Set as if in a bowl surrounded by rolling peaks, little Kotel is a quiet and modest mountain town, though a very historic one, with its strong links to the 19th-century Bulgarian revolutionary movement. Being somewhat remote, set 49km northeast of Sliven on a forested mountain road, Kotel has not really had the fortune (or misfortune) of being discovered by tourism. It’s a friendly place, where children scamper about and village elders will greet you with a smile and dobur den (good day). Here the crisp mountain air is permeated with the smell of wood-burning stoves in autumn, while the leafy square has just enough moss between the stones to keep your feet buoyant.
Kotel is known for having been the birthplace of numerous Bulgarian scholars, writers and revolutionaries, including Safronii Vrachanski, Georgi Rakovski and Petâr Beron. At the same time, the Turks exempted the village from onerous responsibilities such as tax payments because local artisans were contracted to outfit the Ottoman army in the mid-1800s. Kotel was home for 126 ‘enlighteners’ active during the burst of revolutionary activity from 1877 to 1878. Kotel is today known for its carpets and rugs, which are made from wool in homes on wooden looms. The Kotel style predominantly features four colours: red, black, green and blue.
On 15 July 1894, a fire ravaged most of Kotel, sparing only the western Galata district. Although the houses and churches were rebuilt, the National Revival period had passed and the town is not exactly like Lovech or Koprivshtitsa – which is perhaps just why a visit here might be a relief for those past saturation point on 19th-century Bulgarian architecture.