The City of the Past

 

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The Western Gate

Sofia acquired its Roman look in the 1st century when massive construction of roads, streets, and water systems took place, the remnants of which can be seen today. The city owed its reputation to Constantine the Great, the Emperor who exclaimed “Serdika is my Rome!”. The tourists can follow his steps walking from the Western to the Eastern Gate. Inscriptions from the 2nd century - the times of Marcus Aurelius and his son Comodus - parts of buildings that used to protect the fortress walls made of bricks bound with mortar can be seen nowadays in the vicinity of the main east-west oriented street of the Roman city, the so called Decumanus Maximus. 

 

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The Largo

The Largo was designed in 1946 and is located in the central part of the city where in ancient times  Roman streets used to intersect. In modern times this is the place where all key government buildings are situated -  The Council of Ministers, the President's Office, The Parliamentary Offices. 
The main city artery is paved with Roman slates dating back to 4th - 6th century under which the main Roman aqueduct was discovered. The most recent archaeological findings are related to the excavations of the main street and the discovery of a large building from the 3rd century which had probably been a public bath before being transformed into a private house boasting a spacious mosaic-covered hall. The central mosaic depicts a turning wheel surrounded by a wreath of green and purple leaves which was probably a sign of special honours bestowed upon the owner by the Emperor.

 

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Saint George Rotunda

This is the oldest preserved edifice in Sofia which was the focal point of the so called “Constantine Quarter” - an ancient quarter built in the beginning of the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. The rectangular tiles of the famous Roman underfloor heating system - Hypocaust - can still be clearly seen in the area around the Rotunda together with the foundations of the three-nave basilica that had originally been a public building. One of the most impressive features of The Saint George Rotunda is its unusual shape as well as the several layers of murals preserved in the Rotunda. The history of the temple went through many trials and tribulations from preserving the relics of the greatest Bulgarian saint Ivan Rilski to being transformed into a mosque and then restored as Orthodox church maintaining its Late Antiquity and Medieval features.

 

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The Eastern Gate

This is the gate of the Eastern fortress wall whereupon started the road leading to the hill where the Roman necropolis and temple used to be. The Saint Sofia Basilica is now located in the same spot.

 

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The National Archaeological Museum 

The building of The National Archaeological Museum,  housing one of the the largest archaeological exhibitions in the Balkans, was commissioned as a mosque in 1451 by Mahmud Pasha, who later became a Grand Vizier of Mehmed II The Conqueror. During the Liberation War of 1877-78 the mosque was transformed into a hospital and later became a “museum for ancient artifacts”. Today the museum exhibits the unique golden mask of the Thracian Ruler Teres from the 5th century B.C. found in 2004.

 

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The Ancient Amphitheatre of Serdika

The arena of the ancient amphitheatre unveiled in 2004 is only 10 meters smaller than that of the Coliseum.  The arena was built over the ruins of an ancient Greek theatre in the year 293 during the reign of Emperor Diocletian who liked gladiator fights and provided funds to the city council to erect the amphitheatre. With the coming of Christianity the gladiator fights were pronounced to be too bloody and Barbarian and theatre was perceived as pagan. The amphitheatre lost its importance and the area around it turned into the city slums where poor families used to live which could not afford the protection of the fort walls. The arena of the theatre can be seen on the ground floor of Hotel Arena Di Serdika together with clay slates with animal footprints, the actors', gladiators' and animal's premises and seven stone seats preserved in their original places. Access to the ground floor of the hotel is free of charge. 

 

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The National Opera House

The story about the design and construction of the building on 1 Vrabcha street is quite interesting and very dramatic. The beginning was put in 1921 when the members of the Agrarian Union decided to commission a building for their headquarters. The Agrarian leader and Prime-Minister of Bulgaria at the time Alexander Stamboliiski assigned the project to the young architect Lazar Parashkevanov. The dramatic events taking place in Bulgaria in the subsequent twenty years affected the development of the project. The architect was sent to prison in 1947 by the Communist Regime but continued to fight for his project and brought it to successful completion despite the difficulties. In 2009 the Miracle of Bulgarian Opera Voices was voted by the Bulgarians the most important cultural event of the 20th century.

 

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Saint Sofia Basilica

The Church which the capital of Bulgaria was named after was built over the remnants of several older temples from the times of Roman Serdika. Excavations are currently taking place of the Eastern Serdika Necropolis dating back to 2nd - 4th centuries situated under the basilica and believed to be one of the largest necropolises from this period in Europe. The excavations unveiled interesting artifacts such as 1000 year old nails and lacrimoniums – glass vessels in which the tears of the mourners were collected. Unique, primitive, Early Christian tombs were also revealed. The original floor mosaics discovered will be conserved and installed back to cover the complex's walkways.

 

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The Monument of Vasil Levski

The first monument that the newly liberated Principality of Bulgaria decided to erect and which was inaugurated on 22nd October 1895 was the Monument of Vasil Levski – the Apostle of Bulgarian Liberation. Though designed by foreigners - the Czech Adolph Kolar who also designed the buildings of the Military Academy, Military Club and the Ministry of Defence and the Viennese sculptor Rudolf Weyr – the Monument became a place cherished by all Bulgarians symbolising the liberation of Bulgaria.  Every year on 19th February the Bulgarians gather at the monument to commemorate the death of their national hero. 

 

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The Sofia University 'Saint Kliment Ohridksi”

The building of the University of Sofia was made possible by the donation of two wealthy patriotic brothers Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi who provided the land and 6 800 000 golden Bulgarian Levs for the construction. Statues of the two donors were put at the main entrance of the building as a sign of gratitude. The beginning of Bulgarian higher education was put in 8th December 1888 when Parliament passed a decision transforming the Higher Pedagogy School into an University. This date is still marked today as the day of the university students. The Sofia University students have always been free-minded and politically active. Thus as early as in 1907 they booed King Ferdinand I because the University was closed down and the professors dismissed. In 1989 they were also in the front line of the democratic changes in Bulgaria.

 

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The Italian and Austrian Embassies

The story of the buildings of the Italian and Austrian Embassies in Sofia located next to each other at 11 and 13 Tsar Osvoboditel blvd. reflects the “grand historical events” from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In 1883 the first ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Sofia, Baron von Biegeleben commissioned the building of the diplomatic mission to the Austrian architect Peter Paul Brang. After WWI on 14th November 1918 Italy as member of the Triple Alliance occupied the building.  After extensive negotiations between the two missions on 14th February 1925 the buildings were swapped.   Thus even today the Italian state owns the building, designed by the Austrian architects, and the Austrian Embassy is located in the old building of the Italian one which was built in the period 1905-1910 in a Neo-Renaissance Venetian style by Enrico Bovio.

 

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The Yablanski House

The house located at 18 Tsar Osvoboditel blvd. was commissioned in 1907 by Dimitar Yablanski – a financier, former mayor of Sofia and Minister of Public Buildings, Roads and Development. The house was designed by the Austrian architect, Friedrich Grunager and is a prime example of the Vienna Baroque. He also designed the building that nowadays houses The Turkish Ambassador's Residence, the Synagogue and the Sofia Theological Seminary. Today the Yablanski house is an exclusive private club.

 

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The Residence of the Turkish Ambassador

The Bulgarian diplomatic agent in Vienna and prominent lawyer Haralambi Surmadjiev commissioned the building erected in 1903 at Tsar Osvoboditel blvd. The building was designed by the Austrian architect Friedrich Grunager in imperial Vienna baroque.  At the beginning of the 20th century it became the Turkish Embassy where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was stationed as military attaché.  While in Sofia he fell in love with the beautiful and highly educated daughter of a Bulgarian general who however did not give his blessing for the two to marry. Ataturk's room and original furniture are preserved in the current residence of the Turkish Ambassador. 

 

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British Council

The spacious house on 7 Krakra street, built in 1921 in Art Deco, was the home of one of the most affluent entrepreneurs and tobacco merchants from the early 20th century Doncho Palaveev. The life in the house inspired the Bulgarian writer Dimitar Dimov to write his masterpiece novel “Tobacco”. White stone was used to build the house which escaped damage during the bombing of Sofia in WWII.  After the war the house was transformed into a headquarters for the Soviet Troops to become a kindergarten later. Today it hosts the British Council and the visitors can see the 90 year old ceramic fireplace and the original oak wainscotting on the walls and ceilings. 

 

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The Fingov House

One of the paragons of the Secession architecture in Sofia is the the house of the architect Georgi Fingov (1906-1908 г.) located at 38 Shipka street. The great Bulgarian sculptor Andrey Nikolov  decorated the front pillar of the building with a woman's head believed to be a masonic symbol related to Fingov's membership in the Freemasonry.  The  tragic life of the architect marked by bankruptcies and family drama, did not prevent him from designing some of the most beautiful buildings in Sofia.  There are lots of rumours and ghost stories about the house which today is also the subject of a number of commercial interests. 

 

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The Faculty of Biology

The building was constructed in the 20s of the 20th century as an Agrarian and Forestry Faculty of the Sofia University and the construction was financed by both the state and the Rockefeller Foundation. It was designed by the architect and philosopher Georgi Ovcharov who was a close friend of King Boris III and Prince Cyril.  The design was defined as “the first and bravest example of uniform interior and exterior in Bulgaria”. The red-brick façade, the numerous arches and triangular niches were and remain impressive. The author also designed the buildings of the Ministry of Interior, The Hospital “Queen Joanna”, the Army Publishing House, etc.