Kalofer, Bulgaria: A Story of Life, Lavender, & Lace

Bulgaria-Travel-Holiday-in-Kalofer

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Arriving in what was to be our home away from home in rural Bulgaria, we knew not a soul. But by the time we left Kalofer, a village tucked away in Central Bulgaria, where the livestock population quite possibly outnumbers the number of humans living there, an impromptu farewell committee was wishing us adieu.

As we rolled our bags out of town, over Kalofer’s bumpy roads spotted with droppings from the village’s numerous goat, cow, and horse residents, locals whom we’d not yet met popped their heads out over their fences exclaiming the equivalent of Bon voyage in Bulgarian.

They waved goodbye, flashed wide smiles, and head bobbles that we’d determined to be customary in the region – gestures that are reminiscent of those we encountered in India.

Our time in Kalofer had not been planned. We’d discovered the town accidentally while looking for accommodations nearby in Bulgaria’s second-largest city of Plovdiv. Kalofer seemed to be appreciated among Bulgarians because of its proximity to Bulgaria’s famed lavender and rose-growing fields, its annual Lace Festival, its well-groomed eco-trails, its monastery and convent, and its status as the birthplace of several national heroes and revolutionaries. It was also regarded as a town awash with tradition – one that was even able to retain Bulgarian customs despite nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Shawn and I had been seeking somewhere ‘authentic’, a quiet place in which we could catch up on projects. Rural Kalofer, in the shadows of the Stara Planina mountain range, seemed to fit the bill. Little did we know then that its 3,000 or so residents would serendipitously show us all the Bulgarian culture that we had been seeking. From making homemade yogurt and watching the distilling of brandy, we learned much about Bulgarian cuisine. We also had the opportunity to soak up Bulgarian arts as women spun lace and young musicians played folk tunes on bagpipes.

Homemade Booties, Jam, & Brandy: The Kindness of Strangers

In Kalofer, we found ourselves touched by the generosity of strangers. Our guesthouse owners filled our arms with flowers and succulent, homegrown tomatoes. Market vendors tossed complimentary zucchini, mini peppers, and carrots into our bag after we’d made our weekly purchases. Several motorists even pulled their cars onto roadsides, to offer us rides when we were out for a walk.

Our first night in Kalofer, we took to the town’s sleepy residential streets, wanting to get a lay of the land and the town’s logistical offerings. We spotted a pair of cows wandering the streets solo, munching on goodies they’d unearthed in garbage cans.

Heading to a Magasin (mini market), we encountered a group of four grandmothers, known as babas in Bulgarian. They were seated outside a brick home, some with canes in hand. They were gossiping, watching the livestock go by, waiting for the summer sun to slumber. We remarked that they’d likely known each other since childhood.

Dobar den,” Shawn and I said, pulling out a pair of words we’d amassed from our scant Bulgarian-language arsenal. “Good day.”

At this, the grandmothers could not contain themselves. They waved their hands enthusiastically, and tossed out sentences chock-full of unknown Slavic words, as if we had native proficiency of Bulgarian. The granny whom we deemed to have the strongest personality waved her cane in the air to make her points, as her companions giggled. We privately nicknamed her the ‘Alpha Baba’.

As students of North American body language, we instinctively nodded our heads ‘yes’ and shook our heads side to side to signify ‘no’, even while remembering that Bulgarians do precisely the opposite. In Bulgaria, a side-to-side shake or head wobble signifies ‘yes’, while the up-down nod means ‘no.’ This made the conversation ever the more confusing and lighthearted, and all we could do was laugh. Even the Bulgarian grannies chuckled, causing the wooden bench on which they were sitting to shake.

We continued on to the diminutive market just down the dusty street from the babas. With its packed shelves and attendant behind the counter waiting to fulfill our order, the setting evoked images of American general stores of decades bygone. Delightful Pippa, whom we’d come to know over the coming weeks, was curious why we were in Kalofer, a destination that tends to attract more domestic visitors than international ones. She concluded that we must be students learning Bulgarian. From that moment on, she played the role of language instructor extraordinaire, teaching us how to order yogurt, milk, and white-brine cheese (kiselo mljako, mljako, and sirenje). The vocabulary for such staples as bell peppers and bread (chushkis and hleb) would come later.

As we headed back to our guesthouse, we saw a curious lady peering down at us from her second-story window. She had snow-white hair that was wispy, like a wand of cotton candy. We waved and exchanged smiles.

The next night, the same woman, whom we’d come to know as ‘Baba Maria’ or Grandmother Maria was sitting outside her neighbor’s gate, along the sidewalk on a hilly street. We still had just a smattering of words with which to communicate. Nevertheless, within seconds, we were smiling, laughing, and gesticulating. After half an hour of banter, Baba Maria and her neighbors were showering us with surprise gifts that were handcrafted and homemade.

First, came a pair of cream-colored wool slippers, lovingly made by Baba Maria. Baba Maria motioned for me to remove my sandals, and slip the woolen socks on. She looked pleased, but not perfectly content. As an expert seamstress I think she observed that they were just a tad too large.

With mischievous grins, her female neighbors then brought out a jar of homemade pear preserves, distinctly spiced with cloves. Next, Baba Maria instructed the ladies to snip off some of the fuchsia-colored Phlox flowers growing in their front yard, so that they could craft us a bouquet.

Touched by their kindness, but eager to sneak away before they bestowed more thoughtful trinkets upon us, we prepared to head home.

But there was more hospitality to be extended before we could escape. Baba Maria, who we learned to be in her early 80s, proudly presented us with a half-liter water bottle. With a twinkle in her eye, she exclaimed, “Rakija.”

Rakija is homemade moonshine, a brandy made with everything from plums, to grapes, and even walnuts. Having spent several months in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, we knew that Rakija could pack a powerful punch.

Baba Maria took off the plastic lid and encouraged us to take a sip. She carefully watched our expressions as we tossed the lids full of high-proof alcohol into our mouths. With our tongues on fire, we tried valiantly to flash the widest of grins.

Dobro!” We smiled as we tried to fan the flames inside our mouths.

Baba Maria pointed to the bottle, then to herself. She wanted to be sure that we knew that she’d crafted the Rakija herself.

By the time we left Kalofer about five weeks later, Baba Maria, wanting to be sure I had slippers with the perfect fit, had made three more pairs for me. They ranged in hues from baby-pink and red, to winter white. Xristina, her neighbor with a penchant for making the delectable clove preserves, even knitted Shawn a pair of earthy brown socks that came up to his calf, thus ensuring his toes were warm in winters ahead.

Our hearts swelled from being the recipients of such generosity. And, suffice it to say that our mouths were ablaze at least once more when presented with a second bottle of Rakija from the ladies, followed by a third from our guesthouse hosts.

Some nights, we chatted with Baba Maria’s neighbors while watching the town’s dance troupe practice traditional Bulgarian steps. The men and women of all ages held hands as they twirled in a circle. Sometimes, they looked as though they were in deep concentration, making sure to get the fanciful footwork just right. But mostly, they laughed easily and smiled. Whenever we saw this practice, I always left with a warm feeling in my heart because of the lovely sense of community that we had just witnessed.

Another evening, we encountered a gentleman on a residential street. He saw that we were amused by his goats, which were nibbling on bushes cascading over a fence onto the sidewalk. He made a beeline for his pear trees, snipped off a few plump specimens, and handed them to us. We never saw him again, but we haven’t forgotten his thoughtful gesture, nor those flavorful pears.

Greeting Kalofer’s ‘Kids’ As They Come Home

A dispatch on Kalofer would not be complete without mentioning the daily goat processions. When we first arrived in town, we noticed goats walking unattended on the streets at sunset. Stopping at a home’s gate, they nudged it with their heads until someone answered it. We learned later that this ritual really was the ‘kids’ coming home.

Taken under the wing of new German-Bulgarian friends Elena and Poldi, we were invited to watch the evening goat procession. Together, on the outskirts of town, we met a cluster of goat owners who had gathered to greet their goats.

Each morning, Elena and Poldi explained, a Kalofer goatherder would collect his charges and take them out into the surrounding hillsides to graze. He was responsible for about 300 goats, and earned roughly 3 Lev (USD $1.75) as payment, per goat, per month.

As if there was a dust devil or impending tornado, the dirt soon swirled in the air as the hooves of several hundred goats hit the road. Amazingly, the goats were able to recognize their masters who had come to greet them. Those who didn’t have owners waiting for them, continued on to their respective homes. There, a nudge of a gate would signify to their owners that they were home, ready to come in for an evening feast.

After watching the goat procession, Elena and Poldi took us to their cousins’ home so that we could watch their goats being milked. The cousins, Elena and Xristo, told us that one goat could produce about a liter (roughly a quarter of a gallon) of milk a day.

Cousins Elena and Xristo then treated us to a feast of traditional Bulgarian fare: the ubiquitous Shopska Salad (diced cucumbers, tomatoes and white-brine cheese), a rice and pork dish, Banitsa (bread stuffed with cheese) and Lokum-filled pastries. The pièce de résistance was goat jerky flambée, which created a dramatic nighttime dish. Of course, Rakija and homemade wine also made prominent appearances at the table.

As the evening wore on, Cousin Elena sang songs attesting to Kalofer’s past as a rose-oil producing town. The lyrics described pretty petals and plump apples floating down the stream, and the perfume of roses in the air. Sadly, those factories have since closed, leaving Kalofer and much of Bulgaria still developing. However, the ladies’ heartfelt singing carried us back to a gentler time in Kalofer’s history.

Such acts of hospitality would continue, much due to the thoughtful introductions that our Bulgarian-German friends made to help us feel welcome in the community. We’d met Elena and Poldi because of their charismatic pooch, François, a boisterous French Bulldog. Following this sidewalk meeting, Elena and Poldi had swiftly invited us into their home to show off renovation projects. This mini tour was followed by an impromptu feast, and a sharing of photographs, while the dialogue was mostly in German. As the night wore on, a violent storm swept through the village, causing the electricity to go out for hours. This didn’t dampen the mood of our spontaneous feast; instead, Poldi used their laptop and candles to illuminate their dining room so that we could see each other’s faces.

We stayed at our new friends’ home until just after midnight, making the walk home on streets filled with branches disrupted by the powerful storm. On the way home, we also discovered that some of Kalofer’s loose dogs were not as hospitable – rather many were quite intimidating as they guarded the streets in front of their homes. On this night, I was so frightened by a pair of very vocal, aggressive dogs that I prepared to hop onto a vehicle for safety. Fortunately, Shawn was able to use his booming voice to keep the animals at bay. This incident made us happy that we’d had our rabies shots, and we vowed to never again stay out so late.

A Weaving Lesson & ‘The Rear Window’

Aside from daily goat and cow processions and free-roaming dogs, we also witnessed vignettes reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Rear Window. Instead of being able to see the comings and goings of urban dwellers in New York City, we were regularly privy to the happenings in village residents’ homes.

Next door to our second guesthouse, for example, our balcony overlooked a backyard filled with chickens, two pigs, and a protective dog. We watched each morning as the household’s female resident put fresh helpings of food and water inside the pigs’ pen. She and her husband didn’t seem to have any interactions with the pigs, and when we saw meat hooks hanging on an adjacent support, we understood why. Though I do eat poultry and fish and I realize that it’s hypocritical for me to be sensitive about the prospect of seeing animals killed, I also felt thankful that we were not in that apartment when it came time to witness the slaughter of that pair of pigs.

Not long before our departure from Kalofer, we were invited to the home of Daniela, a former dental assistant eager to begin a weaving business specializing in making rugs featuring Kalofer’s traditional patterns.

Greeting us with a shot of Rakija and a dessert of candied plums in syrup, Daniela proudly showed us her newest acquisition – a wooden loom so massive that it consumed an entire room. Woodworm holes in the rich wood, paired with Daniela’s anecdotes, told us that this loom had an impressive history. Daniela said that she’d purchased it from Kalofer’s convent, and that it was likely 100 years old.

Daniela pointed out that her first carpet would take about two weeks to complete. Once she became more confident on the loom, however, she expected to be able to weave one carpet per week.

With our German-Bulgarian friends translating German into Bulgarian and vice versa, we answered Daniela’s questions about how to best market her creations. On a subsequent visit, Daniela, ever the gracious hostess, prepared a veritable smorgasbord of treats. Her selection included: a pudding dessert made from rice, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and tender, steamed zucchini; Banitsa bread; and homemade jam produced with apples, apricots and plums from Daniela’s own garden.

As we said our farewells and walked out Daniela’s front door, she placed a tiny wooden vessel containing Bulgaria’s prized rose oil into my hands. It was wrapped in a decorative handkerchief that bore the image of a Bulgarian maiden in colorful dress, picking a basket of rose petals.

Time to Say Goodbye

After two wonderful months in Kalofer, it came time to bid farewell to the people that had treated us with such kindness and generosity. While sad to leave the tiny town, we were eager to explore more of the country. We’d already seen its capital, Sofia, and Plovdiv, but we also wanted to make stops in Veliko Turnovo, and two Black Sea cities.

En route to Kalofer’s bus stop on that last day, we were met by Elena and Poldi. Elena ran into her garden to gather a small bouquet of herbs as a farewell gesture.

“This is a tradition in Bulgaria,” she explained. Keep the bouquet watered in your train’s cabin, and beside your bed tonight at your new hotel. The herb will keep you calm and relaxed.”

Elena and Poldi were insistent about paying our bus fare to the train station, since they’d not been able to personally escort us there in their own car.

With sentimental memories of animals processions, and dinners illuminated by lightning or sizzling goat flambée now swirling in our minds, we bid farewell to our new friends and to Kalofer. At the train station, we would be greeted by a new trio of stray dogs, and within moments we were watching Kalofer’s lavender and sunflower-filled valley get smaller and smaller through a cabin window dressed with raindrops.

Kalofer and her residents had given us exactly what we had been seeking, and we hope we can someday repay their kindness to other international visitors.

Kalofer Bulgaria Horse and Wagon 2

Statue of Hristo Botev, Kalofer, Bulgaria

Kalofer’s distinctive statue of Hristo Botev, a Bulgarian national hero, poet, and revolutionary. He was born in Kalofer in 1848.

Bulgarian Traditional Folk Dancing Costumes

Young women clad in traditional Bulgarian costume dance at Kalofer’s annual Lace Festival.

Kalofer Bulgaria Folk Dancing

Kalofer Lace Festival Bulgaria

Intricate lace on display at the Lace Festival. Kalofer residents have been making lace for more than a century. The artisans initially drew inspiration from traditional Belgian patterns, but over time they developed their own designs

Kalofer Lace Festival Bulgaria

Lacemakers of all ages demonstrate their talent at the festival. On the left, a young woman puts an innovative twist on traditional patterns using green thread below, and even fashioning lace designs into her necklace. On the right, a girl’s steady hands create the makings of a floral design.

Lace Making Kalofer Bulgaria

Back at our guesthouse, Nina, who learned how to make lace from her grandmother, works on a new piece of a butterfly (left). On the right, one of Nina’s completed designs, fashioned out of gold thread.

Orthodox church Kalofer Bulgaria

One of Kalofer’s numerous churches.

Kalofer Monastery Bulgaria

Slender beeswax candles all aglow in the town’s women’s monastery (right).

Maria

Maria, known affectionately as Baba Maria (Grandmother Maria) by the locals greets us from her home’s second-story window. She was one of the first Kalofer residents that we met, and by the time we left the village, she’d hand-knitted three beautiful pairs of slippers for me. While out on our evening walks, we’d regularly see Baba Maria.

Bulgarian Hand Knit Booties

Two of Baba Maria’s beautiful slippers with which she surprised me.

Kalofer Bulgaria Church

Frescoes on an Eastern Orthodox church are illuminated during the golden hour.

Kalofer Bulgaria Architecture

Swallows nest among the Socialist-style art of Kalofer’s community center.

Bulgarian Lavender Field Kalofer

An afternoon walk just outside of Kalofer led us to this stunning field of lavender. Bulgaria is the world’s top producer.

Bulgarian lavender near Kalofer

Kalofer countryside

Golden wheat dances in the air on a hot summer’s day.

Shawn interacts with horse Kalofer

A young horse greets Shawn.

Kalofer Bulgaria Horse and Wagon

Half Timbered Building Bulgaria

The half-timbered construction of an old barn.

Kalofer Bulgaria Residents

Just before sunset, it’s common to see people of all ages – but particularly older ladies – out gossiping on wooden benches. We had lots of lively exchanges with these babas. We’re not really sure what was discussed. :)

Kalofer Bulgaria Cat and Goat

Animals abound in Kalofer. One evening, we met the gentleman on the right as he was picking up his ‘kids’ from the town’s goatherd procession. More on that below!

Horse-Drawn Cart and Scythe in Bulgaria

A man holds a forbidding-looking scythe.

Rose and Olives in Bulgaria

We had ample opportunities to practice learning the Cyrillic alphabet while in Kalofer. It’s a must to learn some basics so that you can decipher the signs, such as these olives (right). On the left, Bulgaria’s beautiful roses. The country is a top rose-oil producer.

Peppers Bulgaria Fresh Market Kalofer

Enticing peppers or chushkis (чушки) fill a market stand. The peppers favored heavily on our summer menu. We sliced them into salads, stuffed them with rice and cheese, and grilled them.

Bulgaria Kalofer Fresh Produce Market

Each Thursday, Kalofer had a larger fresh produce market. We’d stuff our canvas bags with a bounty of zucchini, baby eggplants, cucumbers, peaches, potatoes and apples.

Bulgarian Groceries

There are lots of hot tomato and pepper-based types of sauce on market shelves in Bulgaria. We loved trying new varieties and incorporating them into our dishes.

To Market in Kalofer Bulgaria

We return to our guesthouse, the Iliikova House, following a fresh market shopping mission. In the background is the tower of the women’s monastery.

Kalofer Bulgaria Shop

Travant goat Bulgaria Kalofer

A vintage Trabant (car produced in the former East Germany), a curious goat, and two chatting ladies.

Kalofer Bulgaria horse

mirabelle plum

One afternoon, our host at the Stara Planina, offered to accompany us to the neighborhood distillery so that we could see Rakija being produced. The men first harvested these Mirabelle plums, then allowed them to ferment for three weeks in large plastic barrels.

Kalofer Bulgaria Distillery

Two distillations take place using these ovens, then the Rakija-to-be is allowed to stand for one month in waist-high barrels.

Bulgaria Distilling Rakija

Locals pay about 30 Lev per distillation to use this equipment (roughly USD $17.00)

Locals in Kalofer Bulgaria

We found the people in Kalofer to be curious, welcoming and helpful. Todor, the gentleman on the right, helped us as we tried to decipher the bus schedule pictured behind him and Shawn. Telling us that it had just been updated online, he asked for our email addresses, and sent us the proper information a few hours later. Before we left this spot, he shared a few of these fresh raspberries from his garden. And, during subsequent email correspondence, when we learned that he was a talented pianist, he even shared some of his digital performances with us.

Kalofer Bulgaria Hristo Botev Statue

kalofer-guesthouse-hosts

Our guesthouse hosts, Stefan and Tony, and their little son, Iliya. Their business, Iliikova House, offered a peaceful common garden area, and beautiful views of the surrounding forest and mountain peak.

Chushki Burek Stuffed Peppers Bulgaria

One afternoon, Tony taught me how to make Chushki Burek, a beloved Bulgarian dish comprised of peppers hollowed out, then stuffed with an egg and crumbled feta cheese mixture. The dish is then filled with a bit of water, and dollops of butter, and popped in the oven until the peppers are nicely roasted. We made this dish independently many times after my cooking lesson with Tony, and even added a bit of rice to the filling.

Bulgarian Yogurt and Dishes

On the left, the product of another cooking lesson chez Tony and Stefan – homemade Bulgarian yogurt. You can find the yogurt post and lesson here. On the right, the thoughtful trinkets given to us by Daniela and Elena, other Kalofer locals who extended us warm hospitality. The gifts included a wooden vial of Bulgarian rose oil, a handkerchief, and dried lavender and rose petals.

Bulgarian Banitsa Pastry Cheese

Sometimes it can be hard to abstain from gluten when presented with tempting new foods such as this overflowing platter of squares of Banitsa bread!

Bulgarian Food

In addition to the Banitsa above, Daniela, a former dental assistant and weaver, presented us with streusel-topped dessert squares, and homemade plum jam (left). On the right, locals continue to spoil us with culinary delights, this time at the home of Elena and Xristo. The fiery dish here is best described as a goat beef jerky flambé.

Bulgarian Cheese

Cheese, made by new friends, Elena and Xristo, and produced from their own goats’ milk. It’s not often that we get to try such fresh cheese – delicious!

French Bulldog in Bulgaria

Shawn plays with pup, François, whose outgoing nature led us to meet and befriend his German and Bulgarian masters, Elena and Poldi.

Kalofer Goat Procession Bulgaria

Poldi, who hails from Germany, coupled with his wife, Elena, and dog, François, served as excellent ambassadors to Kalofer. In addition to being invited to their home to try traditional dishes, the couple took us out to see Kalofer’s evening goat procession – when a few hundred of the ‘kids’ come down from the mountains. The goatherder watches about 300 goats, and earns roughly 3 Lev per goat per month. That’s approximately US$1.75 per goat.

Rural Bulgaria Rooster Goats

Feeding goats Bulgaria

Host Xristo introduces us to two of his four goats. He and his wife, Elena, also have chickens. They previously had horses and pigs.

Dinner in Bulgaria

Poldi, Shawn and host, Elena, share a fantastic meal and a hearty laugh. Dinner consisted of homemade wine, Rakija, Banitsa, Shopska Salad, Goat Flambé, and a tasty soup.

Kalofer Bulgaria Mountains

The surrounding countryside.

Kalofer Ecotrail Bulgaria Signs

Leaving Kalofer proper, we headed out towards the area’s beloved ecotrail (sign on left). The hike would take us past the men’s monastery, with glimpses of beautiful mountain vistas.

Monastery Flowers in Kalofer bulgaria

A painting and lantern at the men’s monastery (left) and mountain wildflowers (right).

Ecotrail Kalofer

Shawn stands at the entrance to Kalofer’s ecotrail or ekoputeka.

Kalofer Bulgaria Ecotrail

Though it took a while to reach the ecotrail’s entrance on foot, we were soon rewarded with a lush canopy of foliage to cool us.

Kalofer Ecotrail Bulgaria

Dance Practice Kalofer Bulgaria Circle

There’s a nice sense of community in Kalofer, with residents regularly participating in various activities together, such as this dancing troupe.

New friends in Kalofer

Pippa, our impromptu Bulgarian-language instructor (left) and Xristina (right), who knitted Shawn a handsome pair of slippers, and shared a jar of her fantastic clove-pear preserves with us.

Kalofer Residents

We happened upon Baba Maria, Krasimira, Xristina, and friends out and about one evening. Of course, Baba Maria had another pair of slippers which she had generously made for me!

Kalofer Town Center

Kalofer, Bulgaria Monastery

Kalofer Bulgaria Guesthouse

Sharing a bottle of Bulgarian red wine with adventurous independent travelers from Belgium (left) and the Netherlands (right).

Kalofer Bulgaria Landscape

Bulgarian Grapes

Grapes await harvesting in the courtyard of our other guesthouse, the Stara Planina Hotel.

Stoyan and family

The family-owned Stara Planina Hotel is run by Stoyan and his wife. Stoyan heard that we were curious about cultural activities, so he thoughtfully arranged for us to watch lace and Rakija (liquor) being made.

Weaving on Bulgarian Loom

Working on a loom that’s more than a century old, Kalofer resident Daniela continues weaving work on a rug. When we left Kalofer, Daniela had just started her business. Since I originally published this post, I was delighted to learn that her business is now up and running, and she even has a website to market her Kalofer handicrafts. Some of the rugs feature traditional motifs, whereas others showcase cheerful ladybugs and flowers. See them in Daniela’s Facebook gallery

Weaving Bulgarian Rug

Daniela predicted that such rugs would take approximately one week for an experienced weaver to complete.

Horse Kalofer countryside

Our Video of This Experience:

Kalofer A Story of Life, Lavender & Lace YouTube video

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Kalofer, a village of around 3,600 people, is located roughly 65 km. (38 miles) from Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv. Local buses link the cities.
  • We divided our time between the Iliikova House and Stara Planina Hotel. At the former, we enjoyed Tony and Stefan’s home’s stunning forest views, and pretty garden courtyard. The couple even took the time to show us how to make Bulgarian yogurt. At the latter guesthouse, we appreciated Stoyan’s and his family’s warm hospitality, and their willingness to introduce us to Kalofer residents who shared aspects of Bulgarian culture with us (lace-making and rakija-distilling). The family also shared a bounty of plump, home-grown tomatoes with us, which we joyfully included in the Shopska Salads that we feasted upon several times per week.
  • Kalofer has an an ATM machine, as well as an assortment of small, family-owned grocery stores where you can purchase food and essentials. A friendly vendor also sells fresh fruit and vegetable at a single stand (near the bus stop) which we regularly frequented during the summer months. On Thursdays, there’s a larger outdoor market where multiple vendors offer produce, and homemade goods such as honey and liqueur. For a larger range of grocery-shopping options, we took a bus to Karlovo, a significantly larger town of about 25,000 people.
  • For more details about Kalofer’s ecotrail, lodging options, and annual Lace Festival, see the village’s website.
  • Since so many of the signs and written material are only written in the Cyrillic script, it’s helpful to acquire a basic understanding of it before you go. During long bus rides, I passed some of the time by sounding out road signs (some written in both Cyrillic script and the Latin alphabet) and this helped out later when we were stumped trying to decipher street signs or railroad time tables. :)
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Bulgaria.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

107 Comments on “Kalofer, Bulgaria: A Story of Life, Lavender, & Lace

  1. Thanks so much for this comprehensive post. I’ve been thinking of making a trip to Bulgaria soon and this is very encouraging!

    • The Wife of Bath, I’m glad that you found the post useful. What part of Bulgaria are you contemplating visiting?

      Kalofer’s definitely not as visited as say, Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv, Varna, etc., but it does have much to offer if one’s seeking tradition, opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, or the chance to get immersed in a quiet community for a while. Above all, the curious and warm people make the village special!

      • Hi Tricia,

        I haven’t made up my mind where to visit yet. Do you have places you think would be of interest to someone esp. interested in cultural tourism? We don’t drive so we’d have to use public transportation. Most likely, the trip would be in November. I really want to hear the women’s choirs in particular. I saw a women’s choir from Bulgaria 20 years ago and have been wanted to travel there ever since.

        -WOB

      • WOB, we spent more than 2 months in the country, and this was actually my second trip to Bulgaria. Like you, we love culture and we also rely on public transportation. We enjoyed taking in a performance of Don Carlos in Plovdiv’s Roman amphitheater. Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second-largest city, and has Roman ruins and pretty National Revival architecture: https://triciaannemitchell.com/2014/07/30/bulgarian-national-revival-old-town-plovdiv-bulgaria/ Plovdiv has also been designated the 2019 European Capital of Culture. We’d contemplated taking in a performance in Sofia, but opted to proceed on to smaller cities. I’d be curious to see what the museums are like there, since it’s a capital city.

        Veliko Turnovo also has interesting architecture, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of the Black Sea cities, but perhaps during the off-season. We did, however, enjoy the Archaeological Museum in Varna, and spent a bit of time in Burgas and Sozopol too. Sozopol had a nice setting, but was extremely crowded during the summer.

        We would’ve loved to have seen the rose harvest in Bulgaria’s so-called Valley of Roses near Kazanlak, but we we’d missed it just by a few weeks. Kalofer makes a good base for that. Since we didn’t have a car, we missed the Thracian sites, but those also sounded interesting.

        Finally, in 2009, I did a long-weekend trip to Sofia, and made day trips out from there. One stop was the pretty and historic Rila Monastery, which has an extraordinarily beautiful setting. I’m not sure if you can get there by bus, as I did hire a driver for that excursion.

        I don’t know anything about women’s choirs. Perhaps the country’s national tourist board might have some leads? http://bulgariatravel.org/

  2. What an incredible experience. You two seem to attract good people (and animals) wherever you go! Great pictures as always.

    • Darlene, if so, that makes us a very lucky traveling pair! I know this was a long read, but there were so many serendipitous moments that I wanted to share. Thank you for following along and enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

  3. Wow Tricia, what an amazing experience – so many wonderful moments but I guess my favorites are those with the older ladies (where you didn’t know quite what you were discussing) and the fact that Baba Maria knitted you slippers 😄 Thanks for sharing!

    • Tina, now that we’ve had a few months to digest all these experiences, we realize what adventures we had in Kalofer over those 5 weeks. And, I still can’t believe that Baba Maria knitted not one, but three pairs of slippers. :) The generosity of strangers can be very touching.

      Thanks for your comment, and wish you a wonderful week ahead.

  4. What endearing stories , Tricia of a special place and lovely people. You both were obviously well received into the community and sounds like your lives were enriched as well as theirs. Like you said, if we as travelers can pass that genuine kindness on to others than we are doing our part to making this a better world. I bet you have not run out of slippers. 😊

    • Lynne, one of the greatest gifts of travel, I think, is the chance to have such interactions. It’s also quite special to feel like a member of a community, if only for a short time.

      Indeed, I shall have slippers to last me for a lifetime! I enjoyed snapping a picture of me wearing the booties, and sending it to Baba Maria’s neighbor by email so that she could see that my toes were staying warm in Germany, thanks to her kind gesture. :)

  5. I believe the term Alpha Baba will stay with me forever. :) Isn’t it fantastic to find such hidden gems and such wonderful people in them. Your experience is the stuff that keeps us traveling. Loved this post!

    • Sue, your words about this experience being “the stuff that keeps us traveling” is spot on. When we left Kalofer and went to more touristic cities elsewhere in Bulgaria weeks later, it was a bit of a tough transition for us because we missed the relationships we’d forged in Kalofer.

      It’s funny that ‘Alpha Baba’ might be added to your vocabulary too. :) Somehow the private nickname just stuck. Wish you happy travels, and thank you for your comment.

  6. Lovely and inspiring story. The quote that opened the article was absolutely beautiful

    • Hi Natalie, thank you for reading, and for your comment. I also thought that Bryson’s words were fitting, and a reminder that there’s much to be learned, even from our everyday surroundings. Glad you found the Kalofer tales inspiring; that’s a testament to the wonderful people of this Bulgarian village. :)

  7. Seems you have an armload of goodies that will bring sweet memories of your time spent getting to know the locals in Kalofer. Much as we love exploring epic landmarks, it is the quiet moments of discovering little things that truly make our travels special.

    • Bespoke Traveler, the quiet moments are indeed the spice of travel. As Cesare Pavese wrote, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” Thank you for reading, and hope you’re having a splendid week.

    • In some cases, it has stood still, JC. Our five weeks in Kalofer were certainly a journey back to quieter days. We greatly appreciated the sense of community there, with residents outside chatting until sunset, or participating in weekly dance practices. As Kalofer continues to develop, I hope it won’t lose that community feel. Thank you for your comment!

  8. Such a beautiful, informative post Tricia. Especially loved your interactions with the ‘Babas’. Bookmarking for a future trip :-)

    • Madhu, thank you. ‘The Babas’ are indeed a favorite. Somehow, that sounds like the name of a girl group. :) I hope a trip to this part of the world will be in your future. While we enjoyed the warmth of summer, I hear it’s also quite special to be there at Christmas, with door-to-door carolers and bagpipe performances, and many homemade dishes being shared.

    • Carol, indeed, we felt lucky to to have been part of the Kalofer community. Just before sunset, we’d often go jogging/walking in the outskirts of the town, surrounded by the mountains, and we remarked that we were in a special place. In all, we spent about 5 weeks there, before journeying on to other Bulgarian cities. It was bittersweet leaving the new friends we’d made in Kalofer, but something tells me we’ll be back to this town someday. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Lovely to see traditional crafts such as lace making and embroidery still in evidence. When places haven’t become too commercialised they retain much of their original charm (and a few drawbacks often), but for visitors they can actually experience the real rather than the sanitised country. Haven’t been to Bulgaria, so lovely to read and see photographs of it.

    • Dorothy, I agree that it’s nice to see younger generations carrying on a culture’s traditional crafts. I appreciated that some of Kalofer’s youngest lacemakers were employing traditional techniques but using bright fluorescent thread in place of a crisp white. As for your comment about commercialized communities vs. those not so, we had an experience just after this one that illustrated that concept well. Journeying on to the Bulgarian town of Sozopol, we actually found ourselves a bit let down. Sozopol was quite attractive with its old architecture and seaside position, but it was bustling with visitors. As a result, merchants were busy and not able to engage in much conversation. It’s a delicate balance developing a community for tourism, while at the same time retaining an ‘authentic’ character, and encouraging residents to continue living there. Thank you for your comment, and I’m happy that you enjoyed this virtual visit to Bulgaria. Perhaps you’ll get there someday soon! :)

  10. What a wonderful post. I couldnt help but smile reading this. I spend many summers as a child in Kalofer with my baba and it is indeed a very special place.

    • Hi Mar, ah, your comment made me smile too. I’m happy that this piece reminded you of special months spent with your grandmother. Did you get to participate in the same types of activities that Kalofer’s residents shared with us too? We felt so fortunate to be a part of their community, if only for a few weeks. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your memories.

  11. That was a wonderful post! I “liked” it after you posted it but I really didn’t have a chance to look at it until now. Your pictures and your video are beautiful.

    Kalofer was a wonderful find. It looks nice and the people were nice. Being in a lavender field must have been a nice experience. I bet it would have been a nice place to lie down on a lounge chair and smell the lavender and drink some of that local brandy. The goat stampede must have been fun to watch.

    • Gerard, no worries, it’s never too late to join in. :) I sure like your idea of lounging near a field of lavender, and enjoying a special drink. As for all the bees that were lurking there, their lavender-honey sounds lovely, but I wonder how we’d keep them at bay? I’m pleased you liked this peek at life in Kalofer and the town’s human residents and goats. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to add Rakija (brandy) to the list of signature beverages that you produce?

      • There are some small ones in N.Y.C. and Long Island now. I don’t know how many.

        I tasted a whiskey called Pine Barrens that was made on Long Island and it was very good.

        There is a vodka made on Long Island from Long Island potatoes.

        It’s illegal under New York State law to distill without a license. It’s like that in a lot of places because if it’s not done right it can be dangerous to drink.

      • Gerard, ah, that’s interesting that there are distilleries there. So, it sounds like anyone with a license can use them? We’d also heard that moonshine can be dangerous. One Bulgarian we met mentioned that a family member was killed during an explosion. And the Rakija-makers that we met (the ones featured in this post) also tossed out the first bit of moonshine that came out of the still (big distilling vessels)

        I’m still curious about how mead is made. We heard a mention of it on a program last night. Would love to try it. How is yours this season?

      • Short answer: mead is made by mixing honey with water and adding nutrients and yeast. It is then fermented.

        I made a 5 gallon batch of cyser (apple juice mixed with honey) and it is excellent! I also made a 5 gallon batch of braggot (honey, malt and water) and it is excellent too.

      • Thanks for the overview, Gerard. Now, if only you could teleport a sample. :) I’ll have to read up more on it, but saw a site that indicated that it can take a few months to ferment. Have you experimented with adding spices? Congrats on a successful batch!

      • Mead made by fermenting just honey and water can take a very long time to ferment. Adding some nutrients makes it go faster but the fermentation is slower than for other beverages. Much slower. Adding fruit, fruit juice or malt will make the fermentation go much faster.

      • The making of wine and other beverages is certainly an art and a science, Gerard! It sounds like you’ve mastered both when it comes to making mead. Thanks for the mini lesson.

    • bondgirlgoestoheaven, I was also engrossed in the lacemaking process, watching the artisans’ fast-moving hands create an intricate picture out of thread. In an age of shorter-attention spans and people seeking instant gratification, it was refreshing seeing lacemakers of all ages participating in this craft which requires so much patience.

    • Many thanks, fromtopview! With so much vibrant tradition and colorful surroundings, it was indeed special immersing ourselves in the Kalofer community.

  12. Bulgaria seems amazing. I would love to go to one day. My friend Cihan and I will go hopefully next summer.

    • Blogniac, are there particular parts of the country that you and Cihan would like to visit? I’ve been fortunate to have explored Bulgaria twice. The first time, I focused on Sofia, but also journeyed outside Bulgaria’s capital city to see the Rila Monastery, and the museum town of Koprivshtitsa. That was a shorter trip (4 days) and while we didn’t get to know a community as well as we did this time around, that first trip served as a great introduction and encouraged me to return. I hope the summer of 2016 will find you exploring Bulgaria, perhaps even with a stop in Kalofer.

      • Tricia, Cihan has been to Sofia. We will surely visit there. Then, no plans. We’ll just see where the winds take us.

    • Abdalla, definitely there are times when planning is helpful, but I also usually favor the more serendipitous of travel moments. Perhaps a guideline for travel and for life is to not have expectations? Often, that’s easier said than done though. :)

      Thank you for reading, and wish you a wonderful start to the new week.

    • Wandering Lass, I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed this peek into life in Kalofer. We’re pleased that we were able to be there not only for the everyday, but also for special events, like the Lace Festival.

  13. As a Bulgarian I’m so glad you liked your stay. I take pride in the kindness of Bulgarians and the truthfullness of their characters! I hope you can visit more cities soon :- )

    • Dafina, that’s a great compliment, especially since Bulgaria is your home – благодаря! In what part of the country do you live?

      • Yes, we spent a few days in Plovdiv and enjoyed our time there, plus the mix of all of the different architectural styles. One night, we celebrated my husband’s birthday by going to the old theater and watching the opera, Don Carlos. While we couldn’t understand everything that was going on (it was in Italian and subtitled in Bulgarian) it was magical watching the performance in a 1,900+ year-old venue.

  14. Tricia, what a fabulous story with your trademark gorgeous photography! You and Shawn certainly have the knack for discovering wonderful places. We’ve had Bulgaria on our list for a while now and you just moved it up to the top. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed – so richly deserved! :) All the best, Terri & James

    • Terri & James, your comment about moving Bulgaria to the top of your must-see list made me smile, mostly because the people treated us so well there, and also because much of the country could benefit from more tourist dollars being spent there. If you think you’ll be Kalofer-bound specifically, I’ll be happy to electronically-introduce you to some of the friends we made there. I know you two have no trouble making friends wherever you go, but just know the offer stands. :) Thank you also for the high praise about my photography and being Freshly Pressed on WordPress; that’s really kind.

    • followechoes, we really didn’t know what to expect in Kalofer, and that made our 5 weeks there even better. Aside from the spontaneous interactions we had with the gregarious residents of the town, I think some of my fondest Kalofer memories will be of strolling the roads in the outskirts of Kalofer at sunset, feeling surrounded by those mighty green mountains. Thank you for your comment!

  15. Excellent post, and beautiful photos! It brought back nice memories too: I lived in Bulgaria for a few months in 2006 for work. I was in Sofia – briefly in a hotel near the Ivan Vazov theater, and then in an apartment across from the NDK. We visited Plovdiv over a weekend for a team-building exercise.

    I have very fond memories of those few months – it’s a beautiful country, and the people are very friendly. Even Sofia still has the “small town” charm to it. A co-worker explained it best: “Eastern Europe is what the rest of Europe used to be like. Western Europe is slowly getting Americanized”.

    You should definitely have Bulgaria on your travel list – you won’t regret it.

    • Prashant, thanks for sharing your experience from your time living and traveling in Bulgaria. I wonder how much the country has changed since you’ve last been back?

      We also spent some time in Plovdiv, and liked the city’s National Revival architecture, and taking in an opera performance in the ancient theater: https://triciaannemitchell.com/2014/07/30/bulgarian-national-revival-old-town-plovdiv-bulgaria/

      Your comment about Western Europe “slowly getting Americanized” is interesting too. It seems it’s often a struggle for places to develop economically, without losing what makes their culture unique or without becoming overly-commercialized. For Kalofer, and the many villages that are having a hard time (as younger residents flock to urban centers) I hope the traditions and sense of community can somehow survive.

      Happy you stopped by; thanks again for your comment.

    • Emilie, from nice outdoor activities, to stunning monasteries and folk culture, it really is. Here’s hoping you’ll get the chance to explore the country someday soon!

  16. Thank you. I was lat in Bulgaria 20 years ago. I see that things have changed, and the people are just as friendly. Great country to visit.

    • Jaboola, in what part of Bulgaria were you 2 decades ago? It’d be interesting to hear what’s changed since then, and what you most remember from your time there.

    • Trucosviajeros, we were also surprised to read that tidbit about lavender production, as we thought Provence held the title. I appreciate your kind words about the images; thank you. Since I got to spend several weeks in Kalofer, many moments were devoted to walking around the town, with camera in hand. :)

  17. I don’t know what is more beautiful the land or the people! Thank you for sharing. You painted a lovely picture. Bulgaria is now officially on my bucket list.
    21timetraveler.com

    • 21timetraveler, I’m glad to hear that you’re putting such a worthwhile destination on your must-see list. Indeed, Kalofer has scenic landscapes, but it’s the residents that make the town an extra special place. That’s the case with most destinations though, don’t you think? :)

  18. The series of shots you have are wonderful, tell a story so well themselves ~ so with the added advantage of your great writing style, this post really dives deep into the magic of Bulgaria (as your posts always do). The opening photo, however, is excellent ~ the feel of the dancers and the perspective you’ve taken with this shot highlights the feeling and emotion. You and Shawn take to some of the greatest places and this is definitely on of the top ones it seems. Lavender and Lace…those words alone make it interesting. Beautiful done one again. Wish you well in your continued travels :-)

    • Randall, Shawn and I were fortunate to have spent several weeks getting to know Kalofer. I still remember the anticipation the morning we hopped onto a bus to get there. Passing fields of lavender out in the countryside, and feeling the cooler air that the higher elevation afforded, I felt that we had made a good choice in making Kalofer our home for a few weeks. Now, I’ll never look at goats without thinking of Kalofer’s ‘kids’. As a very accomplished photographer and writer yourself, your thoughtful comment means a lot. Thank you, and hope you had a wonderful weekend, presumably filled with a bit of adventure? :)

      • Being able to spend a few weeks in such a place, great decision indeed. For me, I’ve been running around with work, but did manage to take a few days+ to explore Moab, Utah and its surrounding national parks…there is amazing all around us if we seek it out :-)

      • Randall, sorry for the escargot-paced reply – we’ve been on the road ourselves. :) How long will you be back in the USA? I just looked at photographs of Moab – what an absolutely stunning landscape, which I imagine is making you work your camera overtime. I also love your quote, “there is amazing all around us if we seek it out.” Quite true indeed.

      • In the States for another month, and then back to Asia/China until Christmas. The National Parks around Moab were incredible…wish I was still there. Enjoy your week and your adventures :-)

      • Enjoy your last few weeks in the States as well, Randall! The American national parks are something I’d love to see a lot more of. So far, I’ve only scratched the surface: Yellowstone and the Badlands as a kid, the Redwoods, and Grand Canyon, etc. Sequoia and Yosemite NPs eluded us earlier this year, when the weather just wasn’t cooperative for a road trip there.

  19. Tricia, It was a real pleasure to look at my country trough your eyes. Most of the time, you do not realise what you have until somebody shows you! Thank you for the eye-opening!

    • Margarita, that’s so nice to hear – Благодаря! In what part of Bulgaria do you call home? It’s hard to believe a year has passed since we ‘lived’ in Kalofer. How I’d love some Bulgarian yogurt today! :)

      • No, my home town is Sliven, but Kalofer is home of many prominent people from Bulgarian history that’s why everybody loves it. So you’ve choose a good place to “live” :) Haha yes, the yogurt is pretty tasty, I miss it as well:)

      • As international travelers, we hadn’t heard of Kalofer until we arrived in Bulgaria – we’re so glad that an Airbnb listing led us there though! Where in the world are you living now? At least Bulgarian yogurt is available in some other countries. We read that it’s popular in Japan, for example, and found the same strain of yogurt in the United States earlier this year. It’s absolutely delicious with a dollop of jam, or fruit, honey, nuts – even all by itself!

      • At present I live in Bristol. UK is a popular place for Bulgarians so I am lucky that there are many supermarkets only with Bulgarian food.

      • Ah, your mention of Bulgarian markets makes me want to make some Chushki Burek sometime soon. :) With beautiful peppers abound in Kalofer last summer, we made a lot of those, plus Shopska Salads.

  20. Tricia, you have my respect for this wonderful and very comprehensive article! You did such a great job, I would be useful for a lot of tourist agencies in my country to learn how to present the Bulgarian soul with such a human stories. With your permission, I would like to post that on my facebook account and if someone who reads that will need any help or advice for planning a trip to Bulgaria in the near future, I’m glad to be of service. Best wishes to you and your family and warm regards from Bulgaria!

    • Kliment, thank you, rather Благодаря, for your thoughtful words and willingness to assist with future travel planning to Bulgaria. While I appreciate what you’ve written about my post, I feel compelled to “tip my hat” to Kalofer’s wonderful residents who presented their Bulgaria in such a soulful manner. :) Without them, this post (and my husband’s video) wouldn’t have developed in the same way. And yes, please feel free to share the posts link as you’d like; I’m always happy to spread the word about Kalofer! In what part of the country do you call home?

  21. Your pictures are gorgeous! This post just makes me want to go back to Bulgaria asap. I went for the first time last year and visited Sofia, Koprivshtitsa, and Veliko Tarnovo.

    • Tola, thank you! I’m glad to hear that you’ve already enjoyed some of Bulgaria’s highlights. This post details the adventures from my second trip there. I made my first (solo) jaunt to Bulgaria in 2009, and liked Sofia, Koprivshtitsa and the Bulgarian countryside so much that five years later, I yearned to go back – this time with my husband. When we next visit, I’d be thrilled if we could make our trip coincide with the rose harvest, in the so-called ‘Valley of the Roses’. What brought you to Bulgaria?

      • You’re so welcome! Your blog is really great. What brought me to Bulgaria was school. I’m an MPA student and my concentration is Comparative and International Public Administration. I went to Bulgaria for 10 days with my professor and classmates to learn more about Bulgaria’s political and administrative structure. Luckily there was plenty of time for sightseeing too. I’m so glad I had that opportunity, otherwise I might never have visited and I would’ve been missing out.

      • Tola, when I went to Sofia in 2009, I met a group of American university students who were on a similar exchange as yours, and they were equally enthusiastic to be exploring and learning about Bulgaria. (They mentioned having to learn the Cyrillic alphabet in advance of their trip, and meeting some interesting people in the country.) I wish you more of such adventures in the future, and best wishes as you continue your program!

      • Thanks Tricia :) I’m definitely glad my program gave me the opportunity to go.

  22. Tricia, Kalofer looks like a wonderful little village, and it appears that the locals welcomed you with open arms, which I’m sure made it even more special. Wonderful photos BTW, and particularly the folk dancers. ~James

    • James, the warm welcome that Kalofer’s residents extended was indeed one of the reasons why we created such lasting memories there. I had to smile at your mention of Kalofer being a “village”, because I’ve done so as well, and one or two residents passionately corrected me, and told me that it was instead a ‘town’. :) Such designations aside, it is a fun place to hang your hat for a while if you’d like to experience life in a smaller Bulgarian municipality.

      Finally, thanks for your compliment about the photos here. The vibrant red of those costumes also made that series of images one of my favorites from our Bulgarian summer.

      Wish you and Terri a splendid Sunday!

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