07:00 and 13:19 trains are your fastest options. Mind that the Koprivshtitsa train station is very far from town, as in absolutely not walking distance, or almost 10 km to be precise. There’s a minibus meeting most trains and unless you’ve got your pickup organized, you’re pretty much forced to use its services.
By car, Koprivshtitsa is a panoramic two-hour drive on the scenic Sub-Balkan road from Sofia. It can be a great stopover on the way to Plovdiv or a starting point for a tour of the Sub-Balkan Valleys, with further visits to Karlovo and the Rose Valley of Kazanlak. As of 2019, there are no minibuses from Sofia to Koprivshtitsa, only from Plovdiv.
Five birds with one stone: discover the five museum houses
It’s the collection of museum houses, both elegant in architecture and ripe in history, that most visitors come to Koprivshtitsa for. And though you might be missing some of the historical context if you’re not Bulgarian, a tour of at least a few of the houses is still an unmissable part of your trip to Koprivshtitsa. You can visit five of the houses with a day ticket for just 6 BGN (3 €) and the private Oslekov House charges its own ticket for 2 BGN (1 €). Most of the captions inside are in English as well as Bulgarian, so don’t worry, you won’t be totally lost as to who the house is dedicated to and why they’re important.
Like many other houses in Koprivshtitsa, the museum houses were built in the early to mid-19th century in a unique Bulgarian Revival style. They’re vibrant in their colours, Baroque-inspired in their decoration and a mixture of Ottoman and vernacular Bulgarian styles in their architecture.
If you’re into literature and politics, start your visit at the Karavelov House, an ensemble of three houses sharing a peaceful, flowered courtyard. Inside, you’ll learn about the brothers Lyuben and Petko Karavelov. The former was a leading Bulgarian publicist, writer and revolutionary, an exile in Russia, Serbia, Austria-Hungary and Romania. His younger brother, on the other hand, was a prominent politician, serving four times as prime minister of the nascent Bulgarian kingdom in the 1880s and 1900s.
The Debelyanov House is a fitting destination for lovers of poetry and broken hearts. It was the home one of Bulgaria’s most lyrical poets, Dimcho Debelyanov, whose life was cut short on the Macedonian front of World War I. This blue-painted wooden house also a features a monument to Debelyanov’s mother, to whom his perhaps most memorable rhymes were dedicated.
The affluent Kableshkov House impresses with its interior symmetry, especially with the glazed salon on the second floor and the elaborately wood-carved ceilings. It tells the story of Todor Kableshkov, the courageous and patriotic son of a wealthy merchant family who led the April Uprising in Koprivshtitsa and died at age 25 after his capture by the Ottomans.
The Lyutov House is another 1850s merchant’s home with extraordinary murals depicting various cities in Europe and beyond that the owner visited on his travels. On the lower floor, you can discover the craft of making plasti, a local sort of thick wool fabric, hand-made and coloured.
The all-wooden Benkovski House will introduce you to the curious figure of Georgi Benkovski. A wayward revolutionary and another leading figure of the April Uprising, he travelled all over the Orient as a frieze textile dealer, learning seven foreign languages and adopting the name of a Polish émigré whose passport he acquired. Much like Kableshkov, Benkovski died young as the April Uprising was crushed.
Explore the rest of Koprivshtitsa’s National Revival heritage
In the grand, bright yellow and almost East Asian-looking Palaveev House, you’ll learn about Koprivshtitsa’s all-time greatest benefactor and donor, the entrepreneur Nencho Palaveev. A merchant active in Cairo and Alexandria, Palaveev was a true world traveler who had business contacts well beyond the Ottoman lands, from the Far East to Great Britain. Before his death, he bequeathed his entire fortune to Koprivshtitsa.
The Oslekov House, a private museum, catches the eye with its colourful frescoes in a Baroque style, both on the exterior and interior. The murals depict anything from landscapes to floral and geometric motifs and the rooms each carry a name inspired by the dominant paint colour – the Blue, Red and Yellow Room. The house is an ethnographic museum presenting the local way of life in the 19th century, with a focus on frieze textile production.
The two churches
Koprivshtitsa is rightfully proud of its two Orthodox churches. The older and smaller Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God, slightly dug into the ground to conform to Ottoman laws, impresses with its bright blue paint and geometric details. It dates to 1817, although the bell tower was added in 1896. Many of the town’s most eminent sons were buried in the surrounding graveyard, including Palaveev, Debelyanov and Kableshkov. The bigger Church of Saint Nicholas is only slightly newer. Erected in 1839-1842, its noble stone façade was left unplastered. Next to the eastern gate of the church yard you’ll discover an elegant drinking fountain from 1843. And inside the church, watch out for the curious donor’s portrait of Nencho Palaveev.
The old school – the Living Museum
As one of the earliest class schools in the Bulgarian lands, the Saints Cyril and Methodius School has been preserved in its original building as the Living Museum. Founded by Nayden Gerov in 1846, nowadays it functions as a cultural and educational centre. It hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions as well as offering a peek into a restored 19th-century classroom.
First Shot Fired Bridge
It might be just a little stone bridge over a little stream, but it’s loaded with historicity. Built in 1813 and originally named the Kalachev Brige, it was the site of the first shot of the April Uprising on 20 April 1876 – the Bulgarian insurgent Georgi Tihanek shot the Ottoman watchman Kara Hüseyin dead, announcing the onset of the rebellion. Today, the First Shot Fired Bridge lies in the middle of a picturesque square, surrounded by vibrant houses in a vernacular style. It’s one of Koprivshtitsa’s most instagrammable locations… particularly if you catch the bridge with a couple of goats grazing under it!
Taste the hearty Balkan flavours of Koprivshtitsa
There’s probably no place in Bulgaria where you can’t expect yummy regional treats. So yes, of course can enjoy tasty Bulgarian food in Koprivshtitsa! In fact, it’s pretty much the only kind of food you can find there – but the variety is such that you’re unlikely to get bored even if you stay longer than a weekend.
Because of Koprivshtitsa’s forested location at a higher altitude, the local cuisine is traditionally based on potatoes, sheep cheese and yogurt, foraged oyster mushrooms and hearty stews with generous amounts of meat. Needless to say, you’ll find the regular Bulgarian classics like Shopska salad and kebapche on offer too.
As for a good place to sample Koprivshtitsa’s cuisine? 20th April Complex comes fully recommended! You’ll find it right on the central square and it manages to be both spacious enough for events and intimate enough for couples and families. Tastefully renovated, it recreates the environment of an old Koprivshtitsa tavern with a slight modern touch.
Enjoy the peace and quiet of a tranquil mountain town
If you’re in need of a getaway, Koprivshtitsa might be just the safe haven you need. Stay at Family Hotel Rai, as cute and heavenly as its name suggests (in Bulgarian at least). Relish the serenity of Koprivshtitsa’s evenings, breathe in the chilly mountain air and gaze at the stars and the Moon from the comfort of the hammock in the yard. Then, retreat to your warm room in a traditional style and spend the night tucked under the thick wool blankets. And in the morning, a pleasant stroll along the Topolnitsa River and the little Riverside Park is sure to awaken your senses for the day.
Learn about traditional Bulgarian arts and crafts
As a historic commercial hub, Koprivshtitsa has a rich heritage of arts and crafts and that’s evident in practically all museum houses you can visit. In the Lyutov House, pay attention to the unique local style of lacework kene (кене), sewn with silk threads over a horse hair. And don’t miss the felt carpets called plasti (плъсти), decorated according to a traditional method in which the wool is rolled and poured over with hot water and soap.
Visit the Fulling Mill next to the First Shot Fired Bridge to see how wool was thickened and cleansed with massive water-powered wooden hammers in pre-modern Bulgaria. And if you enquire in advance about a demonstration, you might be able to see how woolen plasti are decorated by the experienced museum staff!
Venture into the verdant outdoors of Sredna Gora
Koprivshtitsa is surrounded by the woods of the Sredna Gora mountain range and the main ridge of the monumental Balkan Mountains is also within sight. So unsurprisingly, the town is an excellent hiking destination, especially if you prefer gentle forest trails rather than daunting ascents. Go on a light walk to the Voyvodenets area and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic vistas of the town and the Balkan Mountains. Pick wild berries, fragrant herbs and forest mushrooms in the lush beech forests and spot a deer or a fox if you’re lucky. Or enquire at the tourist information on the main square for an organized multi-day horse riding tour or a short and fun ride in a horse carriage!
For the slightly more ambitious hikers, Koprivshtitsa is a decent starting point for an expedition in the Tsarichina Reserve of the Central Balkan National Park. The highest summit of Sredna Gora, the forested Golyam Bogdan, is a four-hour trek from town, with several mountain huts on the way.