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“You are trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,”
Those were the words of my father when he laid eyes on our four, dilapidated, 200 year old, stone buildings. Located in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, they sit perched, somewhat precariously, at the end of a charming (read extremely narrow, if you are my dad) lane, at the top of a beautiful, steep (read 30 degree slope) mountainside overlooking a wide, forested valley and hazy mountaintops fading off into the distance. Patiently they await their transformation into “a silk purse”…the artist retreat of our dreams.
The Big House
This transformation is not likely to be a quick one, but hopefully the journey will be enjoyable. At the moment, only one of the buildings (we have come to refer to it as ‘The Big House’) in anyway resembles a structure that a person might consider residing in. It is a dusty, dirty, slightly moldy, broken down mess… but beneath this ramshackle exterior hints of what once was remain. It is two storied, and rather grandly has an interior staircase between the two floors (many of the old buildings we have seen in Bulgaria do not have an indoor staircase, requiring occupants to use an outdoor staircase to go up or down stairs). The two upstairs rooms are still occupied by a pair of shabby beds, their mattresses slowly decaying with time, yet the walls of one room have been painstakingly stenciled with a flowery pattern from ceiling to floor. It is a charming detail amid the debris of cracked, crumbling plaster and broken floorboards littered with the droppings of the current residents.
In front of the window in the hallway separating the two rooms, a concrete sink has been built into the thick, stone windowsill with a small hole that literally passes straight through the thick wall allowing draining water to trickle down the front of the two storied building. Pretty basic. A few hooks have been imbedded in the stone above the sink and a single enamel cup still hangs from one. To the left of the sink a roughly built wooden cabinet stands at the top of the stairs still containing a few dishes as well as an enormous pile of nutshells, presumably belonging to the current tenants—at some point we are going to have to evict them!
Our favorite detail downstairs is a decrepit fireplace. More recently a wood stove had been installed in its place, but the curved mantle still remains intact. Beneath the floorboards of this room is a small cellar dug into the earthen floor below and built into the stone wall is a small cupboard with a little wooden door. Scraped out of the stonewall in the hallway is a curious little niche whose purpose we are unsure of. In many old Bulgarian houses that we have viewed, secret rooms and false walls were quite common in attempt to hide extra food rations and valuables during the Communist era. Perhaps this was its purpose?
Every room has a large window facing out over the view of the valley and the mountains beyond. While one interior wall is of thick stone, the other is of woven willow branches packed with wattle and daub and plastered over. The stonewalls themselves have been mortared with a mixture of clay and straw and then plastered. Two tumbledown chimneys stand crookedly at either end of the roof, wood still being the primary fuel for heating in Bulgaria today.
However, it is the attic that has proven to reveal the most about our lovely old building. We have not yet sifted through all the dirt and dust and wreckage; however we have found some exquisite old objects and articles of clothing, each seeming to tell its own story. We will salvage what we can and try to incorporate them back into the “silk purse” version of the building.
The ceilings are low, the door frames lower and the staircase treacherously narrow and steep, yet it is exactly these details that endear us to the place. Our plan for this building at the moment is to create three ensuite guest accommodations and a small lounge room. We are hoping to raise the roof by about a metre in order to add a third floor. We will keep what details we can, but some will have to go. The wattle and daub wall will need to be removed, but perhaps we can replicate this construction technique elsewhere. The internal staircase takes up too much space so will be removed. But the fireplace we hope to keep and the concrete sink. If possible, I would love to preserve some of the stenciled plaster, but it may just be too crumbly. We hope for the final result to be just as comfortable, as precious and as exquisite as silk!
All that is glamorous has been reserved for The Big House, the remaining buildings are purely functional providing rather meager accommodations for both beast and human occupants. Yet the stone construction is lovely and many treasures still lay hidden in these buildings awaiting to be discovered, restored and returned. So far we have uncovered various types of wooden barrels and boxes, there is a trunk or two that we have not yet seen inside of, an abundance of old and tired farming implements, rotting harnesses, old bottles, moldy ledgers, worn out boots and the list goes on. Hopefully this summer we will manage to salvage all that we can and also have the clay floors dug up and discarded in hopes of diminishing the lingering stench of the recent goat occupant.
There are two outbuildings alongside the big house and these too we plan to transform into guest accommodations. The remaining outbuilding sits down a couple of terraces from the other buildings and this one we plan to incorporate into a rather extensive addition as a house for ourselves. Which leaves us in need of a studio space and a kitchen, dining, laundry facility and staff accommodations. So these will have to be purpose built. Plans are still sketchy at this point as we are hoping to acquire a small piece of land beside us to build on—but the wheels of municipal dealings grind exceptionally slowly over here, so we can only wait…
So here we sit… The sow’s ear stage… 930 square metres of beautiful mountainside, a thirty degree slope (and steeper in places) to build on, four crumbling buildings, not a lot of knowledge or know how, but lots of heart and dreams… Hopefully it is enough to create a silk purse!
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