Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Few Days In Plovdiv

Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in the world. Its long history includes being conquered by Philip of Macedon in 341 BC, capture by the Romans in 46 AD, attacks by the Goths and Huns and five centuries of Turkish rule under the Ottomans.  Evidence of its long history is everywhere with Roman remains, Byzantine churches, two mosques, a synagogue, superb Bulgarian Revival architecture and some wonderful modernist buildings from the 1930's. This long history together with a vibrant contemporary cultural scene has resulted in Plovdiv being selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019. I recently spent a few days there. Here are some of the highlights.

Bulgarian Revival architecture - The Ethnographical Museum, Old Town
Bulgarian Revival Museum, Old Town
The old town is a treasure house of Bulgarian Revival architecture much of which has been restored in recent years. Several of the buildings are now museums including the Museum of the Bulgarian Revival housed in the former home of wealthy merchant Dimitur Georgiadi. The museum details Bulgaria's struggle to free itself from 500 years of Turkish rule via a number of small exhibitions spread across the museum's three floors. Paintings, artefacts, maps and other documents are used to tell this harrowing story but the building itself is possibly the main attraction with its symmetrical and ornamented red facade, beautiful wood carved ceilings and huge reception room at first floor level. There is also a pleasant garden at the rear of the building.

The Hindliyan House, Old Town
Ceiling, Hindliyan House, Old Town
Alfranga, Hindliyan House, Old Town
Several other Revival style houses are open to the public. The Hindliyan House, completed in 1835 for Stephen Hindliyan, an Armenian merchant, is arranged over two levels. It has beautiful carved ceilings, intricate wall decorations that make use of geometrical and floral motifs and a collection of paintings depicting different cities. Decorative alcoves called alfrangas are key features of many of the Bulgarian revival houses. They are intended to create the illusion of a window with gardens, landscapes and other views painted on to them. The house has several exquisitely decorated alfrangas whilst the first floor also has a Turkish bath and steam room, emphasising the wealth and prominence of the Handliyan family. You can buy a single ticket at most of the houses in the Old Town and use it to visit five buildings of your choice from a list of several. 

Old Town Street Scene
Books for sale, Old Town
Traditional carriage holding items in antique shop, Old Town
The Old Town also has many craft and antique shops. I especially liked the shops around Saborna and Tsanko Lavronov streets where there are on treasure troves of books, ephemera and Bulgariana. I was very tempted by a number of items and came away with a 1930's postcard promoting a Bulgarian brand of shoe polish (!) and some colourful advertising works on paper. There are artists' workshops lining the steep, narrow, cobbled lane leading to the peak of the Old Town. These include the ceramics workshop of Tsvetana Videva who will demonstrate her work to visitors as do neighbouring weavers whilst opposite I came across another find - the tiny antique shop of musician "Peter Pan". Peter will play you a tune on a variety of instruments whilst you browse the wooden items, vintage toys and other items in his eclectic collection. Continuing along the lane to the top, you will be afforded views across the city, making the climb all the more worthwhile.

Tsvetana Videva, ceramicist, Old Town
Roman Theatre with views of the city and hills
Roman Theatre - The Stage
The Roman theatre is perhaps Plovdiv's star attraction. Built into the hillside with 4,000 seats it is still in use with an extensive programme of opera and classical music. Built in the First Century AD during the reign of Emperor Trajan, it originally seated 7,000. Some sympathetic restoration work has been undertaken to ensure the safe use of the theatre which was rediscovered and excavated in 1972.  Anyone performing here will have to be good because they are in competition with spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills. 

Plovdiv also boasts another significant Roman site - the former stadium in the commercial heart of the city which is easily accessible from the street. This is the city's main shopping and entertainment area with many shops, cafes, restaurants, theatres and galleries. Busy night and day, it also draws aspiring musicians and strolling along the main drag you can hear music of various genres including traditional music played on the Bulgarian bagpipe. Excavation and restoration work is currently being undertaken on a third ancient site - an enormous 5th Century Basilica where exquisite early Christian mosaics have been uncovered. It is anticipated that the works will be complete by the end of 2018.

Bulgarian Bagpipe player
Street art, Kapana
Kapana street scene and the Dzhumaya Mosque
The Kapana quarter, adjacent to the commercial centre and a short walk from the Old Town is Plovdiv's edgy, artsy quarter filled with cafes, bars, independent shops and contemporary art galleries. Kapana itself is a huge art gallery, with interesting and sometimes challenging street art covering many of the walls or shop shutters.

Established in the 16th century during the Ottoman period, Kapana was originally home to merchants and craftsmen and this is reflected in some of the street names - Zhelezarska Street (Blacksmiths' Street), Zlatarska Street (Gold Street) and Kozhuharska Street (Furriers' Street). The neighbourhood was redeveloped in the 1920's as a residential area, evidenced by the late art nouveau, neo-classicist and occasional modernist buildings in Kapana's network of streets. In later years, the area declined and many shops and homes stood vacant before the Municipality, recognising the area's potential began a programme of restoration and encouraged small businesses to move in. Today it is a busy area especially popular with young people who fill the tables of the street-side cafes on sunny days and come to enjoy the upbeat atmosphere in the evenings.

Street art, Kapana
Cafe, Kapana
Street scene, Kapana
I have already written here about Plovdiv's superb collection of modernist architecture from the 1930's but can't resist adding a couple of pictures in this post to illustrate the city's architectural diversity. And because I love modernist architecture!

9 Archimandit Damaskin Street, 1937, architect- Svetoslav Grozev
Modernist building, central Plovdiv, details unknown.
Plovdiv boasts many good quality restaurants and I had no problem in finding places serving good vegetarian dishes. The restaurant of the Hebros Hotel in the Old Town was recently voted Bulgaria's best. It serves traditional Bulgarian food and has very good soups and desserts. The hotel is in a Bulgarian Revival building which adds to the atmosphere of dining there.  Atlas in the commercial centre is a modern restaurant offering a good list of pastas, salads and more substantial dishes. I enjoyed a delicious (and filling) pasta dish at one of the alfresco tables. The service here was very good too. The third place I ate at was Pizza Verdi in Nayden Gorev Street where the food is simple but tasty and here there are also outside tables. Again, the service was good with friendly and attentive staff. It is possible to eat well for comparatively little cost in all of Bulgaria.

It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Sofia to Plovdiv and there are also trains and buses that link the two cities. It is a great, compact city, easy to navigate and packed with interesting and unusual things to see and do. It is also a great location from which to explore the surrounding countryside and the Rhodope mountains with their many monasteries and villages. Plovdiv's well-deserved selection for European Capital of Culture 2019 will showcase the city's many attractions as well as a special programme of high profile concerts, exhibitions and sports events and offer the chance to experience the more local, "cosy" Plovdiv, its arts, crafts and cuisine. But you don't have to wait until then to go...

You might also like Bulgarian Modernism - A Well Kept Secret or Novi Sad - Another Serbian Surprise

A series of Plovdiv walking routes have been published under the "Alternative Plovdiv" heading. You can use them online or download hard copies here.

You can see more pictures from Bulgaria here

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Bulgarian Modernism - a well kept secret

The modernist architecture of Paris, Prague, Vienna and Rotterdam  is well known whilst more recently, cities in Eastern Europe have begun to be recognised for their contribution to the genre. Bucharest and Kaunas are good examples of this but perhaps it is Bulgarian modernism that has been the continent's best kept secret and which is only now beginning to receive attention. This is largely due to the superb Facebook Group - Bulgarian Modernist Architecture - which carries many examples of the style together with, where known, details of the dates of construction and architects responsible.  It is no exaggeration to say that this Facebook page was responsible for my re-visiting Bulgaria after a gap of 31 years. The page is the work of Vasil Makarinov and Theodor Karakolev. On my recent visit Vasil was kind enough to give me a tour of some of Sofia's best examples of the style.

 48 Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia. 1937-38, Radoslav Radoslavov and Konstantin Djangozov 
It is important to note that Bulgaria's modernist buildings are not limited to Sofia. Examples can be found in many towns and cities including Plovdiv and Varna which I was also able to visit. As elsewhere, the architecture from this period has not always been recognised for its importance and a number of buildings have already been lost. But, as Vasil explained, the greatest threat to preservation comes from "renovation" which in many cases really means removal of important original features and making unsympathetic additions to the extent that the building loses its original character and becomes unrecognisable. Unfortunately this is a global problem and the examples of near vandalism in Bulgaria are replicated in many cities and countries.

Many of the buildings also suffered significantly during the Communist period. Property was removed from private ownership, the owners ejected or forced into a small part of their former homes and proper care of the buildings became extremely difficult if not impossible. Since the fall of the former regime some properties have been restored to the original owners but this is a complex and lengthy process and whilst it is played out there is further deterioration

Karadzhata  building, 3 Moskovska Street, Sofia. C1930, Krustan Gechev and  Peter Karasimeonov
Bulgaria's route to modernism was a little different to that of other countries. Independence from Turkish rule was not achieved until 1878 following 500 years of Ottoman rule during which Bulgarian culture was largely suppressed. Soon after came the the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the First World War 1914-18 neither of which went well for Bulgaria and perhaps because of this, the period between the 1920's and 1940's was one of great change economically, socially and culturally.

With the onset of industrialisation many people moved to the cities, specially Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas, creating an urgent need for additional housing as well as public buildings. This brought good opportunities for architects but Bulgaria's first university architectural and engineering course was not established until 1942. Until then, architects working in the country were either foreign or had been educated in Paris, Vienna, Berlin or Prague. This resulted in modernist influences from other parts of Europe impacting on Bulgaria, including the use of concrete, steel and glass whilst the ideas of the Bauhaus School, Le Corbusier and others about hygiene, separation of living and sleeping spaces and access to fresh air gained ground here too. Little has been published in English about the architects responsible for these buildings but Vasil was able to provide some details for me to supplement my own findings.

Viktoria Angelova-Vinarova was born in Veliko-Tarnovo in 1902. Her father was a British educated merchant who apparently named her after Queen Victoria. The Bulgarian Viktoria studied at Vienna's University of Technology and then Dresden Polytechnic before returning to Sofia at the age of 24 to work as an intern at the Ministry of Public Works. She married another architect, Boris Vinarov in 1933 and they set up a practise together. Their home was destroyed in the Allied bombing of Sofia in 1944 and they moved to Veliko Tarnovo where Viktoria became ill with pneumonia from which she recovered only to die when the illness returned in 1947.

37 Moskovska Street, Sofia. 1937, Viktoria Angelova-Vinarova.
As well as working in the neo-classical style, she was responsible for a number of modernist buildings including the apartment block at 37 Moskovska Street, Sofia and the fabulous Sea Casino in Burgas. Her Moskovska Street building is just a short step from the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  The austere grey facade is outstanding due to its series of balconies over the top five levels. Completed in 1937, each of these floors has three balconies, a semi-circular central one flanked by two more in the "Bauhaus" style with each one apparently accessed through a set of floor to ceiling windows. Several of the windows have been "modernised" but some originals remain. 

Angelova won the Sea Casino commission through an open competition and designed a thoroughly modernist building with Art Deco influenced portholes and a roof terrace overlooking the sea as part of a general nautical theme. It opened to great fanfare in 1938 but was abandoned in the 1990's and left to deteriorate. It has since been restored, reopening in 2011 and now operates as a cultural centre with a programme of concerts, theatre, cinema, classes and other activities. The restoration received Bulgaria's Building of the Year Award in 2011. I was unable to visit Burgas during my recent trip but it is on my list for next time!

63 Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia. 1946, Vasko Vassilev.
Vasko Vassilev was born at the beginning of the 20th century and came from a family of architects, his father having been the Chief Engineer of Sofia. Vasko studied architecture in Linz, Austria and began practising in the 1930's. He was known to mix with leading artists and had a collection of paintings received as gifts from some of the leading Bulgarian painters of the day. Vassilev was responsible for designing several apartment buildings in which he demonstrated a commitment to streamline design principles and which even today have a contemporary feel to them. Unfortunately, his career was cut short in 1948 when the Communist authorities banned private enterprise and his architectural office was forced to close. One of his buildings stands at 63 Vitosha Boulevard on Sofia's main pedestrianised shopping street. A late example of the modernist style it was built in 1948 as a housing association apartment block. It has retail on the ground floor with residential units above. Standing on a corner plot, it has superb curved windows, narrow balconies running the length of the facade and a rooftop terrace which must afford fantastic views of the mountains that surround the city.

48 Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia. 1937-38, Radoslav Radoslavov and Konstantin Djangozov
59 Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia. 1938-39, Radoslav Radoslavov and Konstantin Djangozov
Office building central Sofia. 1937, Konstantin Djangozov.
Vitosha Boulevard is home to two more excellent modernist buildings that face each other across the pedestrian walkway. Both were designed by the uncle and nephew team of Radoslav Radoslavov and Konstantin Djangozov who like other Bulgarian practitioners had studied abroad this time in Paris under the direction of Auguste Perret. Perret was himself responsible for a number of modernist and Art Deco buildings constructed throughout the 1920's and 30's. Radoslav also attended lectures with Le Corbusier and it is known that they continued to correspond following the former's return to Sofia. Back to Vitosha Boulevard. The Nedkov Apartment building at number 48 was built in 1937-38. It is striking for its red and white facade and the glazing that runs the length of each floor, but for me the outstanding features are those exquisite white corner balconies that protrude from the edge of the building, drawing our gaze upwards and giving the building such a Mediterranean feel. 

The Urumov building at number 59 has the same red and white facade with squared off balconies and a roof garden. It was completed in 1938-39. Imagine how desirable these apartments must have been back in the late 1930's...and how much they are now. The two architects also completed separate commissions. I particularly like Djangzov's office block in central Sofia. Occupying a corner plot, it is supported on stilts, has a roof terrace and trademark glazing running the length of the facade  which  ends in a superb curve.

Former Assicurazioni Generali building, 5 Moskovska St, Sofia.1938-40, Asen Mihaylovski.
38 Vassil Levski Boulevard, Sofia. Circa 1929, architect unknown
In addition to the Facebook group, Vasil has worked with a number of friends to produce an exhibition focusing on 25 key Bulgarian modernist buildings with information in both Bulgarian and English perhaps making it possible for the exhibition to be seen overseas in future. It is also encouraging to note that some of Plovdiv's key modernist buildings are being promoted through the Alternative Plovdiv mapping project. Perhaps more well known for its Roman theatre and stadium and for its Bulgarian Revival buildings in the old town, Plovdiv also has some superb modernist buildings. 

The white painted house at 9 Archimandit Damaskin was built in 1937 for Dragomir Tsankov, an industrialist and Chair of the Plovdiv Chamber of Commerce from 1938-43. Designed by Svetoslav Grozev it would not look out of place in Tel Aviv. Despite the peeling paint, overgrown garden and heavy duty security fencing surrouning the house, it remains supremely elegant with its roof top terrace, glazed stairwell and side balcony which must have once looked out over a pristine garden. Today it is flanked  by a busy dual carriageway but at the time of building it would have been on the edge of the city with cafes and shops on Otets Paisiy Street and fields on the other side.

9 Archimandit Street, Plovdiv. 1937, Svetoslav Grozev.
9 Archimandit Street, Plovdiv. 1937, Svetoslav Grozev.
18 Tsar Alexander Street, Plovdiv. 1930's, Stefan Todorov.
18 Tsar Alexander Street, Plovdiv. 1930's, Stefan Todorov.
Industrial School, Plovdiv. 1930's, Svetoslav Grozev and Dimitar Popov.
The apartment block at 18 Tsar Alexander Street was built in the 1930's and designed by architect Stefan Todorov. It has a delightful scoop at the rear with a concave walkway/ balcony at each of the upper levels as well as a loggia at the front of the building. In addition to this there is a glazed stairwell and a curved staircase drawing visitors to the front door. Despite needing a little loving it really is a show stopper. Just across the road at 70 Gladstone, there is another modernist building - the Professional High School of Interior Design and Wood Processing, better known as the Industrial School. Also built in the 1930's it was designed by Svetoslav Grozev (who also designed the Tsankov House) and Dimitar Popov. A red brick structure, it has a spectacular glazed stairwell, a tiny balcony on the corner of the facade which mirrors the shape (although not the size)  of the canopy beneath.

Finally to Varna,  Bulgaria's third city which stands beside the Black Sea. I like Varna very much. It has the upbeat atmosphere of a popular seaside town, a delightful Sea Park and a range of architectural styles including ancient Roman ruins, art nouveau, baroque and of course, modernism. There are numerous modernist apartment blocks throughout the city, but perhaps the most striking, and possibly my favourite is the fabulous apartment block at 59 Primorski Boulevard. Known as "The Beach" and built in 1933, the architect responsible was Stefan Benedikt-Popov. It has the appearance of an ocean liner with long balconies at each level, beautiful original windows (at some levels) and a squared off tower which continues the seafaring theme. The upper levels have spectacular views across the park and over the Black Sea. 

59 Primorski Boulevard, Varna. 1933, Stefan Benedikt-Popov
59 Primorski Boulevard, Varna. 1933, Stefan Benedikt-Popov
I need to thank Vasil once again for his time and help in Sofia as well as for answering my many questions about dates and architects for the buildings featured in this post. It was great to meet someone with so much enthusiasm and tenacity. Let's hope that over the next few years Bulgarian modernism will become as widely known as that of other European countries. The forthcoming exhibition will certainly help. We just need him to write a book now...

And to finish -  a bit of an Art Deco treat,  the dramatic staircase from the Winter Garden at Sofia's Bulgaria Hotel and Concert Hall complex, built in 1937 and designed by Stancho Belkovski and Ivan Danchov. Fabulous.



You can see more pictures from Bulgaria here.