Beautiful Elena—the Temptation of Beauty
The small mountain town, fully clad in folk clothing, is hiding in its skirts and behind “pafta”s (belt trim) old churches, wooden houses, and stone-clad streets, onto which the Bulgarian Revival spirit—a spirit of patriotism and free-thinking—is still wandering. The town has resuscitated in the 21st century, to take shape as an attractive tourist centre.
The Elena municipality has put its stakes on tourism and, this year, joined the Balkania Touristic Region, maintained construction of new hotel developments, and launched programmes for renovation and conversion of old buildings into guest houses, for eco-paths tracing and for the development of new attractions, with which to entertain and surprise its visitors. Here, surrounded by emerald-green nature, you could sleep over in a 200-year old house, eat meals spiced with thyme and rosemary, taste some Elenski but (a dry-cured ham) and plum brandy, and watch satellite TV before getting to a comfy feather bed. In other words, accommodation in an old house doesn’t mean guests would miss any of the 21st-century amenities.
Elena is beautiful but its name has undoubtedly nothing in reference to the Homeric Fair Helen. Legends about the origins of its name are woven deep back in times and are so numerous that no one knows the truth. However, the most widespread story is the one about two young lovers, Elena and Samuil, who were walking through the Balkan mountain, holding happily hands just after their marriage. In the middle of virgin forests, bandits attacked them. The abductors’ chief didn’t succeed seducing the bride and killed her. Samuil had also been beheaded. Out of sorrow for their progeny, their parents chose to dwell at this place and baptised the village Elena.
The tragic story of the founding of the small mountain town flows on into its heroic past. From the 147 artefacts preserved, you can learn a lot about people and deeds that left their marks in history at both regional and national levels. You’ll see there Ilarion Makariopolski’s home, the Clock Tower, counting time since 1812, the St. Nicolas church and the Assumption of Mary church with its belfry, the five Razsukanov’s houses and the Popnikolov’s House. The latter has been converted into a Museum of Palaeontology whose exhibits (snail and fish fossils) are evocative of ages millions of years back, when Elena’s location was at the bottom of a sea. As a town of the spirit, Elena is proud of keeping an ethnographic collection of over 6,000 objects, some 780 National Revival and contemporary artworks, and many old-print books.
The architectural and historical compound is an exceptionally pleasant place where most of Elena’s memorabilia and landmarks can be seen together. During the Revival, the town had three churches—something no other Bulgarian settlement could have dreamed off. This is why it has been dubbed “The Bulgarian Bethlehem”.
The St. Nicolas church is of the underground type. Built as early as the 16th century, it has preserved in its underground bosom a lovely iconostasis and magnificent frescoes. Once inside, you’re drawn into a fabulous kaleidoscope featuring images of saints and biblical scenes. There’s no interior surface left untouched by the hands of the painters, David and Yakov. Of particular interest are the icons of St. Methodi of Moravia, St. Georgi the New of Sofia, and St. Kliment of Ohrid—the latter being one of the rarest in Bulgaria and the FYR Macedonia. The tale would have the church built clandestinely, i.e., without the ottoman administration’s permission, in 40 days.
The woodcarving of the iconostasis evokes wire sculpture: it overwhelms the eyesight and the impression it leaves can be described in a single word—divine! St. Nicolas is a sanctuary of the Bulgarian identity and thus, visiting the Assumption of Mary, the larger church next to it, would only impress you with its size.
If you like icons, the collection on the ground floor of Ilarion Makariopolski’s home is a true trove. Climbing up the screeching wooden staircase, we’d see where was the birthplace of not only this famous fighter for Bulgarian Orthodox Church autonomy, but also of his brother, Nicola Mikhailovski (an eminent activist of Revival literacy and education), and Stoyan Mikhailovski (a satirical poet, son of the latter). The house is stunning with its sheer size—several reception halls, guestrooms, living rooms, bedrooms, children’s rooms, studies… Old trees are keeping shade upon the centuries-old house. Its three-legged low stools, tables, and coffee-brewing pots are reminding us that we should also learn something about the mountain town’s cuisine.
For anyone visiting, the Elenski but (Elena prosciutto) is the jewel of the region, a fine food with no substitute. It’s unparalleled because no such thing is made anywhere else: due to the unique climate, only here is pork meat drying up gradually without rotting. A glass of aged Elena plum brandy is mandatory, and with it, good mood is coming. Because Elena has “nothing else” to offer you except good feelings—a feel for tourism and for positive emotions, wrapped up in history and the Balkan mountain’s green scenery.