The Bulgarian National History Museum

In June I was lucky enough to attend Drachenwald’s Summer Coronation and 25th anniversary celebration hosted by the College of St. John of Rila in Bulgaria. My husband and I timed our flights so that we would have a few days to explore Sofia on either side of the event. One of the highlights for me was the Bulgarian National History Museum.

Located on the ring-road outside town, the museum is a little more complicated to reach than the museums in town. You can take a taxi for approximately 10 BGN from the centre of town or travel via metro and bus. If you choose to use the metro in Sofia, I recommend buying an electronic card ticket (12 BGN + 1BGN for the card deposit, which is refunded as a single use ticket if you return the card) which will get you ten trips on the metro, with the option to add more if needed. Take metro line 1 Southwards to Sofia Business Park, the announcements and station signs will give the station name in both English and Bulgarian, then catch the 100 bus to the museum. A bus ticket costs 1.60 BGN and can be purchased either from the driver or from a ticket machine behind the driver’s seat. Validate your ticket by inserting it into one of the ticket stamping mechanisms you will find along the sides of the bus, just above the windows, and press the lever upwards. The bus will stop at every stop along the route and each stop is clearly labeled. The museum stop is a short walk from the museum itself.

Museum entry is 10 BGN for adults, 1 BGN for students and 3 BGN for children (full pricing details), but on the final Monday of every month entry is free. We went on one of the free entry days, by luck rather than design, and it was pretty quiet. There are two little shops selling souvenirs in the main entrance way to the museum, and a third that sells books and semi-precious gemstones (genuine ones, unlike the glass that a woman at an outdoor market in the centre of town tried to scam me with). The museum is fully wheelchair accessible, unlike much of Sofia itself, with ramps, lifts and smooth paving outside. There are also plenty of places to sit and rest feet and legs that are complaining about too much standing and reading of labels, the vast majority of which are in both Bulgarian and English. An outdoor cafe can be accessed by a door out into the museum gardens through the Ottoman exhibit.

There are a large number of interesting exhibits on display, most interesting to me was the collection of traditional clothing on display on the top floor. Bulgaria is one of the places where tablet weaving hasn’t fallen out of favour over the centuries and is used to create beautiful belts, mostly in a structure called double-face, to go with traditional clothing. I’ve previously studied, charted and woven a copy of a similar piece from the Victoria and Albert museum online catalogue (the object at the bottom of the picture on this page) so it was lovely to see the belts in context with the rest of the outfit and how the pattern types used vary between different areas of Bulgaria. The most interesting belts, for me, were in a separate glass case, laid out so that a large portion of the pattern could be seen. One in particular caught my eye as it combined threaded-in borders with a double-face centre, over which there were brocade threads (weft threads that pass over the surface of the fabric rather than between the warp threads) and areas of soumak (a decorative thread is wrapped around certain warp threads) and embroidery.

Particularly of interest to members of the SCA is the museum collection of objects from the first few centuries of the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria (1396-1878 CE). It includes a wide variety of items used by all levels of society, from buckles and grindstones to gold jewellery and crowns. The exhibit of richly crafted gold artefacts on the top floor of the museum, running from 05/03/2018 to 01/10/2018 is also very much worth a look. I especially enjoyed the displays describing the cultural significance of the different types and styles of jewellery. One of them gave the details of a ritual performed by maidens that involved steeping rings in silent water (water gathered from a well or spring in complete silence by the appropriate number of girls) to find out the name of the man they would marry. Certainly sounds less messy than sleeping with a piece of wedding cake under your pillow.

In conclusion, I definitely recommend a trip to the Bulgarian National History Museum. There are far more things to see than I’ve mentioned here and the entry fee is most definitely worth it, as is the slightly convoluted journey needed to get there. I would absolutely love to go back to Bulgaria one day as there is so much more to see, both in Sofia and further afield, so I’ve kept my metro card just in case. If you have the chance to visit, be sure to go to one of the Jovan Dutch bakeries. Their custard and fruit pastries alone are sublime.

(Originally published in the July 2018 edition of The Baelfyr)

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