The route from Western Europe to Istanbul has passed through the Bulgarian town of Harmanli for centuries, and locals have long provided food and shelter to passing travelers—a tradition reflected in the town’s name. Harman was the threshing floor where all the grain consumed at local inns originated, and harmanlii were the people doing the threshing. So, it is no coincidence that the traditional foods and crafts festival, established four years ago to celebrate Harmanli’s history, is called “At the Harman”—at the threshing floor—and that one of its highlights is the artistic reenactment of the rituals associated with threshing.
Organizing a threshing festival takes just as much preparation as getting grain ready for threshing. Thankfully, the “soil” is fertile in Harmanli and the neighboring villages, where a number of traditional crafts and culinary customs have been preserved to this day. The “seed” came from neighboring Ivaylovgrad, which has held a tradition-inspired culinary festival—the Culinary Heritage of Thrace—for the past ten years. Motivated by Ivaylovgrad’s example, Harmanli business owners decided to create their own celebration and began to seek support and helpers. They found them in the local community and the city of Harmanli. The active involvement of the AGORA Platform, which helped create the Ivaylovgrad festival as well, “enriched the soil” by providing advice and funding, and soon “At the Harman” became a reality.
Threshers in chief were harmanlii themselves: people like Katia Stoyanova, owner of several pharmacies, who had personal meetings with local artisans and producers and mayors of neighboring villages to promote the initiative. She put her personal reputation on the line in organizing the first edition of the festival to such an extent that she said, only half-jokingly, “If this festival doesn’t happen, I’ll have to leave town.” Entrepreneurs Hristina Borissova, Milko Milkov, Banko Banev, and others also invested time and resources into getting the first edition of the festival off the ground.
On September 9, 2017, Harmanli residents and visitors gathered “at the threshing floor” to celebrate their heritage—the first such gathering in a long time. Modern and traditional production met at the 42 stands selling locally produced wine, tahini, honey, bread, dairy products, and others. In addition to a glimpse of Harmanli’s history and culinary customs, festival guests were treated to songs and dances from the region and a tour of a traditional-home replica. Celebrated folk singer Valya Balkanska was the star of the first edition, while popular TV host Nasko Mihaylov emceed at both the first and the second editions of the festival. Subsequent editions were even more successful than the first, featuring more local producers and a richer lineup of activities.
Katia, Milko, Hristina, Banko, and the other entrepreneurs’ job did not end with organizing the festival. During the actual event, they could be seen running around in identical volunteer T-shirts, moving things, making phone calls, giving directions—making sure everything went as smoothly as possible. They also fundraised for the festival’s subsequent editions by selling drinks and delicious grilled meat, which they prepared themselves.
“We feel responsible for the city’s image,” says Hristina, who owns a consulting business, heads a local business association, and serves as AGORA’s coordinator in the city. “We are also writing the history of Harmanli’s business community. We want to show it cares about Harmanli’s people and their wellbeing.”
“The Harmanli festival improved locals’ self-esteem. It made them realize that they can be united, strong, different,” says AGORA director Emilia Lissichkova, who has helped create and promote more than ten local community festivals over the past thirteen years. “Without celebrations, communities fall apart. Celebrations are what unites a community.” In addition to helping people bond, these festivals attract tourism from Bulgaria and abroad and support the local economy.
Support for local festivals is just one aspect of AGORA’s strategy for local community development in Bulgaria. AGORA provides assistance and funding to local community organizations and promotes the establishment of private-public partnerships to fund local initiatives.
The festival in Harmanli was implemented under the AGORA Platform’s project “Active Communities: Capacity Building for Change” with support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation.