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4-2 A Journey Through Romania and Bulgaria


This article is from the Bulgaria FAQ, by Dragomir R. Radev radev@tune.cs.columbia.edu with numerous contributions by others.

4-2 A Journey Through Romania and Bulgaria

(by Melissa Harris)
Portico, The College of Architecture and Urban Planning Newsletter
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Spring/Summer 1993

by Melissa Harris

While teaching for a semester at the Technical University of Vienna,
Melissa Harris, an assistant professor of architecture, and three
graduate students from the College took a two-week trip to Romania and


So why go? Adventure. Yes. I was also interested in seeing the
vernacular architecture of these countries. But most intriguing was a
strong urge to be inside cultures which have been historically oppressed
and yet remained beautifully productive. Being immersed in extremes
often generates interesting revelations. Extreme contrast, engaging the
edges and touching, even briefly, opposite ends of various spectra are
the essential characteristics of this trip.

First a quick introduction to my three companions on this adventure -
all graduate students at Michigan studying architecture for a semester
at the Technical University in Vienna. Ted, the forward man, confident
and charismatic. Susan, a blossoming talent, thoughtful and analytical.
And Dave, whose wisdom seemed to comfort us, like a blanket of security,
at all the right times. It wasn't long before each of us realized that a
larger group could take risks far too dangerous for someone traveling

(Part related to travel through Romania is posted on s.c.r.)

Bulgaria welcomed us back to lands of negotiable travel. Everything was
impressive about our introduction to Sofia. We got right to our
destination by tram and within a half hour had secured two double rooms
for the night, rented a car for the next morning and changed money. On
the way to our great rooms in a family's apartment we picked up
wonderful fruit. How very thankful we were for a shower and a bed. After
showers and some fresh fruit, we set out to explore downtown Sofia.

The city seemed to be prospering, with streets full of cafes, vendors
and color. Though l am sure it is prevalent, hardship was not nearly so
obvious as it was in Romania. What was prevalent were former monuments
to fallen Communist leaders. Many of these buildings are being put to
other uses or house new governments, but some remain empty. A specific
monument, the former mausoleum which housed the embalmed body of Georgi
Dimitrov (Bulgaria's first Communist leader) has now become an outdoor
toilet. When protests mounted in 1990, his body was removed and
cremated. The mausoleum sits on an elevated base with a surrounding
arcade. Between the columns and the building, feces has accumulated.
There isn't much trash, only human waste. Questions about the
relationship between form and a building's successive uses resurfaced.
Walking around the building, the new use seemed quite logical. The
columns are wide enough to provide privacy and the width between them
and the building just wide enough for passage while someone might be
relieving themselves. It is slated to become a museum.

After we had walked around in the rain seeing former monuments, the
Alexander Nevsky church, more Roman ruins, and basically getting a sense
of the downtown, we decided to eat in a fancy restaurant in the Grand
Hotel Bulgaria built in the `30s. The circular dining space had a dated
but somehow trendy feel with balcony seating around a two story space
which opened to a great skylight. As the meal progressed and we became
buddies with our waiter, he treated us to the main feature of the space.
The huge circular skylight actually opened mechanically to the sky.
Though it was still rainingabit, he opened it partially so we could get
the idea. Must be glorious in the summer.

The next morning we picked up our car and were reassured that it would
be no problem that our only road map for Bulgaria was in the Latin
alphabet not Cyrillic,which Bulgaria uses. Other maps and street signs
we had seen were only in Cyrillic, an alphabet which at first glance to
an uninformed Westerner looks like the swearing from a cartoon
character's mouth. No, no problem, signs will have both.

Rila Monastery was our first destination. We beat all the tourist buses
by an hour and therefore had it to ourselves initially. Situated on a
mountain cliff, the views were spectacular. Essentially a wall of rooms
rings the church in the middle, forming a protected exterior court. The
most impressive space was the kitchen. It was as though you walked into
an oven, sized to cook whole humans. The ceiling scalloped as it rose
nearly 45 feet into a chimney. The pans sat on large fire places and
were more than eight feet in diameter.

Before departure I got a bus driver to write out all the cities we would
be passing through in Cyrillic. The car rental agency was quite wrong.
We saw few Latin letters once we left Sofia. Despite the fact that we
now had critical translations, we had to stop at the base of every major
road sign so we could hold up our printed destination and compare it
with the sign.

>From Rila we headed to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest but perhaps
most beautiful city. Cobblestone streets twisted to accommodate the
grade. An interesting attitude toward architectural history pervades the
city. There are literally layers of time incorporated in the buildings.
When a ruin is uncovered, they weave it into the current life of the
city - assigning new functions like a cafe or a stair.

Next stop was the Black Sea. We had no reservations, so it became a race
to get to Nessebar before the Balkan tourist office closed. Ted was
driving. We almost flew through the stunning countryside, traveling
first through mountains and then rolling farm lands, ultimately ending
in flat fields close to the sea. As in Plovdiv the night before, we
convinced the hotel woman in Nessebar that we could fit four people in a
double room despite the rules. She finally agreed as long as we were out
before eight in the morning when her shift changed. She wanted no part
of the story if we were caught.

The actual sea coast was forgettable, but both Nessebar and Sozopol had
hundreds of beautiful wooden seaside houses which sat on stone bases.
The overhangs were large enough to protect the rooms from sun and wind,
The wood frame was filled with tiny wood slats and overlaid once more
with thin battens every two feet or so. These elegant structures
represented at one time very progressive ideas about living, containing
unprecedented spaces for women who had just given birth. We ate
wonderful fresh fish that night. Our waiter took great care of us, even
running out to a cafe to get us chocolate cake for dessert.

Bulgaria rekindled my interest in vernacular architecture. In fact, it
reminded me of what I love about the mountains of North Carolina. The
buildings have a direct, clear relationship with the land and with the
function they house. As we drove through the Valley of the Roses (near
Veiliko Tarnovo), we stopped in many small towns - Arbanassi, Zeravna,
Gabrovo. Each seemed to have a subtle and specific architectural
response to its location.

Our last night in Bulgaria was the best. It provided us a beautiful
place to rest, to reflect, and to cook ourselves a meal. Now that the
trip was almost over, we had learned to call ahead for accommodations.
When the woman in Nessebar heard that we were traveling by car, she
said, "I have a place for you." A small town she likened to a museum
because of its houses, Bozenci was just a few miles outside Veiliko
Tarnovo, our destination for the final day. Bring your own food, she
advised, because there is nothing there. A man named Stephan will be
waiting for you in the square. We tried to tell her we were not sure
when we would arrive, but she insisted. He would be waiting.

We stopped at a big roadside market near Gabrovo and bought eight pork
chops, three loaves of bread, olives, and fruit. That was the entire
choice. We had no idea if we could cook them at our place or not.

Spring had exploded on the hills of Bozenci and the smell of white
blossoms filled the air. We followed the map the Nessebar woman had
scratched out for us. It didn't show much: a road, a center square with
a well, a nother road and the house. We got out and walked up the hill
which seemed to be the road of Stephan's house. Wonderful view from the
top, but no Stephan and no house which looked like the photos she had
shown us. We split up, with assigned territories to cover. My job was to
understand the woman worKing in the post office, who had begun helping
us. I was trying to decide if she was connected to Stephan. I began to
draw as I spoke, illustrating each part of my narrative: calling from
Nessebar, securing a house from Stephan, what the agreed price was, its
location, etc. When she finally shook her head and led me out of the
lobby, I heard Sue yelling from the top of a hill, "I found Stephan."
And so she had, and with him our little two-bedroom house with a porch
overlooking the mountain side.

We moved in quicily, reveling in the luxury of our own place, the view,
the cleanliness, and its intimacy. Dinner was started immediately.
Cooking for ourselves was an indescribable pleasure. Dave's ingenuity
with rice rewarded us with a terrific dinner overlooking the mountains,
now dotted with perfumed flowers. We toasted our collective spirit of
adventure and the amazing luck with which we had been blessed.

You don't hear or read much about Bulgaria. But city after city, street
after street, we uncovered stunning views and wonderful architecture
preserved through layers of time and movements. We rarely saw other
tourists. Bulgaria is a country where one can still afford to eat five
course meals, have coffee in an outdoor cafe overlooking a Roman
amphitheater and the entire city below, tour castles and museums, and
dance all night for 50 cents. I will see Bulgaria again in my lifetime,

Back in Vienna I saw this city in a new way, imagining it as home.
Thinking back over our experiences in both countries, Bulgaria pales
against Romania - not because of what either had to offer, but because,
for me, people transcend place, architecture, and accommodation. Our
personal experiences with people were all Romanian. It just turned out
that way this time. Perhaps this addresses the question of how issues of
the human spirit relate to architecture. The power of people to impart
significant meaning, memory and experience far surpasses the ability of
architecture to do the same. One is merely a stage for the other. But
both possess a spirit which affects everyday life. The Arad waiting room
will haunt my visions and inform my conceptions of public spaces for

I relearned a valuable lesson for someone committed to visual education.
Drawing not only connects people to their own thoughts and sights, but
also to other people. Those people then frame the experience and
experience structures the story. After all, as John Barth said, "The
story of your life is not your life. It is your story."


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