The eternal Kyustendil

А town of healing mineral springs and a millennium history

Pautalia, Velbazhd, Konstantinova Banya, Kallosia – all names designating one of the most ancient settlements in Europe in the past – Kyustendil. Today it is an administrative and provincial capital, the town of the Master, of an abundance of ecological agricultural produce, and of cherries. Apart from the good climate, the beautiful nature, and the rich cultural tradition, the town is impressive for its thousands of years of history and the magic of the curative waters.

Its route as a resort and rehabilitation centre from the past to the present is marked by the curative mineral water. Unique in their structure and qualities, the Kyustendil waters have an impact on a series of illnesses. The greatest advantage when compared to the other mineral waters in Bulgaria is the beneficial effect in resolving fertility problems, dermatological, trauma and orthopaedic, and neurological illnesses.

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Ильо Войвода

Pautalia: Mystical legends, ancient ritual stele, and many monuments reveal that, more than 25 centuries ago, the mineral water of Kyustendil bubbled freely to the surface of the earth. It was precisely this water that attracted the attention of the Thracian tribes of the Paeones and Dentheletae who, at the end of the sixth century and beginning of the fifth century BCE headed towards the lands around the middle and upper reaches of the River Struma and founded settlements, one of which is present-day Kyustendil. Sources show that the first name of the future health resort – Pautalia – is engraved on a coin, on the face of which is an image of Asclepius, the God of Medicine and Health, while on the other there is an image of the symbol of healing waters – a snake. It was the power of the mineral water that succeeded in healing the chronic illnesses of the emperors Ulpius Trajanus (97-117 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE). In their honour, the town was named Ulpia Pautalia and this marks the beginning and flourishment of a grand Roman resort town for treatment and rehabilitation of the most deserving Roman generals and military leaders. The largest mineral water sanatorium in the Balkans was built – the “Asclepion” – which, in size, was second only to the Temple of Asklepios at Epidaurus, the largest in the Roman Empire. According to the ancient historian Pausanias, the temples to Asclepius were built in forests near hot springs, whose waters were considered sacred and curative. Three weapons were used in the treatment: words, plants, and the scalpel, where speech took precedence.

From the archaeological surveys carried out within the town – the centre of which is an architectural and archaeological reserve – we have uncovered the Roman Thermae (second and third century CE), comprising a health centre in the heart of the town, and the Hissarlaka citadel (fourth to fifth century CE), which have withstood the great historical upheavals of time and today from the main tourist attractions for visitors to the town. The citadel was built at the end of the fourth to the beginning of the fifth century, and rebuilt in the sixth century: it existed during the periods of the First and Second Bulgarian Empires and was destroyed by the Ottoman conquerors in the fifteenth century.

Velbazhd: During the mediaeval periods, Velbazhd arose on the site of Pautalia. The town became part of the Bulgarian Empire after 809 CE and related its entire development to the empire by growing as an administrative, military, economic, and spiritual centre in the southwestern Bulgarian lands. In school history books, Velbazhd is mentioned in connection with one of the most memorable battles of the Bulgarian Empire – the battle between Tsar Mihail III Shishman and the Serbian king, Stefan III Dečanski, which took place in the area around the mediaeval town. Legend has it that the grave of the Bulgarian Tsar, who fell during the battle, is located beneath the mediaeval Church of St. George, one of the oldest and best-preserved churches in southwestern Bulgaria.

Kyustendil: Historical sources connect the origin of the last name of the town with the Yörük word “kyüsten” which, translated into Bulgarian, means “bathhouse”. It is obvious that, regardless of the period, the mineral water was of great significance to the development of the town: the wealth of the curative Kyustendil springs was appreciated by the Ottoman governors, when the twenty sources started to be used and twelve hammams were built, three of which are preserved to the present day: Dervish Banya, Alay Banya, and Chifté Banya.

The history of the town continues to live in the exhibits of the Academician Yordan Ivanov Regional History Museum, which covers a hundred and thirty years of collecting, divided into archaeological and numismatic exhibits dedicated to modern and contemporary history, as well as immovable cultural monuments. The museum also preserves fully authentic works of craftsmanship in three main collections: Material Culture, Folk Arts and Crafts, and Folklore. The most typical crafts in the Kyustendil area are weaving, production of folk costumes, jewellery-making, ceramics, woodcarving, icon painting, and the artistic production of national dolls called “kukeri”.

The people of Kyustendil are rightly proud of Ilyo Markov, known as the last “haydutin” – grandfather Ilyo Voyvoda (warlord). This hero, almost mythicised in Bulgarian folk stories, relates to the Kyustendil area. The heroic appearance, exceptional courage, and boldness of Ilyo Markov, as well as his legendary sense of justice, gave birth to legends and hyperbole to fantastical levels of his actions. The house in which the noted renaissance figure lived after the Liberation has been preserved and turned into a museum.

During the First World War, the main headquarters of the army was quartered in the town. Many officers, led by the chief commander General Nikola Zhekov, settled in the town. Kyustendil earned an important place in history and was turned into a military capital. Here, the Royal Family, the Bulgarian prime minister and cabinet members periodically arrived.

The town is also connected with the beginnings of the movement to save the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War. The permanent exhibition at the Dimitar Peshev Museum House tells of the work of Dimitar Peshev and four of his fellow townsmen: Asen Suychmezov, Vladimir Kurtev, Petar Mihaylov and Ivan Momchilov.

Appreciative of the beauty of the place “touched by the Gods”, the illustrious artist Vladimir Dimitrov, known as The Master, lived and worked in Kyustendil up to the end of his life, and the Art Gallery founded in the name of the Kyustendil artist preserves more than 1300 works by the Master. It is typical of the gallery that is has a collection of works by artists who are connected to the Kyustendil area and whose art is similar in spirit and with a common conceptual and plastic direction. Cultural life in the town is an original synthesis of Bulgarian tradition and new tendencies in contemporary society as seen through the eyes of the Kyustendil artistic circles. The festivities that are unique for Bulgaria and typical for the region are a mirror of the mentality of the local population, as well as being an expression of continuity and development in the traditions of the area.

The Kyustendil cherry is a particular symbol of the fertility and wealth of nature in the region, referred to as “the orchard of Bulgaria”. It was here that the first orchard exhibition in Bulgaria was organised in 1896. At the end of June each year, Kyustendil becomes a magnet for lovers of ecological and diverse cherry production, when the town greets guests from all over the world to celebrate the rich cherry-picking campaign.

Kyustendil is a town born and grown close to hot mineral water springs; that accumulated the wisdom of ancient Pautalia and the maturity of grand Velbazhd; it has existed and survived through the centuries, lying on the ruins and cultural layers of entire epochs, drawing strength from them and human experience from the past. Today, the town beneath Hissarlaka is attractive for the modernity of a cultural centre, unique nature, and curative mineral waters.

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