Not much time to write about Sofia — not much time for anything at all. But it is a city I quite loved. Incredibly layered, much of the past gone it’s true, but the incredible Roman ruins of Serdica lie beneath it all, swathes of it opened up to view here and there across the centre city in often unlikely places.
The Greek inscription on the first city walls of Serdica, carved over the North and West gates of the city, reads:
The greatest and divine emporers, Ceasars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Agustus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Greatest Pontiff and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Leader of the Youth, gave to the city of the Serds a fortress walls when the Governor of the porvince of Thrace was Aselius Aemilianus, Envoy of the Emporer, Propraetore, appointed as governor of that same province.
Above sits a great mix of eras between and around the great communist boulevards and massive state buildings. I was reading Owen Hatherly, and so much of what he wrote about Warsaw, Berlin and all cities not Sofia still held true here. I am not sure how much I am still fascinated by this architecture, like everything else any promise of the early soviets crushed by a ponderous Stalinism…but probably still fascinated. It carves through the older city, yet leaves so much on either side completely untouched.
This city is full of life, grit, graffiti, architecture of many periods and styles, colour, noise, good public transportation (but confusing), delicious food.
While I might not have entirely agreed with the decision to quarantine ‘socialist’ art in the city’s outskirts, I confess did quite love seeing everything in one place.
And its special ode to Lenin.
The other monument to this era is, of course, housing. It’s own post.
There was much to love about Plovdiv, but this…It was so unexpected. First that there should be within this gallery named for the collection of Tsanko Lavrenov a floor of lithographs from the 1970s and reproduction artifacts from Mexico. Second, not so surprising really, was just how amazing this collection really was. Four rooms, all superb. I don’t usually take pictures of these things, but these…it felt like a treasure almost entirely forgotten, not all of the names of the artists were even known. No postcards of course. Never will we see them again. But the reflections from the glass break my heart.
This is only a fraction, and those I loved most. I found something on all of the artists apart from Irma Dominguez, who is behind these most spectacular cats.
Silvia Rodriguez Rubio, whose work I cannot find but who I think is teaching at UNAM.
I love these so much… Ortiz is one of the few artists here I could find information for. After his suicide this article by Raquel Tibol appears, and in it she quotes Ortiz from 1972: ‘Lo poco de educación plástica que tuve fue de orden gráfico, principalmente en el taller de Silva Santamaría‘. Whose work was also to be found here (though he is originally from Columbia). I loved it also, each character…ah, I love them. Particularly the plant creature in the bottom left, but all of these spiky, dangerous absurd medieval knights are pretty awesome.
Tsanko Lavrenov was also a surprise look at this brilliant painting titled ‘Twenty Years Socialist Construction’.
I liked the rest of his work as well, but anything of ‘ideological weight’ was in storage…as if ideology were only to be found in paintings like the one above. Still, these scenes from the old town of Plovdiv are splendid.
I’ve been reading so much about housing and so much about home. And all of it so European. So different from these homes. These homes had a touch of Europe, but really felt like something quite a bit different. These steep cobbled streets and homes stepped and angled, most from the first few decades of the 1800s were so lovely.
I took a few too many pictures maybe, but the two interiors we saw were so gracious, so unexpected. The first the House-Museum Hindliyan / Къща-музей „Хиндлиян“, built between 1835-1840 by an Armenian merchant, decorated with paintings of cities from around Europe and Istanbul/Constantinople done over a period of 6 months by Chirpan craftsmen Moka and Mavrudi. The furniture is not the original furniture of course, but typical National Revival. It is the structure, the yard with its grapes, the store room by the high wall to enter, the feel of the rooms and the incredible bath with its hypocaust heating, the fountains and niches, the wondrous ceilings that feel so different.
The second house was the Georgiadi House, entered on whim. It was actually built for Georgi Kendinenoglou by Hadzhi Georgi in 1848, but he gave it as a dowry for his daughter upon her marriage to Georgiadi, a merchant from Thessaloniki. It is a wooden frame filled in with mud bricks. The wall niches I so love are called alafranga. The central rooms on the 1st and 2nd floor both have platforms but there is nothing about them at all anywhere written here.
Few seem to love knowing the form and function of rooms and the life that filled them quite like I do. A mystery for unraveling at some future time.
This house is no longer furnished, rather it full of pictures, artifacts, guns and flags and uniforms from the freedom struggle for independence from the Ottomans. The ivory handle of a cane carved like Napoleon belonging to Peyu Geogiev, grand master of the fur-dressers guild. A portrait of the only female participant of the horse detachment of Benkovski. A small cannon. Lots of lions. Print patterns traded in the 19th century. The revolver, dagger and gospel before which Vasil Levski’s revolutionary oath was sworn. A handbook of successful fights with the Turks.
This was also the first place I really got a sense of how cosmopolitan Plovdiv was, the many different cultures and peoples who resided and traded here. All long before independence.
Still, funny to read this from the letters of Octavia Hill, which I finished not long before we came here.
I was interested to land in Bulgaria. One wonders what these young nations are going to be, somewhat as one does about children. The country looked strange and very uninhabited ; but it was much more beautiful than I expected. We went by railway thro’ it to Rustchuk. (Octavia Hill, 432)*
It is from the period not long after that independence was won (another painting of General Gurko triumphantly entering the city was to be found here, looking very much like his entry into Veliko Tarnovo).
*Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ( 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by St John of Rila, a hermit canonized by the Orthodox Church. His ascetic dwelling and tomb became a holy site and were transformed into a monastic complex which played an important role in the spiritual and social life of medieval Bulgaria. Destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. —UNESCO
Beautiful. As always I preferred the splendid murals in the light of the outside to the inside, the devils and the toothful monsters to the saints. They even had their own version of fried dough with powdered sugar and a lotería of sins painted on the walls.
The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.
This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:
Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.
Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.
We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:
He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down
I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.
Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…
— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)
The times are better I think.
But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.
But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.
And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.
This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.
This hill has been defended by many, from the Thracians to the Romans. It was made famous, though, as the centre and capital of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, which lasted from 1185 through 1396, though this was burned down in 1393. You can tell why, staring in wonder at the views in every direction. They now include old factories, the fortress of Trapezitsa on the neighbouring hill, and the park of miniatures representing all of Bulgaria’s monuments.
Its outlines have been traced through reconstruction, they are plastered with what I can only assume are Cold War era signs in Bulgarian, Russian and German (finally it becomes more clear the differences between Bulgarian and Russian). There is a frustrating lack of English, though occasionally you will trigger a sensor that begins a disembodied voice speaking in Bulgarian and English.
It is crowned by the palace and the Cathedral of the Ascension, reconstructed and the murals inside. They are absolutely unexpected and incredible. You can tell from trip advisor though, that you either love them or hate them.
You can climb everywhere, which means it is also possible to enter grave peril if not fall ignominiously to your doom. This includes the rock from which they threw off prisoners into the Yantra.
They have tried to prevent this with signs, that led to our best long running photography joke of the holiday.
We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.
It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:
Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.
A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:
The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.
The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:
From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.
Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.
The mountain now, and some of its wonders:
We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.