The village of Vlahi

In 19th and the beginning of 20th century the village of Vlahi had a population of about 2500 people, being bigger than Sveti Vrach (present-day Sandanski). During the time of the Ottoman rule, it was repeatedly burnt down in the uprisings, including the Kresna-Razlog Uprising, and then rebuilt. National hero Yane Sandanski was born in Shemeto – a neighbourhood of Vlahi which no longer exists. In 1901, when his division along with Hristo Chernopeev’s division took hostage of American missionary Ellen Stone and Katerina Tsilka, to get a ransom in exchange for their liberation, the two women were kept for half a year in a house in Kosovska mahala – a neighbourhood situated really close to Vlahi’s central square.

The village started declining after 1948 when the local people rioted against the collectivization of the land. Quite a big part of the population of the village was killed by the Communist government and the rest was banished. The water supply and road infrastructure were not maintained on purpose so that the remaining people could also move out and not spark discontent in the remote mountain village. The school functioned until 1975. The rest of the neighbourhoods in Vlahi also had their own schools for children up to 4th grade. Between grades 4 and 8 all pupils studied in Vlahi.

Vlahi owns a big territory – the village used to have a lot of neighbourhoods, some of which quite remote. Old houses have been preserved in the neighbourhoods of Barata, Kosovska mahala, Drakolovo, Polena, Debel dab and Kletishte. The closest among those is Barata (from “bara” – a place with running water; there used to be a lot of watering streams in this neighbourhood). It is located on the hill opposite the School. Today it is home to the Semperviva Association. Kosovska mahala is located to its right. If you pass Kosovska mahala and keep going up against the course of the river you’ll reached the neighbourhood of Kletishte. An old man named ‘Bay’ Boris, who owns a herd of over 40 cows, lives there. Further up the road, near the Large Carnivore Education centre is the neighbourhood of Polena. If you’re coming from Kresna, you’ll see a sharp turn in the beginning of the village of Vlahi. To the right of it is the neighbourhood of Drakolovo. The Debel Dab neighbourhood is located towards where the fenced area of the bears is, but instead of turning left – towards the fences – turn right at the dirt road. The neighbourhood of Vackovtsi is behind it.
The climate in the Vlahi region is sub-Mediterranean. It’s characterised by mild winters and hot summers. The region is home to many tortoises. Often tourists find a tortoise and, thinking that it’s got lost, take it in order to save it. If you see a tortoise, don’t take it with you – the environment of the region is perfect for it.

There are also many Greek junipers here. The Vlahi region is their northernmost habitat. Vlahi’s cemetery which is located on the hill west of the School is home to the two oldest members of the Greek juniper species in Bulgaria, considered to be millennial. The plane tree in the centre of the village is also centuries-old.

The central part of the village of Vlahi is located between the Vlahinska and Kosovska rivers. The Kosovska River runs under the school and, after the village, forms a waterfall and then flows into the Vlahinska River. The waterfall is about 25m tall and is one of the most beautiful walking spots around Vlahi. The pool over the waterfall is located 15min away from the square. Follow the path down the slope, to the right of the school. Cross the bridge and turn left. In 5min or so, to the left of the path, you’ll see another path going down the rocky slope. It will take you to the pool over the waterfall. The path isn’t very difficult but still requires some experience in walking across rough terrain as well as appropriate shoes.

What makes Vlahi really interesting is the fact that the village is home to 4 functional non-governmental organisations – ‘School of Nature’ Foundation, ‘Imagination’ Association (Sdruzhenie ‘Vaobrazhenie’), Balkani Wildlife Society and Semperviva Association.
‘School of Nature’ Foundation is founded by CVS – Bulgaria. It runs the ‘School of Nature’ eco centre – a centre for applied nature conservation education and learning through experience for South-western Bulgaria. It’s housed in Vlahi’s former school but the building has been rebuilt and has only preserved the original foundations. The walls have been built by volunteers using self-made bricks of clay found in the region. The roof has been equipped with solar panels which cover some of the household needs. In the school yard there are permaculture garden and composting toilets. The foundation often holds seminars and camps so don’t be surprised to see foreign volunteers in the village. The school is located at the beginning of the central part of the village, to the left.
Ivan Salnikov and Zhasmina Cholakova run the Imagination Association as well as Sharalia Centre. They have a guesthou    se and maintain sustainable practices – a reed bed sewage system, a wind turbine, composting toilets, producing bio vegetables, fruit and fish and others. Their house is on the central square.

Semperviva Foundation is run by Sider and Atila Sedefchevi. Their mission is to preserve indigenous breeds – Sarakatsani goats (long-haired Kalaferska goat and curved-horned goat), sheep, Sarakatsani horses and Bulgarian shepherd dogs that guard the flocks. Sedefchevi produce brined goat cheese and pastirma, as well as wool which is used for the making of remarkable Kukeri costumes.
Balkani Wildlife Society runs a Large Carnivore Education centre in Vlahi. It has an interactive exhibition hall where you can learn more about the lifestyle and habitats of wolves, bears, lynxes and jackals; there’s also a cafeteria, souvenir shop and conference hall. The centre also takes care of two bears and two wolves kept in a large fenced area that’s similar to their natural environment. The bears are about 10 years old and are called Medo and Buya; one of the wolves, who is about 5 years old, is called Bayto and there’s also a she-wolf of less than one year of age. These animals are messengers of nature because in our minds, formed by folklore tales and media, we consider them bad. However, they were raised among people from an early age; they are sociable and react calmly at visitors. Since it’s difficult to find a constant financial support for food for the animals, the centre relies on donations.
To reach the fenced area where the bears and the wolves live, go down the slope to the right of the school, cross the bridge and go up the road to Barata neighbourhood. The bear area comes first and next are the wolves. The houses and the fenced animal areas of Semperviva Foundation are in Barata. You should not go there without someone from the Balkani centre or from the village accompanying you because there are shepherd dogs that guard the animals. In case you happen to be there alone, never approach the flocks of sheep and goats.

Culture

There are two churches in the village – the main church on the square which was repeatedly burnt down and rebuilt, with the last building dating from 1912, and the old St. Mother of God (Sveta Bogoroditsa) Church which dates from 17th-18th century and is half-dugout. It is located about 20m to the right of the sharp turn at the beginning of the village. It’s the oldest church in the region.
The village’s gathering takes place on St. Elijah’s Day (Ilinden) or on the Saturday after St. Elijah’s Day if the holiday falls on a weekday. On this day a service is held in the church, a mutton soup is cooked and many of the heirs or the former inhabitants of the village come together. Not more than 10 people live in Vlahi permanently, with Baba Kira and Dyado Mityo being the only two native inhabitants.

Practical information:

The shop on the square will only open if you call for the shop assistant and only sells basic products, beer and sunflower seeds. Bread is delivered twice a week. The water from the fountain on the square is drinkable but the one from the fountain near the dry tree (to the right of the School) isn’t.
Vlahi is a good starting point towards the high parts of Pirin. From the centre, go to the neighbourhood of Polena; the path is white-blue-white-marked. From there go on towards the locality of Peshterata (The Cave) which borders with Pirin Nature Park. It’s an easy hike; most of the time you’ll be walking in the forest and it should take you about 3 hours. From Peshterata to Sinanitsa Peak it’s a white-yellow-white marking and the hike takes another 3 hours. You can also reach Peshterata by car via a round dirt road across the Varbite villa zone of Kresna.

There are three mineral baths near Vlahi – hot water baths in Gradeshnitsa and Oshtava and cool water bath in the village of Stara Kresna. The Oshtava bath isn’t maintained but there’s a house with a pool available. The Stara Kresna and Gradeshnitsa baths offer visitor service and accommodation.

If you’re coming from Simitli along the E79 main road, enter Kresna and turn left at the level crossing almost at the end of the town, just before the Petrol station. There’s a sign at the turn saying ‘Vlahi’. Go straight after the level crossing. The road is paved only in the beginning; then it becomes a dirt road. You should be careful while driving on it although it’s in comparatively good condition. After you reach the beginning of the village, keep going after the sharp turn and you’ll reach the central square. Usually, the village is accessible in the winter but it would be better if you have a sturdier car because the road tends to freeze.