AFTER 450 years of oppression, Bulgaria is rediscovering a rich history that dates back to the Romans and beyond, writes Jools Stone
Bulgaria, if it registers in the minds of British holidaymakers at all, is largely associated with bargain property investments, good value skiing and the pack-’em-in Black Sea coastal resorts with cravenly commercial names like Sunny Beach and Golden Sands, but it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to find a country with millennia of history and a surprising amount of cultural collateral.
Four centuries of Ottoman oppression – plus four decades of grim Soviet rule in the last century – have left the country weighed down by its own history and a little unsure of its identity. This is, after all, the country where a nod means ‘no’ and a shake of the head means ‘yes’. But, in fact, Bulgarians have good cause to hold their heads high, especially as an off-grid cultural destination.
Anyone swinging through Sofia will likely first get their head turned by the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, a magnificent golden domed Neo-Byzantine building celebrating its centenary this year as one of the city’s iconic symbols. Second only to this comes St Sophia Church. Its roots stretch back to the fifth century, and among its artefacts is a lock of hair from the head of Bulgarian revolutionary Vassil Levski. It’s seen a lot of upheaval over the centuries, being the Romans’ choice spot for public executions and Christian maulings, later surviving the ravages of the Goths and Huns, and conversion into an Ottoman mosque. Current restoration work on its vast underground level showcases a Roman mosaic floor and more than 90 tombs.
The National Museum of History, housed in a former government building in sunken Roman villa style, lies on the outskirts of the city centre. It was virtually deserted on a Monday afternoon, which is a great shame since it houses an astonishing collection of Thracian gold, including that from the Varna Necropolis, considered a key archaeological site. Dating from the fifth century BC, it’s thought to be the earliest surviving example of gold used for decor and status.
Incredibly delicate gold filigrée necklaces and breastplates, lavish wine goblets and vials glow as if they were made yesterday, showing the staggering opulence of the Thracian civilisation. Many of these treasures were dug up in the gardens of impoverished agricultural workers during Communist times and excavations continue to this day.
But time moves on and these days you’re just as likely to find Bulgarians mooching around some of the swish shopping malls, which have opened up on Sofia’s peripheries, as you might checking out the recently opened Museum Gallery of Modern Art. This bright-walled, two-storey gallery is perfect for those who prefer to consume their art in small bites and is notable for being the first gallery displaying Western modern art, such as American abstract expressionist Hunt Slonem, Andy Warhol, Picasso and Peter Blake, alongside native talents.
Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, may have less bling about it, but has no less cultural treasure to plunder. It’s believed to be as old as Troy and bears the hallmarks of Roman influence, such as the spectacular second-century theatre, which, somewhat unbelievably, was only discovered in the 1970s after a freak landslide and now hosts concerts and plays throughout the summer.
Just as striking is the cluster of brightly-painted Baroque or “Bulgarian Renaissance” buildings in the streets of the city’s Old Town.
Plovdiv’s Ethnographic Museum is worth a look too. It showcases folklore traditions including bagpipe music, the Damask rose farming which provides the essence of many a designer scent, and spooky-looking Mummers costumes used in spring fertility festivals.
Keep digging at: Bulgaria Inside
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