Monday 29 May 2017

Villa Cavrois

Villa Cavrois is a spectacular modernist building tucked away in Croix, not far from Lille in Northern France. Built between 1929 and 1932, it was designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens for industrialist Paul Cavrois. The villa was intended as a home for the Cavrois household which included seven children and a number of domestic servants.  The family fortune had been made from two spinning operations and dye-works. Hailing from neighbouring Roubaix, he married his brother's widow and together they had four children to add to her three from the first marriage.

The villa makes a spectacular impact on this green, semi-rural area due to its striking yellow brick structure which is supported by a concrete frame. Mallet-Stevens was also responsible for a number of Parisian villas built between 1926 and 1929 in the street now named for him. Beautiful as his Parisian buildings are, Cavrois is surely his masterpiece.

The architect was not the first choice for the commission. Jacques Greber had been engaged to design the house in 1925 but his proposals were not finalised. Cavrois preferred to employ Mallet-Stevens who began drawing up plans in 1929. Wanting to convince the family of his approach he took the couple to Hilversum in the Netherlands to show them the Willem Dudok designed Town  Hall. Sold on the modernist style, the couple agreed to this approach for their home including the facades being covered with those wonderful yellow bricks. Work was completed in 1932 and the house was inaugurated on July 5th with the marriage of their daughter Genevieve. Despite this being during a period of economic crisis, the wedding was an opulent affair. Flowers were dropped from an airplane in honour of the newlyweds and after nightfall, Andre Salomon the lighting engineer orchestrated a mise en lumiere.

Mallet-Stevens set out his design principles for the villa in his book. Une demure 1934 (A 1934 home). These included making use of the most up to date technology including central heating, ventilation and lifts as well a telephone and a radio in every room. Furthermore the villa was designed with separate areas for receiving guests, for carrying out domestic tasks, for the parents, for the children and for sport and leisure.

The Second World War began just seven years after the house was completed and between 1940 and 1944 it was confiscated by the occupying German army and sustained damage at the War's end. The Mallet-Stevens had died in 1945 and so when the family returned in 1947, Monsieur Cavrois requested another architect, Pierre Barbe to add two apartments for the elder sons.

The family remained in the villa until 1985 before it was sold to a real estate company that wanted to subdivide the park. The new owners ceased maintaining the building which became prey to looters and despite being listed as a national monument was allowed to become dilapidated. Credit for saving the villa must go to the Association de Sauvegarde de la Villa Cavrois, founded in 1990. The organisation ran an intensive media campaign supported by several of the world's leading architects including Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano. Eventually the state stepped in, purchasing the property in 2001 and handing it to the Centre des Monuments National at the end of 2008. 

Restoration work began in 2004 and included removing the vegetation growing on the exterior, reinforcing the main structural elements and as far as possible, preserving the original materials. Some of the features added by Barbe as an extension of his 1947 commission were deemed to be detrimental to Mallet-Stevens' work and removed. Replacement bricks had to be manufactured for those beyond repair or missing. The interior was also in very poor condition but the existence of early documents and photographs aided the work of restoration.

The villa is now open to the public. Approaching through the park and the former caretaker's pavilion, the first view of the house and its yellow exterior is quite breathtaking. The varying heights and masses, recesses and glazed surfaces make it difficult to know where to look first. The main doors are flanked by beautiful curved brickwork, reminiscent of the entrance to number 10 Rue Mallet-Stevens in Paris. A canopy supported by rounded brick pillars protects visitors from the elements whilst light filters through from above by means a circular glazed element.

The glazed elements of the facade include both austere, narrow horizontal windows in the "box" shaped sections as well as a "thermometer" at the rear which runs the length of a staircase connecting all floors. The roof terrace includes a long pergola and even here, the yellow bricks are in evidence, being used as tree planters. Other elegant features include the concrete diving boards and white hoop ladder for the pool at the rear of the house - although the pool looks rather shallow for diving today! This feature demonstrates nicely the play of light and shadow on the villa with the hoops reflected on the bricks. 

The interior is equally striking. Materials used include opaline glass, white marble for the stairs with black marble for the risers, aluminium wall covers, pear wood and ceramic tiles. The salon-hall is especially impressive, occupying a large space and overlooking the park. The showstopper is the yellow Sienna marble fireplace and built in bench seats. Several of the rooms contain original furnishings all of which were designed by the architect. Much of the furniture had been sold in 1987 but the original inventory made it possible to recover some items which are now on display. They have been placed according to the layout shown in photographs from the 1930's.

Much as I like that fireplace, my favourite internal feature has to be the staircase linking all of the floors at and above ground level. Despite being encased with a curved glass thermometer, the staircase is not of the spiral style, rather a more conventional angled backwards and forwards design that lends itself beautifully to the zig-zag patterns on the risers and under the steps. This is a sharp contrast with the shapes caused by the play of light on the rounded landings, reflecting the window-frames. 

The works were completed in 2015. Since 2012 Villa Cavrois has been part of an international conservation programme designed to protect important 20th century houses - the Iconic Houses programme, furthering assuring the future of Mallet-Stevens' wonderful work.

Details of when the Villa is open for visits can be found here.

You might also like - Paris - a tale of three architects Part 2 - Rue Mallet-Stevens

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Bauhaus Revival on Rothschild

Rothschild Boulevard has long been Tel-Aviv's glitziest street with it cafes, bars, restaurants and the city's most expensive real estate. You may need to be wealthy to live on his street but there is no such requirement for spending time here. Every day thousands of Tel-Avivians stroll along the lovely central pedestrianised section, sheltered from the stifling summer heat by the gorgeous jacaranda trees, stopping off at one of the several kiosks for a drink and a chat and to watch the countless dog-walkers, buggy-pushers, cyclists and skateboarders go by.

Book-ended by Habima (the national theatre) at one end and Independence Hall at the other, Rothschild has seen some of the major events in Israel's modern history and this is reflected in its architectural ensemble with examples of Eclectic and Bauhaus styles as well as some ultra modern buildings and even a little Brutalism. It is not hard to imagine how the street must have looked in the 1930's with its sparkling white modernist apartment blocks contrasting with the green of the  walkway. Over time several of these buildings deteriorated, some quite badly, but in the last few years many have been restored. I was recently back in Tel-Aviv and had the chance to see some of the results of this work.

82 Rothschild Boulevard, Josef and Ze'ev Berlin 1932.
Josef and his son Ze'ev Berlin were two of the city's most prolific architects during the 1930's. Berlin the elder worked first in the eclectic style before embracing modernism. The Berlins worked together on a number of projects including the apartment block at 82 Rothschild Boulevard.

Located on the corner of Rothschild and Mazeh Street, it is characterised by its simplicity with straight, clean lines. The corner location makes it difficult to fulfil some of the Bauhaus principles, particularly the idea of emphasising the vertical axis of a structure but nonetheless this building has a real presence. It was originally a three-storey house with two apartments per floor, flanking the stairwell and reflecting the symmetry of the building's design. The glazed facade of the stairwell sometimes called a "thermometer' is perhaps the most outstanding deature. There are also protruding balconies on the facade for the flats at the end of each wing. Designed for the Braun-Rabinsky families, construction was completed in 1932.

Significant works to the building took place in 2013 under the supervision of Bar-Orian Architects , a prestigious company that has undertaken several restoration projects. Works included full preservation of the stairwell and "thermometer", wood elements, iron works and terrazzo tiling. As with several other restoration works, the building was extended with the addition of a penthouse and a further extension of the rear. The penthouse is not visible from the street due to it being recessed whilst the rear additions do not impact on the Rothschild/ Mazeh views of the building. Whilst not everyone agrees with the addition of extra floors, there are strict rules about how such changes are implemented and of course this helps with the huge cost of carrying out sensitive restoration.

118 Rothschild Boulevard, Yitzhak Rapoport 1933. 
Number 118 was built in 1933 and designed by Yitzhak Rapoport who was also responsible for what is now the French Ambassador's House in Jaffa. Originally known as the Sarah Rapoport House, it was built as a three storey residential building for the family of Shmuel Rapoport who founded and directed the Kupat Am Bank. Shmuel was not the only notable person to have lived here as the City Mayor, Israel Rokach was also a resident from 1938 to 1959.

The building is divided into three sections. The central staircase has horizontal windows with concrete awnings that remind me of the The Shami House at 5 Frug Street. These are especially striking when viewed from the northern corner together with the "floating" balconies. on the side facing away from the Boulevard.  The balconies serve apartments in a corner of the building and are of such generous proportions that they protrude beyond the recess. The main facade which looks over Rothschild is the most austere section of the structure but still manages to catch the eye due to the framing of the roof terrace.

Restoration work took place in 2013 and was carved out by Oded Rapoport of Rapoport Architects Ltd. and son of the original architect. The front sections were completely restored although smooth plaster was used rather than the original Kratzputz or scraped plaster. The wooden elements of the windows, stairwell handrail, fence and gate were reconstructed and two and a half extra floors were added but set back far enough to preserve the original street view. A lift, security rooms and a basement were also installed.

118 Rothschild Boulevard, Yitzhak Rapoport 1933.
85 Rothschild was designed by Carl Rubin for the Sadowski family. Rubin was also responsible for number 87, next door and had spent some time working in the Berlin office of Erich Mendelsohn before coming to Tel-Aviv. Completed in 1933,  number 85 is an L-shaped building, best known for its series of balconies which are recessed into the building's volume, producing the same impact as modernist ribbon windows. The balconies on the front facade have a parapet with iron rails whilst those at rear are without rails. Rough plaster was used on the front facade with the exception of the balconies where smooth plaster adds contrast. The stairwell has one of those delightful "thermometer" glazings above the main door which is discretely tucked into the corner of the recessed part of the building.

Bar Orian Architects also restored this building, in 2013. The work included reconstruction of doors, windows and the wood shutters and the thermometer was fully restored. Like many other Bauhaus buildings in Tel-Aviv a number of the balconies had been closed to acquire additional internal space. All of the closed balconies were re-opened (hooray!), restoring the original appearance. The impact of this change is significant as anyone who has spent time walking the streets of Tel-Aviv will know. Whilst understanding the need for more living space, the impact of different methods of closing off balconies serves primarily to destroy the overall look of a building and to transform a thing of beauty into a mess. The works included the addition of three floors, one designed in the same way as the original building and two set back, not visible from the street.

85 Rothschild Boulevard, Carl Rubin 1933.
85 Rothschild Boulevard, Carl Rubin 1933.
79 Rothschild Boulevard, Joseph and Ze'ev Berlin 1929.
Bar Orian also undertook restoration work at the adjacent buildings of 79 and 81 Rothschild in 2009. The two apartment blocks are very different to each other, 79 having been designed by the Berlin father and son team and completed in 1929 whilst 81 was the work of Moshe Czerner and completed in 1931. Interestingly, Czerner like the elder Berlin had also originally worked in the eclectic style before moving to modernism.

Number 81, the Cohen House, on the junction of Rothschild and Balfour has rounded balconies that emphasise the corner location and together with the windows, accentuate the building's horizontal lines. Number 79 is symmetrical with square balconies. The central stairwell divides the building in two, with square windows on each side  the symmetry. The restoration included the reopening of closed balconies in both buildings, the reconstruction of damaged elements and adding three new floors. There is also an extension at the rear that connects the two. 

81 Rothschild Boulevard, Moshe Czerner 1931.
117 Rothschild Boulevard, Yitzhak Rapoport 1933.
Finally, 117 Rothschild, another Yitzhak Rapoport building is currently under restoration and already looks stunning with its crisp white exterior contrasting beautifully with Tel-Aviv's bright blue summer sky. Occupying a large plot, number 117 boasts not one but two "thermometer" stairwells and a series of sharp and rounded corners on each of the building's sections. Nahoum Cohen notes in his   Bauhaus Tel-Aviv book published in 2003, that "Although the people living on Rothschild Boulevard...are wealthier than the average, the upkeep of the place is not as good as one might hope as the paint and some of the stucco have deteriorated...". Well it looks like that is being taken care of now and I look forward to seeing the work completed on my next visit.

It is wonderful to see the city's built heritage being cared for - and not just the Bauhaus treasures as many of the earlier eclectic buildings are also being restored to their former glory. You can find lots more information, books, posters and even go on a guided tour of some of Tel-Aviv's Bauhaus buildings by visiting the Bauhaus Center in its new home at 77 Dizengoff or by going to their website.  If you are specifically interested in restoration you can buy copies of Preservation and Renewal: Bauhaus and International Style Buildings in Tel-Aviv.

You might also like Tel-Aviv More Beautiful Bauhaus

117 Rothschild Boulevard, Yitzhak Rapoport, 1933.

Monday 22 May 2017

Ari Erev - Jazz In Givatayim

I always try to get to at least one jazz gig when travelling. My recent time in Israel coincided with an appearance by one of my favourite jazz pianists - Ari Erev who played a brilliant set at the Givatayim Theatre, just a short taxi ride from central Tel-Aviv.

I first heard Ari play in 2005 at the prestigious Felicia Blumenthal Centre in Tel-Aviv. It was a memorable night as he performed a tribute to Bill Evans who he lists as a major influence. It was also memorable because I had what I can only describe as a very Tel-Avivian experience of ending up in an ice cream parlour at midnight with an octogenarian couple who had sat beside me in the concert, chatted to me in the interval and then invited me to accompany them to a cafe afterwards.

Just before the gig - Ari Erev
Back to Givatayim. The gig took place in the basement of this very modern venue giving the evening a more intimate feel.  Ari was accompanied by Eli Magen on bass, Lenny Sendersky on sax and clarinet, and Gasper Bertoncelj on drums. Together they worked their way through a dozen pieces, mostly taken from his most recent album - Flow, opening with the title track which as well as being a great jazz piece shows hints of classical influence some of which is also clear in the opening bars of Continuance, the second number also taken from the album. Both Flow and Continuance have a slight melancholy feel about them. We were also treated to some Latin influenced pieces. Treasures in Havana and Latin Currents particularly demonstrated this, the first alluding to a family trip to Cuba. 

The quartet also played a few non-Erev compositions including the well-received, exuberant uptempo number Doce de Cocopenned by Brazilian-Jewish composer Jacob do Bandolim. Kenny Barron's Voyage was given a very long very cool workout. So cool in fact that we could easily have been sitting in a New York jazz club listening to it. Dave Brubeck's In Your Own Sweet Way was a perfect vehicle for Ari's piano lead, as indeed it was for his hero Bill Evans. If you are reading Ari, I think you should record Voyage on your next album!

July Again is a tribute to Udi Kazmirski, former bassist with the group who first played with Erev on a July day and who sadly died in July 2012, thus the title. Despite the sad story, for me it is an optimistic piece emphasising memory, light and recovery. Israeli jazz musicians often include a folk song or a nostalgic song from the country's past as part of their repertoire. Ari chose Gan Ha-shikmim (The Sycamore Garden), written by Yohanan Zarai. It was clearly a good choice as some of the audience sang along for a few bars.

My favourite track, Jump Into The Water came near the end. It is a great jazz number, urgent and uptempo. Held together and directed by Ari at the piano, each musician was showcased and I particularly liked the conversation between piano and sax on this one. For an encore we were given a version of Gershwin's But Not For Me which just happens to be my favourite Gershwin song, sending me home happy. Israel has many great jazz musicians, probably more than any other country of similar size. Ari is one of the best and it would be great to see him play in the UK at some point.

You can hear some of Ari's music on his website where you can also keep up to date with his performance schedule. Flow is a great album and you can buy it here in both CD and MP3 format.

His next planned performance is on June 21st in Ashdod. In the meantime you can have a sneak preview below...

Thursday 4 May 2017

Return to Bulgaria

I last visited Bulgaria in 1986. That's 31 years ago. My daughter was just two years old. She now has three children of her own, the youngest older than she was then. The country still had a communist regime. The restaurants had lengthy menus but most of the items listed were not available and choice was limited to  something called 'kavarna" - a watery stew and the famous Shopska salad with its salty white cheese. We ate lots of pizza purchased at a stall in the street as well as delicious fresh plums and apples being sold by elderly women at the side of the road. "Corecon" shops sold what were termed "luxury goods" consisting mainly of poor quality chocolate, cigarettes and drink purchasable only by tourists with foreign currency.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia.
There was constant pressure to change money at amazingly advantageous black-market rates but as there was so little to spend it on, taking the risk seemed pointless. This didn't deter the touts although telling them we were carrying Irish currency seemed to do the trick, producing a contemptuous response but peace at last. I have memories of clean beaches with plenty of space and an old lady who came every two days to clean our chalet and to change the towels. She was very taken with my daughter and brought her treats of fruit or nuts each time she came which were shyly accepted and then devoured.

I returned this year, due mainly to having discovered that Bulgaria has a large collection of modernist buildings from the 1930's and 40's and I have written separately about this here. In 1986, I spent most of my time in what was then the quiet seaside resort of Sunny Beach, now, I am told, massively over developed and flooded by young visitors from Western Europe each summer. I recall days trips to Varna, Sozopol and Burgas but not a great deal about what I saw there. Well, it was a long time ago and I had a two year old to entertain.

Bulgaria in 2017 is a very different place. The communist regime fell in 1989 and the country slowly liberalised, opening up to private enterprise before joining the European Union in 2007. Today, Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna offer the range and quality of cultural activity available in similar sized cities across Europe. There are many good quality restaurants offering local and international menus and although there is still poverty it is not as obvious as it was in 1986. In 2019, Plovdiv has a fantastic opportunity to show off its cultural splendours as it has been selected European Capital of Culture for the year. I spent three days in that city and have already written about its delights here

Interior detail, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia.
I began my trip in the capital, Sofia which is just over two hours flying time from London. It is a city that does not have the immediate appeal of say Prague or Budapest but one which grows on the visitor, gradually revealing its delights which include not only the spectacular modernist architecture already referred to, but a superb National Gallery, the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, some interesting markets and several stylish cafes.

The Cathedral is a symbol of both Sofia and Bulgaria. Occupying a massive site it can accommodate up to 10,000 people. The interior is decorated with Brazilian onyx and Italian marble whilst the main dome is gold plated and stands a towering 45 metres high, with the bell tower eight metres above it. The interior walls are covered with murals depicting various biblical scenes whilst the Lord's Prayer is inscribed around the central dome. The Cathedral is named for a Russian prince, Saint Alexander Nevsky in honour of the Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 which resulted in Bulgarian independence from Turkey. Work began on the construction in 1884 but was not completed until 1912. Russian Alexander Pomerantsev was the main architect. He also designed a church in Moscow of the same name as Sofia's Cathedral as well as several civic buildings.

The city is also home to Europe's largest synagogue although it was not open for visitors whilst I was there. Bulgaria, despite being an ally of Germany, resisted pressure to deport the country's Jews during the Second World War due in no small part to the intervention of the Orthodox Church. There are a few thousand Jews in the country today, the vast majority having left for Israel in 1949. A small museum, tucked away behind the synagogue tells the story of Bulgarian Jewry.

Flower stall, Women's Market, Sofia
Book themed seat, Book Market, Sofia
Sofia has a number of markets. Close to the well-kept Central Market Hall there is a lively street market originally called the Women's Market. Sofia's citizens come here to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish,  olives, herbs and spices, flowers, household items and cheap clothes. Fruit and vegetable stall holders spray their produce with water throughout the day to keep it looking as fresh as possible and to try to get an edge on the fierce competition with neighbouring traders. There is also an open air Book Market in Slaveikov Square, where the stalls offer an eclectic mix of academic books, second hand novels in Bulgarian and a smattering of other languages, publications to help learn another language and children's books. There are also a few stalls here selling stationery and cheap gifts.

As in most European capital cities, there is plenty to see if you just wander. Sofia's streets provide a stage for many musicians whilst in the City Garden Park during good weather, chess enthusiasts gather to play on the specially designed tables or on the park benches, often attracting groups of spectators and supporters. The more serious players even bring their timing devices with them. Stepping away from the main streets brings rewards too like the fabulously colourful housing unit pictured below.

A surprise in a Sofia side street.
Street musicians, Sofia

Bulgarian art is little known outside of the country This is a pity as in addition to older religious works, Bulgaria produced some superb artists during the 20th century including Jules Pascin (often mistakenly thought of as French due to having been part of the Montparansse group) and modernist painters Vera Nedkova and Bencho Obreshkov, the latter of whom studied under Oskar Kokoschka. The huge National Gallery just across from the cathedral exhibits pictures by each of these artists together with hundreds of other works charting the history of Bulgarian art.

The Sofia History Museum is also worth visiting. It tells the story of the city through displays of objects, photographs and films. Some sections are more interesting than others but the final gallery with its tram carriage, shop signs, advertisements and film of the city in the first part of the twentieth century is great. The exhibitions are to some extent upstaged by the building which was once the Central Mineral Baths. The exterior is especially attractive due to its red, white and yellow stripes and decorative ceramic details.

Sofia History Museum
Winter Garden staircase, Bulgaria Complex, Sofia
I have already mentioned my lack of culinary experiences during my 1986 visit. Things are very different now. I was even able to find a couple of restaurants specialising in vegetarian food. Dream House  is a small, friendly restaurant with daily specials and some good soups and salads. It is a little hard to find at the top of a flight of stairs in a multiple occupancy building but its worth the effort. Veda House has an interesting menu with Indian and Middle East influences including good humous (hooray). Regular readers know that I search out good patisseries and bakeries. Sofia has many cake shops but I especially enjoyed my tiramisu at the cafe in the Bulgaria Ccomplex where they also allowed me a peek at the winter garden and its fabulous staircase, deco details and retractable roof. The complex includes a concert hall and book shop and was completed in 1937 to the designs of Stancho Belkovski and Ivan Danchov.

The Rila Monastery is a couple of hours drive from Sofia. Surrounded by the Rila mountains it is a symbol of Bulgaria and possibly the country's major tourist attraction. I visited in April before the main visitor season starts and arriving early in the morning had the place more or less to myself for the first hour. 

Rila Monastery
Rila, external murals
The monastery is protected by austere fortress style walls designed to deter bandits, robbers and others who jealously eyed its wealth during its long history. The walls are the only austere feature of the monastery as upon entering the courtyard, visitors are overwhelmed with the astonishing, vibrantly coloured external wall paintings of the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the black and white Byzantine style stripes of its arches and the brilliant white three storey living quarters of the monks. Add the snow capped mountains as a backdrop and you have what must be one of Europe's most beautiful views. 

The interior walls of the church are completely covered in frescos depicting the triumph of good over evil whilst one of the external works depicts the various circles of hell as a warning to transgressors.  The paintings were the work of Bulgarian artist Zahari Zograf. There is also a beautiful iconostasis made from walnut, decorated with gold leaf and featuring carvings of flowers, fruits and birds. Photography is not allowed inside the church but you can take as many pictures as you like in the courtyard.

The current monastery was completed in 1335 under the patronage of Stefan Hrelyo Dragovol, a boyar or nobleman, but was named for the hermit Ivan Rilski who founded the original hermitage a few centuries earlier. A major fire in 1833 was followed by significant rebuilding and restoration which included making use of Bulgaria's greatest artists and craftsmen. 

The drive from Rila to Plovdiv took three hours and passed tough many small villages where life remains much the same as it has for centuries. It was not unusual to see a horse and cart being used to transport goods and people. The road passes through vineyards and other crops and because it was spring I also saw many storks and their nests perched on top of telegraph poles.

Varna, by the Black Sea
Art nouveau, Varna
Art nouveau, Varna
I visited Varna in 1986. It was supposed to be a day trip with the dolphinarium in the morning (ok not my thing either but my daughter enjoyed it), followed by museum visits in the afternoon. Shortly after entering the dolphinarium torrential rain began and continued for the rest of the day resulting in the other visits being cancelled, so this was the first time I had a proper look at the city. I was not disappointed. Sitting on the Black Sea shore, it has a similar feel to Odessa with its architectural and cultural richness complemented by clean beaches and a very relaxed atmosphere. 

A few weeks after my early April visit, Varna's beaches would become crowded with visitors from Western Europe but as with Rila, I had the beach pretty much to myself and although I needed to wear a sweater and light jacket, it was sunny enough to sit outside a beach cafe enjoying the strong coffee and homemade strawberry ice cream. Just to help the local economy of course. My hotel was just a few minutes from the beach across the elegant Sea Garden that separates the city from the Black Sea. Founded as a very small affair in 1862 towards the end of the Ottoman period, the Garden was massively expanded under Mihail Koloni, the first Mayor after liberation. Over the years it has been extended and improved and includes a planetarium, observatory and zoo as well as many cafes, bars and restaurants. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin planted a silver fir there in 1961 in the Alley of the Cosmonauts.

The city's main attraction is the Roman bath or thermae, established in the second century and one of the largest in Europe at more than 7,000 square metres. It is still possible to see the remains of the changing rooms, cold, warm and hot pools and a large social area. The heating was provided by a hypocaust, an underground system of pipes. The baths remained in use for about a century before being abandoned as the Roman Empire faded. During the 14th century, craftsmen used the structures as workshops and today the site is a major open air museum.

Roman Thermae, Varna
Cathedral dome, Varna
Popular Bank, Varna
Varna's architectural richness runs from Roman ruins to baroque and Art Deco apartment blocks, some fabulous modernist buildings from the 1930's and of course, the Dormation of the Mother of God Cathedral. The unusual name was chosen in honour of the former Empress Consort Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, a relative of the Bulgarian royals. Completed in 1886, it is one of Varna's most iconic images with its several domes and beautiful interior where, as with Rila, every surface is covered in frescos. And then there is the stunning interior of the main dome with its central Christ figure surrounded by saints against a blue background. Spectacular.

Much as I love the cathedral, my favourite Varna building is the modernist apartment block on Primorksi Boulevard designed by Stefan Benedikt-Popov and completed in 1933. Known as "The Beach" it has the appearance of an ocean liner with long balconies at each level and a squared off tower that continues the nautical theme. There are many other modernist buildings in the city including the very cool Popular Bank designed by Zhelyazko Bogdanov and built from 1938-39, and a charming apartment building in San Stefano Street, the details of which are unknown.

"The Beach" apartment block, Varna
Modernist apartment block, details unknown, Varna.

I doubt it will be another 31 years before I return to Bulgaria.

You might also like Bulgarian Modernism - A Well kept Secret or A Few Days In Plovdiv

You can see more pictures of Bulgaria here.