The Historical Park in Bulgaria – Reliving the magical past
His eyes stare into mine as I enter his tent. He sits there right at the entrance, looking at me as if he is smiling. He is dazzling in gold but I cannot tear myself from his gaze. The eyes have a feel of timelessness about them. He is indeed ancient. “Over 7000 years ago, he probably lived somewhere between 4000-5000 BC, ” says Pierre as I gasp. ” He was probably a king or a priest and was found in a tomb in the Varna Necropolis. This is where 8 kgs of pure gold, the oldest gold in the world was also discovered” adds Pierre. He is referring to the discovery of the gold in the coastal city of Varna, in Bulgaria, which is dating back to the Copper Age. The gold was accidentally discovered along with several tombs, all aged perhaps around 4000-4500 BC. “The eyes are real though, but we recreated the man in wax,” he says. As I stand there mesmerised, his eyes bore into mine, drawing me into a different world. I am in The Historical Park in Bulgaria, one of the tourist attractions of Bulgaria which is like a time capsule, taking me on a journey into the ancient past as I learn about the History of Bulgaria. And I have just stepped into the prehistoric era, which goes back to over 10,000 years ago.
I am mesmerized the moment I enter the portals of The Historical Park, which is a must-see destination in every Bulgaria itinerary. Located in a little village called Neofit Rilski, near Varna, the Black Sea capital of Bulgaria, the park is spread over 13 hectares and will soon evolve into 55 hectares as it recreates the magic of the past. It is larger than life, a spectacle, and fantasy land, where Bulgaria history comes alive. Legends and stories echo from the walls, ancient traditions are revived and kings and knights stroll around palaces and fortresses. Joining me and my husband Sharath, in this time travel are Pierre Leonard, the “historical reconstructor” who is also my guide along with Ralitsa Petrova and Ivan Stoyanov, my hosts who manage marketing at the Historical Park.
The Historical Park recreates the history of Bulgaria from the prehistoric era and as we move chronologically, we enter the world of The Thracians, the Slavs, and the Proto Bulgarians. Ralitza explains that the park will soon include Ancient Romans as well with amphitheaters and gladiators. The Bulgarian Empires – both first and second will also be recreated as we enter the medieval era. Symbols of the past have been recreated through art and architecture. Every little artifact has been researched as they become elements of living history. Be it a hut of a nomadic tribe or a palace of a king, a temple or a tomb, the models have been reconstructed under the guidance of historians. Ralitza explains that every little detail has been scrutinized by historians – be it a costume or a weapon.
THE ARCHER – A SYMBOL OF THE HISTORICAL PARK
At the entrance of The Historical Park in Bulgaria stands a tall archer, cast in bronze with a bow and arrow, aiming for the stars. He seems to be provoking the gods. ” He is inspired by the Thracians, a contemporary of the Greeks who reigned over Bulgaria in the ancient times and is a symbol of the Historical Park, ” says Pierre. The story goes that the Thracians , who were an integral part of the history of Bulgaria were not afraid of the mighty gods of nature and even as lighting struck the sky and thunder rolled, they darted arrows at the gods, instead of bowing down to them. “Hence, we decided that the archer represented the spirit of the Historical Park and is a metaphor of sorts. Many people said that it was impossible to build it, but we managed to do so,” adds Pierre.
A formidable fortress with a functioning drawbridge greets me as a flock of ducks float in the lakes surrounding it. Shimmering in white, the citadel, built of soapstone and bricks is a replica of the Baba Vida Fortress, built during the Second Bulgarian Empire in Vidin, along the banks of the Danube River. As I walk on the drawbridge, inside the fortress it leads me into the park’s massive entrance. Beautiful lakes surround me as I am transported into the prehistoric era.
THE PRE-HISTORIC ERA
A small village of huts and dwellings gives you an insight into the way our ancestors lived here centuries ago. The Pre Historic era is divided into Paleolithic and Neolithic as we move from the Stone Age to the Copper Age. I enter one of the huts where I can see several relics of the past like tools, pots, and ceramics used by the ancestors.
On one of the altars, there are figurines of deities and representations of the Mother Goddess, who would bless the tribes for their hunts and harvests. Pierre explains that some of these were matriarchal societies. Most of the materials used were wood, clay, and mud. It is only in the later era, that you can see some refinement in the tools, ceramics, houses and even sketches as well.
We walk into one of the huts which were modelled on those of the fishermen of the era. Another hut has a shed for cattle. In the third, I enter a small room that showcases the tools and crafts used by the men and women. Pierre explains that some of these original dwellings were apparently discovered under marshes and covered with mud and they served as models for the historians of the park to recreate them.
In the next phase, workshops and live demonstrations will be conducted in this village to showcase the rituals and traditions of these ancient communities. This is where I also meet the nameless, ageless man with the most expressive eyes as he sits in one of the huts. He was as mentioned earlier, discovered in a tomb with a scepter of gold in the area where many more tombs were excavated along with the “oldest golden treasures. “He is the one who actually welcomes the guests to this village,” says Pierre. And the history of Bulgaria begins with this man.
THE THRACIAN ERA
“Hello and welcome to my kingdom,” booms the voice of the Thracian King as I enter one of the most spectacular and grand eras of Bulgaria. As Pierre explains we are still in the ancient period, but it is also the migration era. The Thracians are a contemporary of the Greeks and are mentioned in the Illiad of Homer as well. The palace remodeled here is the only one of its kind in Bulgaria today. Built with pure marble, it is a replica of the palace of the Thracian King, Sevt 111 built in the town of Sevtopolis. When I ask Ivan if I can see it, he says that no one can as it was lying at the bottom of Lake Koprinka and was discovered when a dam was being constructed.
I am however called upon to sit in the king’s court, as I learn to duel the Thracian way and also partake wine from a golden plate, as in the Thracian tradition. In a few moments however, I am in a different era. There is another royal visitor to the court and the king forges a friendship with his guest and invites him to his abode as they drink wine together and seal their loyalties. Sitting there I am virtually lost in the past.
There is a temple to the Mother Goddess near the palace but the monuments that fascinate me are the tombs that are recreated here with all the frescos and the chambers, replete with the offerings The Thracian tombs are the only links to an entire civilisation and a couple of them are among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Bulgaria. While there are several tombs found in different parts of Bulgaria, the important tombs are in and around the Rose Valley.
I did not have the time to visit them, but the replicas at the Historical Park gives me a peek into the rituals and beliefs of the Thracians. The three tombs represented here are different in their own way , mentions Ivan and are samples of their different traditions. They are the tombs of Pomorie, Alexandrovo, and Shveshtari. While most of the Thracian kings were buried, some would be cremated and their ashes kept in the niche. Most of the tombs were adorned with frescos. Some of them showcased a hunting tradition and a funeral feast.
In the tomb of Alexandrovo, you can see the depiction of a hunting scene where a man, mounted on a horse is attacking a horse. A naked man with a double axe stands closeby, depicting the patron God, Zalmoxis who is the Thracian equivalent of the Greek God, Zeus. It is believed that the deity is assisting the kings in hunting and the axe represents power. Ralitza explains that the Thracians believed in the afterlife and one of the tombs even had a staircase to heaven where they believed that the king could speak to God and communicate the messages to the people even after his death.
THE SLAVIC and PROTO BULGARIAN ERA
The wheels of time are changing and am in the next era in Bulgaria history. We move on to the next village where the Slavs come in. And as we explore the village with their living traditions and customs, I am fascinated by another village next door.
This is when the First Bulgarians arrived on the scene and they are referred to as Proto Bulgarians . They are nomadic and their tents and huts showcase a glimpse into their erstwhile life.
This is also where Ralitza and Ivan narrate the story about a man and his five sons, a story that narrates the origins of Bulgaria. It is believed that a man, who was a nomad came to Bulgaria with his five sons. As the sons grew, all of them moved to different regions like modern day Italy, Kazakhstan, Volga, Hungary and the fifth stayed in Bulgaria. He eventually created Bulgaria and was the representation of the First Bulgarian or Proto Bulgarian.
Personally for me, I am fascinated by this settlement as it is one of the most vibrant villages. Pierre who is with me suddenly vanishes into thin air and reappears donned in colourful costumes of a Proto Bulgarian. Suddenly there is a duel and a crowd gathers. .And then he , along with his fellow tribesmen, demonstrate the various weapons used by the nomadic tribes.
There are archery and sword fights. And then the stage is taken over by Nina Yankova, a champion in her own right. As the horse gallops away, the arrows come flying in lightning speed. For a moment I feel like I am in the midst of a tournament where superlative archery skills are showcased. Ralitza later tells me that the park will host a grand international archery contest next year which is open to participants from all over the world
The flutter of wings beckon me and I am then amidst a falconry with peregrine falcons and crested hawks showcase how the birds were used in hunting. Martin, Ralitza’s son who breeds the falcons tells us that they are the fastest birds in the world. Later in the evening, we are in the fields to see the birds being trained as they hunt on their own and feed on smaller birds before returning to their homes. Martin’s passion for birds and falcons, in particular comes alive as he personally takes care of the birds. As the sun sets, adding a tinge of crimson to the landscape, I slowly snap out of my dreamy journey in the magic past and land in the present world.
The fantasy ride eventually ends as I experience the magic of the history of Bulgaria. But the Thracians and the Proto Bulgarians have beckoned me with their legends as I would love to get on a magic carpet again and head to the Historical Park, one of the latest tourist attractions in Bulgaria.
WHY VISIT THE HISTORICAL PARK
The answer is very simple. For the sheer magic. This is where history and fantasy meets, as every era is experienced by a traveller. There are living traditions and rituals and workshops and demonstrations that take you right into the past and convert you into a time traveller. You are literally taken away from the present world and are swept away in a land of legends . And yet historically, every aspect of the Historical Park in Bulgaria is authentic and original. The sheer scale of the Historical Park in Bulgaria mesmerises you, the stories bring the past alive.
However personally for me, one thing stands out. The passion of the people who work in the Historical Park in Bulgaria, be it Pierre, Ralitza, Ivan . Their pride in Bulgaria and their passion regarding the history – this resonates with me as I journey with them across different eras.
The Historical Park is located in Neofit Rilski in Varna in Bulgaria. While the villages of the Prehistoric Era along with that of the Thracians, The Slavs, and the Proto Bulgarians are open for tourists, the other settlements will be completed by 2023 and by then more chapters of the history of Bulgaria will be brought live here. The First and Second Bulgarian Empires will be recreated in addition to the capital towns like the present-day Veliko Tarnovo, where the formidable Tsarevets Castle stands.
Besides workshops and demonstrations, tournaments, festivals, and events will be held here as well. A medieval village with guest houses, conference and meeting halls and restaurants for tourists will spring up in the venue even though the village of Neofit Rilski looks straight out of a picture postcard and has guest houses for tourists. There are already a couple of restaurants and cafes in the Historical Park today and more will be launched as well. The food served here, both vegetarian and meat are typical of what was served in the ancient eras and imported vegetables or processed food is avoided here. Even the grains used are spelt or Einkorn wheat, also called limets in Bulgarian, that was typical of the era that suited the lives of the nomadic tribes. There are many reasons to visit Bulgaria and the Historical Park in Bulgaria is definitely one of them.
I was staying in Neofit Rilski, in one of the quaint and charming wooden houses. Blended with stone, the architecture resembled some of the old houses from the medieval era and the interiors were designed keeping in mind the local aesthetics. There was a lovely garden with fruit trees growing as well.
The village is also being developed as more such guest houses are being built. There is even a prototype of the Historical Park here. Although the two-bedroom guest house had a kitchen, our meals were brought in from the restaurant at the Historical park and we were served authentic and traditional vegetarian food. I experienced true Bulgarian hospitality and my heart wells with gratitude and nostalgia as I wish I can head back there in a heartbeat.