FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cats of Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Take a wander through the streets of Varna and you are highly likely to find yourself in the company of a feline friend or two. The street cat population in Varna had been steadily increasing in the opening years of the 21st century. I haven’t see any recent figures, but a census in 2016 recorded 2000 stray cats and 630 stray dogs in the municipality. Through my tourist eyes it was rather lovely to see the cats everywhere, but I can appreciate that the local perspective might be a little different.

One of Varna’s delightful cats

On our visit, it was rare to turn a corner and not find five cats waiting on the other side. It was a delight to see cats chasing birds through the Roman ruins, appropriating museum exhibits as perches (such as a boat and gantry in the Naval museum) or the rather charming sight of a cat waiting patiently alongside an angler for the occasional fishy treat from the end of a fishing rod.

Thankfully, we didn’t see the famous green cat of a few years back, apparently the result of a cat sleeping on tins of powdered paint and steadily absorbing more and more of the colouring. It’s never good to see a painted cat, no matter what the circumstances.


Socialist Varna: The Pantheon

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Another striking sight from the Socialist era is the Pantheon in the Sea Garden, officially titled the Monument of the Fallen Fighters against Fascism and Capitalism from the City of Varna and Varna District in the period 1923-1944 (Паметник на загиналите борци против фашизма и капитализма от град Варна и Варненски окръг в периода 1923-1944 г.).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was initially constructed as an ossuary to hold the remains of the fighters who fell between 1923 and 1944. Their remains had originally been buried on Turna Tepe hill, where the massive park monument now stands, but re-located to the new location on the completion of the structure in September 1958. However, there was general agreement that the new structure was insufficiently impressive. As a result, new designs were drawn up for a sculpture of two fighters to sit atop the structure – one carrying on the fight alongside his wounded comrade. The revised monument was inaugurated on 6th November 1959.

Underneath this eye catching composition a series of seven scenes depicting the fighters in their struggle against fascism are presented on stone reliefs around the monument. It’s a little hard to make out some of the scenes, but these seemed to range from the sabotage of railway lines to an enthusiastic welcome home (or is that a stoic farewell?) for a soldier. I’m sure there must be a more accurate description of what the scenes actually show but I certainly couldn’t find one.

Today, the eternal flame no longer burns and the honour guard has long since gone. The Pantheon no longer holds the remains of the fighters, which were returned to their families for burial in 1995. Nevertheless, after some years of crumbling the authorities have recognised the importance of the monument, allocating money for repairs and illumination.

For many, the idea of spending money on the Pantheon and the other communist era monuments is appalling, arguing that they should be turned to dust. Others take the view that such a dark history needs to be remembered through these monuments, with a bit of explanation, lest history be allowed to repeat.

Socialist Varna: Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony.

It is hard to imagine how impressive (or oppressive) this monument must once have seemed when it first appeared on the horizon. The authorities picked their spot well, building the monument on the Turna Tepe Hill where the Russian army positioned its headquarters during the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish wars. It is visible from a long way out and can clearly be seen even as far away as the lighthouse guarding the entrance to Varna’s port.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

On our visit we walked from the centre of town, through the Sea Garden. At one time you could have crossed the busy roads that surround the monument using a pedestrian underpass but this has long been shuttered off and the steps down quite overgrown. Once we made our way over we began our climb of the 300+ step ‘ladder of victory’ to take a closer look. In theory the sun should illuminate the monument best in late morning, lining up perfectly along the staircase, but we were a bit unlucky with the clouds.

The concrete steps are steadily deteriorating, missing chunks here and there, but still perfectly climbable. Along the way we could see some of the 180 floodlights that used to illuminate the monument, quietly rusting in the undergrowth. In similar fashion, the loudspeakers that used to blast out Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) look they have been long silent. The eternal flame, once fed by four gas cylinders below, has been extinguished and the bronze looted.

The rusting loudspeakers

The sculptors Evgeni Baramov and Alyosha Kafedzhiyski worked with the architect Kamen Goranov to create the monument. On one side you have four Soviet soldiers bearing arms and on the opposite wing you have three Bulgarian mothers greeting them with bread and salt. It is a striking, if somewhat brutal, composition.

Today, the once immaculate lettering between these two sculptural compositions is falling apart and quite indecipherable from what is left. One of the soldiers has been daubed with red paint in recent times and graffiti surrounds the lower part of the monument.

At one time you could enter the monument and climb the internal stairs to the top to inspect the figures at close quarters and get an even more impressive view across Varna. However, the staircase (located through an opening inside the arch, on the left hand side) is now protected by a locked gate and every other opening is barred by metal grills.

A couple of surveillance cameras paid for by the Varna Regional Administration now keep an eye from the top of the monument. Although this was a disappointment, it is an encouraging sign that there is now more interest in the future of the monument and perhaps this could lead to action on the proposals to adapt the monument into a cultural space.

A view of the monument from the port

We were far from alone on our visit. I reckon around a dozen visitors were making their way up and down the steps, mostly fitness fanatics and joggers. The only exception were a couple of old ladies who slowly made their way up the steps and settled down at the top underneath the watchful gaze of the four concrete Soviet soldiers. At the end of our visit we headed back to the main road and took a 409 bus (runs every 15 minutes) back to the centre of town.

I read a few sources before my visit, but one of the most interesting was the account from The Bohemian blog detailing a couple of visits to the interior in 2012 and the associated entry on the terrific Monumentalism website.


Eight highlights from Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

On our long weekend in Varna we made it to a selection of the tourist attractions in the city, but by no means all. These are my personal highlights…

The Archaeological Museum

The importance of Varna (or Odessos as it was known) in the ancient world is really apparent as you explore the rich collection of the archaeological museum.

The exhibits in the collection of Thracian gold are astonishingly intricate, including a couple of beautiful gold appliqué horned bulls. At well over 6000 years old these are the oldest known gold treasures in the world. It’s no wonder to learn that the ‘Varna Gold’ has toured the museums of the world in the 47 years since it was discovered at an archaeological dig at the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis. Alongside this, there are other exquisite exhibits from the time, such as a clay anthropomorphic head.

The Archaeological Museum

The first floor rooms take you on a chronological tour through the periods of Thracian, Greek and Roman history. There are so many wonderful finds that it is hard to pick out individual items from the long list of highlights, but these would include a panther shaped fountain from the late 5th/early 6th century; three animal headed drinking cups (rhyta) from the Borovo treasure; ceramic lamps in the form of theatrical masks from the 3rd century; a limestone altar with a striking horned bulls head dedicated to the Thracian horsemen from the 3rd century; and a bronze votive hand from the 1st/2nd century.

One of the most surprising (perhaps shocking) exhibits was an incredibly graphic, crude and very rude relief from a brothel at the Roman baths dated to the 2nd/3rd century. I would blush to describe it in any more detail than that.

As if this was not enough, the upper floor includes a striking collection of Bulgarian icons including a good many that depict the fate of martyrs in gruesome detail.

It’s an absolute bargain at 10 leva for admission (approximately £5 at current exchange rates).

Roman baths

The Roman Baths of Odessos (2nd-3rd century) make an impressive sight, despite their ruined state. In their brief spell of active use these were the fourth largest public baths in the European provinces of the Roman empire, taking up 7000 square metres (the largest three were located in Rome and Trier). As the empire fell into decline these maintenance-heavy baths were abandoned and the building materials robbed to build a smaller, more economical, set of baths.

The fourth largest Roman baths in Europe

Today, the baths sit in a residential area, ringed by apartment blocks. You can get a good view from the exterior fence but its worth paying the modest admission charge of 4 leva (approximately £2) to get a closer look at the fallen building blocks. Unlike many Roman sites there are few explanations here but plentiful illustrations showing you what each chamber would have looked like in use.

As an added bonus, the local cats treat the Roman baths as their playground and could be seen stalking birds and each other through the grounds.

Sea Garden

The Sea Garden is said to be the largest landscaped park in the Balkans, occupying a four kilometre stretch of prime coastline with a footprint of 90,000 square metres. It’s much loved by the local population, which generated a campaign to protect it when development was threatened. There are museums, restaurants, fairground rides and monuments inside the park but it’s just as lovely doing nothing more than taking a relaxed walk.

Monument to Yuri Gagarin in the Sea Garden

Among the sights to look out for in the park are the Pantheon, a monument to the fallen fighters of 1923-1944; a bust of Yuri Gagarin; an alley of trees planted by cosmonauts; and a monument to the border guard (built in 1918 to remember the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers of the 15th Border Brigade of Varna’s Eighth Infantry Regiment). There’s even a wall made up of old Bulgarian motorbikes at one spot!

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral is one of the most familiar landmarks in the city centre. The first stone was laid by Prince Alexander I of Battenberg in 1880 and the structure was complete by 1885, but interior painting and decoration would go on for decades (for example, the colourful floor tiles were added in 1911 but the large stained glass windows were not added until 1960). It was modelled on a temple at the Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg.

The cathedral was mostly paid for by public donation and a lottery of 150 000 tickets. On top of this, Russian Tsar Nicholas II donated 45 icons in 1901.

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

Today, the cathedral sits at a major traffic junction so it seems perpetually busy as you approach (not that this is particularly visible in my photos – most of these were grabbed in the split-second change of lights). However, all that disappears when you step inside.

Naval Museum

The Bulgarian Navy is headquartered in Varna (in a rather splendid baroque building on Preslav Street) and there are many buildings around the city associated with this, including the Naval Academy, Naval Hospital and the Navy Club. The Naval Museum, established in 1923, focuses upon the maritime history of the country; the wars fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the modern navy.

Torpedo Boat 301 outside the Navy Museum

It’s a relatively compact museum so doesn’t take long to walk around, with some interesting exhibits on display in the yard outside and a little farther beyond. These include the torpedo boat Drazki (1907), torpedo boat 301 (1957), a Mil Mi-4A helicopter, a Kamov Ka-25Bsh helicopter, a S-2 Sopka coastal defence missile and the record-breaking Cor-Coroli yacht.

Admission comes to 5 leva (approximately £2.50 at current exchange rates) but a look inside the torpedo boat outside costs an additional 2 leva (though it didn’t seem to be open when we visited).

If you are interested in the modern fleet you can also get a good view of the Bulgarian Naval vessels in port from a wander along the pier to the Varna Seaport Lighthouse.

Park Monument

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony, but would only last 11 years in actual use. In its day it would have been an impressive place to visit, including a bookshop and library in its apparently spacious interior.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Today, access is blocked off and the site is monitored by surveillance cameras. I’ve covered the detail of our visit in the next post, but in short – it’s well worth seeing close up to truly appreciate the extraordinary scale of this monument.

City Art Gallery of Boris Georgiev

I found it a little hard to pin down what we were seeing at the City Art Gallery in Varna, which seemed to be almost entirely taken over by displays of very recent art when we visited. However, there are some cracking pieces hidden among the halls, including sculptures by the likes of Ivan Funev.

The highlight of the collection is a hall containing 13 exquisite artworks donated by the family of Bulgarian artist Boris Georgiev (1888-1962). Although Boris was born in Varna his life took him far across the globe and into the orbit of some of the most famous individuals of the 20th century. His work was championed by Albert Einstein, who became a close friend, and he later became close with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on his travels to India. Portraits of all three are among those exhibited here.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

The colourful red and white striped church of St Petka is a little off the main tourist trail, but still only a short walk away from the Archaeological Museum. The construction of the church began in 1901 and the first service took place five years later. The interior is beautifully painted and the decoration is quite stunning.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

Other sights we checked out that are worth seeking out included the Monument to Tsar Kaloyan, the Portal-Monument to the 8th Coastal Infantry Regiment of Varna and the church of St. Nicholas the Thaumaturge.

There are other attractions in Varna that we didn’t get around to, including the Retro Museum, the small Roman Baths, the Varna City History Museum, the Ethnographic museum and the Museum of National Revival. Beyond the confines of the city you can also find the Aladzha cave monastery and the natural wonder of the Petrified Forest (also referred to as the Stone Forest).


Three days in Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

A long weekend in Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast seemed like an increasingly bonkers idea the closer it approached, but turned out to be a perfectly timed opportunity for a break from an extremely busy autumn at work and an ideal escape from the ongoing madness of Brexit, which seems to have left no stone unturned in its quest to permeate everyday life in the UK.

Welcome to Varna

A big part of the appeal for me was the opportunity to see one of the most striking monuments from the socialist state, but there is plenty more to Varna. Must see sights range from a museum chock-full of archaeological discoveries to the strikingly beautiful Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral. I am also reliably informed by my better half that the many cats of Varna were a highlight too, though I can’t claim to have planned the visit on this basis!

Our visit came at the beginning of October, which is either the end of the Summer season or start of the Winter season as far as the main attractions go. This distinction is more important than I realised at the time of booking, as the winter schedule sees many museums close over the weekend and on Mondays. However, aside from that, it was rather nice to visit at this time of year. The sights were relatively quiet, the first signs of autumn colours were visible in the Sea Garden and there was no problem getting a table at any of the restaurants in the city centre.

The economical cost of a trip to Varna was a big plus. Over a long weekend we spent around £100 (excluding accommodation) on a couple of three course meals, all our museum tickets, bus fares and an ice cream or two. Our accommodation at the Rosslyn Dimyat hotel was on the luxurious side – a stay in an apartment larger than my flat in London cost no more than I would pay for a budget hotel in the UK. The hotel was situated in a quiet-ish location opposite the Sea Garden that might not suit everyone but plenty of more central options are available too.

The clocktower

Flights from the UK can be a bit tricky, with many scheduled to arrive in the early hours of the morning. We opted to fly with Austrian Airlines via Vienna which got us into Varna around midday.

On our arrival, in early afternoon, we took the 409 bus from the airport to the city centre. The transfer was quite straightforward once you worked it out. The same bus stop outside the terminal buildings serves buses in both directions so you have to pay attention to the bus signs, lest you make an unplanned trip to Aksakovo rather than Varna city centre. The 409 runs every 15 minutes and a ticket costs just 50 pence (1 leva) which you pay to an official on the bus rather than the driver (they tear off a paper ticket from a wad). Surely the cheapest airport transfer anywhere?