In the mountains of Bulgaria, a group of artists work hard to preserve heritage crafts long replaced by conveyor belts and modern technologies. It takes 60 operations to handcraft an intricately inscribed knife; 14 days to mould a single ceramic plate; and weeks to paint an icon with the Wheel of Life, a motif idiosyncratic to Bulgarian Christian art. The result is unmatched quality and beauty – hand-made ceramics and knives can’t break as easily as their factory counterparts.

Shrugged by the steep, forest-clad mountain on all sides, Etara has an air of tranquillity about it. This architectural and ethnographic complex on the outskirts of Gabrovo in central Bulgaria offers a glimpse into 19-century day-to-day life and a chance to see local artisans practise heritage crafts.

There is no sense of hurry around as visitors amble down the cobblestone alleys, past the stone-and-wood houses. Through the windows of the ground-level workshops I catch glimpses of shiny silverware, colourful ceramics and wood carved souvenirs. The real temptation, though, is the aroma of dried herbs and warm pastries wafting from the bakery.

The Backstory

Etara resembles an old-time commercial neighbourhood of Gabrovo but it began life as a passion project. In the 1950s its founder, local artist Lazar Donkov, stumbled upon a few derelict water mills perched on the river. After a decade of research and planning he restored the on-site mills and erected replicas of period homes, using only traditional tools and techniques.

The result is impressive. Beside the homes and workshops, the fully-functional watermills bubble with energy. Set into motion by the power of water alone, a stone grinding wheel sharpens blades, a two-storey lumber saw slices trunks into planks, while a small lathe carves wood into ornamental tableware. Open-air and indoor displays of agricultural equipment, horse-drawn carts and tools for the practise of various industries transport you to another age.

Donkov’s main fascination, however, was not history but artisanal work and that’s what he dreamt of preserving through Etara. Today more than a dozen artists, among which a coppersmith, a knife-maker, and a cartwright, practise a range of heritage crafts, passed down to them from their parents and grandparents.

The Potter

The potter, Veselin Damyanov, welcomes all to his workshop with a smile. Brightly painted ceramic bells hang above me as I sit at one of the massive stone wheels, trying to spin it with my leg. It needs momentum before I can begin to shape a lump of clay. I try to imagine how much effort and energy it must have taken an 18th-century artisan to spin this heavy stone daily. It must have been an arduous business.

Veselin explains that hand crafting one single jug involves about a dozen processes, which span roughly two weeks. “It’s a capricious craft,” Veselin admits. “Dowsing your hands in too much water can spoil the baking later. A wrong twist of the glazing brush could result in a smear.” He lifts a colourful jug and shows a decorative splash among more regular shapes. “Luckily, every defect can become an effect,” he adds with a smile.

It’s not all pushing the 19th century equivalent of fitness gear, though. The craftsman employs all the powers of modern electric wheels and ovens. Yet, some aspects are better left simple, like drawing glaze-patterns with a straw. To his ancestors who had to mine for raw materials and carry out all work by hand, it was a matter of sustenance and survival. To his colleagues, however, it’s a matter of passion.

Right across the street, Dobrinka shows me her fully functional antique sewing machine, on which she pieces together traditional coats and warm, fur accessories. These are mostly used in period dramas and re-enactments of historic events. She proudly tells me about her historical re-enactment group.

Some of these crafts, however, have practical applications. The hand-crafted knives are strikingly elaborate and they can be used in everyday life. With intricately carved blades and hilts made of deer antlers, these exquisite knives are truly reminiscent of an age when objects were made not just to be strong but to be beautiful, too.

A Trip back in Time

The lack of fertile land fit for agriculture forced people living in the mountains to develop craftsmanship, commercial skills and a keen understanding of the nature of every material. In the heyday of the region (in the 18th and 19th centuries), products shipped to all corners of the Ottoman Empire and southern Europe. According, to my guide, Lilia Lekova, water drove many industries.

At the weaving mill, metal bobbins spin like little toy soldiers inside a rattling, clanking music box. A trapdoor on the wooden floor reveals the gushing current underneath that drives the spectacle. Perhaps, awestruck by the machinery, 19-century Austro-Hungarian traveller Felix Kaniz wrote in his diary that the people of Gabrovo lived off the power of water.

It’s in the houses that Donkov restored with such attention to detail that the real craftsmanship shows. Oak for the foundations, beech for the walls, and walnut for furniture – every material has its place. Wool lining insulated doors and windows, while clay was plastered on floors to help maintain a neutral temperature.

“It has that odd property. It’s neither warm, nor cold. I moped about my grandmother’s old house barefoot,“ Lekova explains. The rooftop stone tiles, arranged like fish scales, served as a thermostat. “In summer the rain slides down and protects the house from excessive humidity. In winter, snow accumulates on top and keeps the warmth within.”

Lekova shows me around the house of an affluent food and silk merchant. Parisian wardrobes, Viennese tableware and the finest of local soft furnishings decorate the interior. Further down the road, the modest abode of a textile workers’ family reminds me of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles – a bed, a chair and tableware. The residential quarters of all these houses occupy the level above the workshops. That’s how professionals organised their work-life balance back in the day.

Such houses may crumble, yet, they don’t collapse easily. Some bend at 45 degrees without falling when pulled with modern machinery. Architects seek inspiration in the past for the construction of energy efficient homes but Lekova laments the lack of people familiar with the construction technology because that makes maintenance challenging. As if to add poignancy to her concerns, Veselin jokes that someday his dishes might just come out of a factory with a Made in China label on them.

I secretly hope that they won’t.

Disobeying the laws of time

An annual international festival brings artisans from places as diverse as Japan and Morocco, while local events give adults and kids a chance to learn different crafts. According to Veselin and his colleagues both local and foreign visitors buy their produce. It’s hardly a lucrative career, though, and the amount of effort invested seems to fall short of the profit. Still, most of the people working here stick with their crafts, out of passion as it seems. As all artists do. As founder Lazar Donkov did.

Before leaving, I take a sip of water from one of the fountains. An inscription in the stone slate behind it reads:

The wind sweeps our steps – first our passions and then time devour us. This fountain was built because stone lasts longer than us, and water is eternal.