Vine Pruning in Bulgaria's South-West: a Traveler's Account

Letters to the Editor | Author: Yoav Chudnoff |March 11, 2015, Wednesday // 11:57
Bulgaria: Vine Pruning in Bulgaria's South-West: a Traveler's Account Photos by Yoav Chudnoff

Novinite is publishing an article submitted by Mr Yoav Chudnoff, who visited Bulgaria's south-west on February 14 to mark the day of St Trifon, traditionally celebrated in Bulgaria as the day of wine.

Yoav Chudnoff first visited Bulgaria in 1979 as a guest of the then 'Bulgarska Narodna Radio.' It was on that first trip that he learned that everything one hears or sees may not always be what it seems. Growing up in the United States, it was a given, through education, that the weather behind the 'Iron Curtain,' was gray, overcast, always raining and no electricity. This was quickly discounted on the flight in from Amsterdam to Sofia, where the lights of Sofia shun brightly in the clear night sky.
It was Bulgaria that broke down his point of view when it comes to stereotypes and historical facts, or lack of mention. He studied International relations at the University of Wisconsin - Madison with a focus on Balkan inter-relations and worked on his Masters Degree at Florida State University. He returned to Bulgaria in 1988/89 in order continue his Masters' Thesis research based on the writings of the early 20th century American Diplomatic Agent (1902 -1913), John B. Jackson. Chudnoff, like Jackson, was interested on internal and external perceptions.

Yoav, now based in Sofia, is currently writing a Guide Book to Eastern Europe based on the migratory travels of a Bulgarian born Eastern Imperial Eagle (Царски Орел) written from the viewpoint of the Eagle covering, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Poland, Russia, Latvia and Lithuania under the pen name Pesho the Imperial Eagle. The Guide Book will take people to out of the way places in Eastern Europe not normally written up in main stream guide books.

An interesting weekend indeed as we drove down to the very south-western corner of Bulgaria, where the borders of Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria meet. Driving down the scenic Struma highway through the Rila and Pirin Mountains passing by exits to Sapareva Banja (home to the only geyser in the Balkans), Rila Monastery through the Kresna Gorge (where I saw my first Blue Rock Thrush – Monticola solitarius - many years ago) the flowing Struma River and finally taking a right on Rockefeller Blvd (still have to see why it is named Rockefeller) in Petrich... heading through the Strumeshnitsa valley between the Belasitsa and Ograzhden mountains towards the Macedonian border.

As we were driving through this scenic valley with snow capped mountains tops on the left (Belasitsa) and forested mountains to the right (Ograzhen), I saw a sign that perked up my inner curiosity 'Tsar Samuil Fortress.'

What the….?

Was this the famous Samuil, the last Tsar of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, who fought against Basil II of Byzantium?

Who in 1014 at the Battle of Klyuch was defeated, with Basil II's army capturing over 10000 soldiers, blinding 99 out of 100 whilst leaving the 100th with only one eye in order to lead the defeated army back towards the Bulgarian lines?

This Tsar Samuil?

Well... indeed it was here, in this very valley, that Samuil's army was defeated by Basil II (a.k.a. the Bulgarian Slayer).

Indeed it was here, in this very valley, where Tsar Samuil, shocked at the brutality inflicted by Basil II's army, died on the spot from a massive coronary.

This battle marked the fall of the first Bulgarian Empire (681-1018). The fortress located about 5 kilometers from present day Klyoch overlooked the strategic military route running through the Strumeshnitsa valley.

In my own naive thinking, which is more often than naught, always thought that this particular battle was waged on the Thracian plains of present day Turkey! Well - right longitude... only off by 500 kilometers... grmpf.

Although, the main purpose of this visit was not to learn about history, it provided me with a fascinating insight to the region. The village that we went to visit is called Skrut.

The first record of the village dates back to 1570 when it was registered in the Ottoman administrative Defter (book) as 'Iskrit' with a 'mixed' Muslim-Christian population and remained such until 1923 when there were post war population exchanges between the Balkan countries where the local Muslim population relocated to Turkey and Bulgarians from Aegean Macedonia were relocated here.

In 1915, a scholar by the name of Bogdan Filov believed that the village name derived from the Bulgarian word 'Skrub' ('grief'), reflecting the events in 1014. One year later, another scholar, Vasil Zlatarski, visited the village and reported back to the local Military command that the name was derived from 'Skrit' ('hidden') as the local Christian population did not want to convert to Islam and hid in this area. The final, and in my own humble opinion may be closest to the truth, is based on several studies by etymologists Zaimov (1967) Mihailova (1984) and Sklifov (1977), based on several toponyms: 'Skurka' or 'Skrukolina' (destroyed forest - infertile) and 'Skruk' (stony cliff) due to the fact that the village itself can be found below the cliffs of Belasitsa.

As the name implies, the village hugs the foothills of Belasitsa, directly below Tumba Peak, the border demarcation line between Bulgaria, Greece and Macedonia, overlooking the Strumeshnitsa valley and the border crossing between Bulgaria and Macedonia. We were invited by friends to witness Trifon Zarazen Day (roughly translated: Saint Trifon Vine Cutting Day). Each year, on 14 February, this special ritual is performed: the blessing, the cutting and pouring some wine made from the grapes harvested from the previous year. It was interesting to find out that it is celebrated on Saint Valentines day, but this is recent. Originally it was celebrated on 1 February up until around about 15 years ago, when it coincided with Saint Valentine's day. Saint Trifon, as I understand it, is the patron saint of wine and this symbolic pruning represents one of the seasonal changes: Winter to Spring.

The mayors from 4 neighboring villages and Petrich, the official Vine Cutter, Ogi, 100's of people barbecuing readying themselves to witness the 'first cut.' Zournadji busy playing up a storm. A zourna, as I learned is a double reed woodwind instrument whose unique sound is close to that of a cross between an oboe and horn. Home made wine, brandy, roasted sheep, vegetables, breads, cheeses. At one of the tables, one person playing the accordion, singing songs with others chiming in. Their voices are that of professionals, but alas they sing because they want to. I was informed that in this village, every household has instruments and it is not unheard of that people get together to sing regional songs as informal groups in festivals throughout the country as well as in neighboring Greece and Macedonia.

The time has come for the first cut, groups of people walking down towards the vineyard, the zournadji playing. The procession ends with the cutting and pouring of wine over the vines with the hope of another successful harvest. Our host makes the first ceremonial cut … the wine is poured over the newly cut vine … everyone nodding in approval … next the mayor of Petrich… and… thus ending the ceremony. One person stayed behind to give instructions on proper vine pruning (I took a few mental notes … now where can I find a vine to work on?)

We all return to the festivities. Our host's wife, sponsored a dance group from the village so they can study up on, and perform regional folk dance … excellent … this was not a tourist show, rather something more … something touching … something personal … something that people put together because they wanted to. A way to get together and enjoy each others company in a valley below the snow capped peaks of Belasitsa.

I have an appointment to come back to this beautiful part of Bulgaria for some additional exploration – waterfalls – mountain ridge trails – fresh air and, most importantly getting to know the people from this fascinating part of the country.

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Tags: Bulgaria, wine, vine

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