Mr. Vesselinov, how was the Torlak Association established in Belogradchik and how did the idea to work for the preservation of Torlak traditions originate?
The Turlak theme is very close to my heart. I was born in the Balkan mountain, in “Turlakia’s heart” – the Belogradchik-area village of Krachimir. The territory inhabited by the ethnographic group of Turlaks covers the northwestern part of the country, the districts of Vidin and Montana. The border reaches the Berkovitsa Municipality. The people speaking the Turlak dialect zealously protect their cultural-historical heritage – language, traditions, customs, rites, etc. The goal we have set for ourselves is to promote these among the youth, and also among our Bulgarian and foreign guests so as to convey them over the generations. We are also working toward nurturing and shaping feelings of patriotism to the birthplace – its rich cultural-historical heritage and unique natural landmarks. A significant part of our members includes young people. Thus, over the years the idea grew to establish a Turlak association, which was officially registered with the Vidin District Court in 2007.
We live close to the border and maintain friendly relations and very intensive contacts with Serbs. E.g., Belogradchik Municipality and the Serbian Knyazhevats Municipality were twinned back in 1968 and this year we will celebrate the 45th anniversary since the twinning. So, several years ago we found out that a Torlak association “Timocana – Torlaka” was registered in the Serbian village of Minichevo, and we are cooperating successfully and carrying out joint initiatives with its members. Our association has many supporters and good aides in nearly all settlements in the Belogradchik area, as well as in neighboring municipalities in the Vidin and Montana districts.
What is actually the difference between “torlaks” and “turlaks”?
Nowadays there is definitely talk of “Turlakia” in the Belogradchik area villages of Krachimir, Stakevtsi, Salash, some of Chuprene municipality. Actually, there is not difference in the terms “turlak” and “torlak”, it is just one letter “O” or “U”, which comes down to speech specifics. Particularly for our area, for the Turlaks from the Belogradchik area villages, speaking with a “T-U-” sound dialect is characteristic. There are numerous examples of this (meaning is lost when translated into English). There is also the indicative example of an old-ish, naughty song, which is sung at revelries, sit-together’s, and evening parties (meaning is lost when translated into English).
How many are the Torlaks in Bulgaria?
The demographic collapse is fact of life in Northwestern Bulgaria. In many villages alongside the border the population declined in recent decades. Presently some 20 000 people in the region fall within this ethnographic group. The Torlaks are “highlanders” but there is talk of Torlaks in other areas in Bulgaria – in the Plovdiv region, around Dobrich, in the Deliorman area. According to some publications, there are Torlaks in Macedonia, a Torlak community in south Romania, the Gorani in Albania also identify as Torlaks.
Versions about Torlak origin differ but it seems most reach the conclusion that Turlaks are descendants of an ancient Thracian tribe.
Yes, there are different versions and many publications on the subject matter. Torlaks were referenced in many old historical texts. Indeed, Torlaks are considered descendants of Thracians. The territory of the Thracian tribe Triballi used to cover our particular region and that along the Timok river valley – from the Serbian municipality of Knyazhevats to here, the Belogradchik area. The Triballi Thracians were involved in artisanship. They also had mining skills and worked the gold mines in the region. They were also skilled stock breeders and farmers, tailors and homespun manufacturers. The Turlaks may be considered descendants of this particular Thracians tribe.
And where does the word “Turlak/Torlak” come from?
There are some versions for that, too. Since these are highlanders, their settlements were in the Balkan mountain itself. As their main means of livelihood was stock breeding, some of the people resided in the forests either some or all of the time during the year. There they would make “torlo” or “turla”, “tarlo”, “tarlyak” – meaning high, big, circular open pens for the sheep and goats. These words are considered to be the origin of the word “turlak” or “torlak”. It is a popular expression that “I go to the “torlo”, “tarlo”, or “tarlyak””. The stock owners would more stable homes for themselves. Up to this day a tale is told in my village of a young male, who would be with the animals and not come back home for months. So, his parents went one night to the village’s end and shouted from the top of their lungs, the conversation going as follows:
– Zhivko, come home tomorrow evening! – And he responded:
– Well, what for, yo?
– We’re getting you married … And he would ask again:
– And to whom?”… And they started explaining …
When did the other name for Torlaks – wearers of white clothes – started getting popular?
Somewhere at the start of the previous century, due to the specific clothing of this community. The Turlaks white “uniform” was preserved and was worn until the 1920’s. Some models have been preserved in museums. It is characterized by two-row or five-row braiding embroidered on the pockets and collars. The male apparel contained an embroidered shirt down to knee-length and a sleeveless jacket with embroidery in the neck area. They would wear white tight trousers made of homespun on their legs, and the leather opinci (sandals) or “opanci” as they are called in our region, have black laces. Only the Torlak opanci have such black laces, they are characteristic and typical for the apparel and the kalpak headwear.
Your Association is called Zhdrebche, where does it come from?
„Zhrebche” is the highest peak in the western part of the Stara Planina mountain,1373 meters above sea level. Due to the specifics of local speech, however, we speak with a very hard accent here, the locals added the “d” for euphony. Very often we make excursions to the Zdhrebche peak, which is near the very border. We decided to name our association this way because the Bulgarian villages of Turlakia are on this site of the peak – the Turlaks’ cradle is in Krachimir, Salash, and Stakevtsi. It is not accidental that local poets write so much about Turlakia. On the other site of the border are our brothers, the Torlak Serbs from Minichevo and the municipality of Knyazhevats, we meet them at folklore fairs and cooperate in many respects. There are many things connecting us – common traditions, same manner of speaking, similar cuisine.
Is the Turlak dialect the same on both sides of the border?
Not only are the words common, we are similar in all regards – in customs, mentality, most of all, the unadulterated sense of humor. The Turlak dialect is specific and many of the words are not found in either the Bulgarian or Serbian literary language. E.g., we call tomatoes “aubergines”, the stomach – “belly”, etc. A person from „the rest of Bulgaria” would hardly understand anything we say but this is the charm of our tongue. The Turlak dialect lacks the letters of “F” and “Ъ“ (“yer”), this is why we say „Vener” instead of „Fener” (lantern) and „Vilia”, instead of „Filia” (slice of bread), „Vurnia” –„Furna” (oven), „Rub” instead of „rab” (edge), „grbina” – „grab” (human back), etc. In some words only the consonants remain – “shtarkel” (stork) becomes “shtrk”, the worm becomes wrm (црв), “plzh” stands for “ohlyuv” (snail). In many cases the “H” sound is dropped, thus the question would be „stra li te e” (are you scared), and not „straH li te e”. In our village there is a family – Убавенкови (Ubavenkovtsi, first letter H is dropped). Some at some point was called Ubavenko (“’andsome one”), so all handsome people here are “’andsome”.
Have the Turlak songs and expressions been preserved, are they sung and spoken to this day?
Yes, here, in this region, there are excellent folklore bands, in Stakevtsi and Salash. At the National Fair of Artistic Creativity in Koprivshtitsa in 2010, the singing group “Rossen Zdravets” at the Krum Bachvarov-1892 Public Library in Stakevsti was awarded a Golden Plaque and a certificate for the song “Pilo li e magareto vodu” (Has the Donkey Drunk Water) and the ancient folk dance Bibichi.
We Turlaks are talkative, we talk a lot and like to joke. They have an anthem in Stekevtsi, which goes “Wide are Gyore’s fields, rabbits and foxen walk there”. The men have a motto, which indicates what a man deserves to have “nice thick meal, real wine, and younger brides. The Turlak man is known be “an oak of a man” – the oak that “grew under a shadow and drank cold water”, a straight, healthy, and tall oak – in a word, a well-built fellow. It is also said “We, the Turlaks are resilient as svinakovina and are not easily broken”. Svinakovina is a shrub-like tree, which can reach 2-3 meters in height and is very resilient, you can bend it all you want without breaking it. This is the Turlak character – we hold our ground. We may bend but not “remake”, we are not subject to persuasion. Turlaks are proud people, who can also boast, tell funny and long “idle stories”. Our motto is “We are Turlaks, we are heroes”.
What is the typical Torlak cuisine, what would you put on the table when you meet your brothers from Serbia?
One of the typical dishes is “beli muzh” (white man), it is also known as such in the cook books – a “white man from the Belograchik area”. The dish is known in the known in the entire region, and in one Serbian town they even hold an annual three-day festival of the “white man” dish, they select a Mister and a Miss, who wear traditional apparel, songs are sung. Another typical dish is the Sarma with chestnut kernels and beans-stuffed gnetenye (peppers). In summer one would eat “fried” – onion, pepper, tomato, and cheese, as well as “mower’s sour (drink)” – a cucumber cut in very small pieces, bits of dry pepper, garlic, water, and vinegar. It goes excellently with home-distilled brandy. The Torlak banitsa also has inimitable taste. Even the ordinary potato soup – „Kompirovitsa” with crushed cheese – has some specific Torlak cooking subtleties. These and many other delicious things are prepared and sold in many restaurants to tourists coming to the region.
Will the rich cultural heritage of Torlaks be preserved for the future generations. Do the young people in the region show interest in the Torlak traditions?
This is our goal – to present the Turlak tongue, customs, traditions, and rites so as to be transmitted to the people and new generations. Some 160 persons are engaged in the Child Center in Belogradchik. We work with children, including towards preservation and development of the local folklore. There is a children’s group, which shows great interest, we are now starting to prepare various folk scenes and sketches played by the children. The young people should know the customs and native speak of their grandparents.
The good thing is that the local authorities support strongly the initiatives aiming to preserve the cultural and historical heritage and the activities for promotion of Torlak folklore and traditions. Last year our association received an award from the Minister of the Economy, Energy, and Tourism for its activities.
How is this part of Bulgaria to be referred to – „Northwestern-Declined” or „Northwestern-Preserved”?
Definitely “Northwestern-Preserved” and I am happy to see this „Northwestern-Declined Bulgaria”, but the truth is that even though our economy is not well developed, we have a unique cultural and historical heritage. The region is environmentally preserved and there are excellent conditions to develop tourism. There are superb wineries producing elite eco wines. The tourists are welcomed by hospitable and smiling hosts. Most of all, thoug, we have wonderful, aware and smart young people, who are the big wealth of the Northwestern-Preserved Bulgaria.