Ambitious or diminutive, Bulgaria's bridges inspire wonder, dark legends of Bulgaria
With their ingenuity, some bridges puzzle, and those you will find in Bulgaria are no exception. Some of them are centuries-old, while others are relatively new. What unites them is their beauty and their strength to withstand the passage of time, the burden of traffic and the power of swollen rivers. Many of them also come with a gloomy legend or two. Here is a selection of some of the bridges in Bulgaria that merit more than a single visit and an Instagram post.
What is arguably Bulgaria's most beautiful bridge also has its most sinister name. Fifty-six metres long and 12 metres high, it spans the upper Arda River, near Ardino in the Rhodope mountains, and was supposedly built by the Devil. Or the Devil was seen or heard laughing in the vicinity. Or the Devil agreed that he would leave the builders alone if they managed to construct the bridge in a certain way so that he would be both visible and invisible at the same time. And so on and so forth. The stories about why the Devil's Bridge got its name outnumber what even the most devoted tour guide can remember without checking Google for devil bridge legends.
Here is the true story. The bridge was built at the beginning of the 16th century on the route from the Thracian Plain through the mountains to the Aegean Sea. With the advent of Communism that part of the border with NATO-member Greece was closed. The old route, in use from the time of the Romans, was abandoned, and the bridge was no longer needed. There was a moment when its very existence was put in danger by the proposed construction of a dam upstream. This did not happen, but recent over-restoration has killed some of the charm of the Devil's Bridge.
The first freestanding cast iron bridge in Bulgaria spans a bend of the Yantra River at Veliko Tarnovo. Built in 1892 after the design of Italian architect Giovanni Musutti and with parts made in Austria, the bridge is 37 metres high. According to the initial plan, it was to provide a fast connection from the centre of the city to the newly-built railway station at the foot of Boruna Hill.
The Stambolov Bridge bears the name of Tarnovo's famous son, Stefan Stambolov, who became prime minister of independent Bulgaria and supposedly initiated the construction. The now pedestrianised bridge is a favourite spot for photographers taking pictures of Old Tarnovo, for tourists and locals who use it to reach the City Art Gallery and the Asenevtsi Monument, and for bungee jumpers.
On 24 May 1932, the bridge played a central role in a daring stunt. Bulgarian ace pilot, Petko Popganchev, flew his plane under it while onlookers cheered and applauded. Some say that it was done in an – unsuccessful – attempt to impress a local beauty.
The Humpback Bridge over the Trevnenska River is one of the highlights of Tryavna, one of the few towns in Bulgaria that still preserves its Revival Period central area almost intact. The other main sights in Tryavna are the 22-metre clock tower and the carved wooden suns on the ceilings of the Daskalov House.
The bridge was built in 1844-1845, after the locals became frustrated by the frequent destruction of the old wooden bridge by floods.
What makes the Humpback Bridge interesting is not its diminutive size or standard architecture, but how harmoniously it blends with the old-time atmosphere of the city.
One detail: at the highest part of the bridge there is the relief of a pitcher. Some say that it was a visual reminder to the people from the neighbouring – and rival – Gabrovo, to wash their hands before entering refined Tryavna. According to another version, it was the other way round – the pitcher warned the inhabitants of Tryavna to wash themselves before venturing to Gabrovo.
One of the great pleasures of driving or trekking in the Rhodope mountains is the chance encounter with a hump-backed stone bridge spanning a barely trickling rivulet. Most of them have no grandiose stories or legends attached to them, besides the prevalent belief among locals that they were built by the Romans. In actual fact, they are a lot newer and date back to the Ottoman period.
The construction of new roads has made most of the old Rhodope bridges redundant, while recent overenthusiastic restoration has robbed many of their authenticity. However, survivors remain here and there among the hills, silent monuments to ancient, now forgotten routes.
The 37-metre Kemera Bridge near the village of Borino is a case in point. Standing by the road between Gotse Delchev and Smolyan, it once facilitated travel between the Thracian Plain and the Aegean. When the Ottoman Empire's slow disintegration started, the role of this bridge changed. In 1878-1912, a border ran through its middle, leaving its eastern half in Bulgaria and the western one in the Ottoman Empire.
The old-time charm of the bridge has been harmed by the recent construction of tourist infrastructure, but seeing its stone hump for the first time among the hills still brings a feeling of discovery.
In the Balkans, since times immemorial, a legend has been told of the construction of ancient, impressive bridges such as those at Arta in Greece and on the Drina in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It attributes their durability and strength to a human sacrifice that the master builder had to make.
Bulgaria also has such a bridge. This elegant five-arched 100-metre structure in Nevestino, a village near Kyustendil, is known by two names: Kadin Bridge and Nevestin Bridge. Both words mean the same, in Turkish and Bulgarian respectively: a married woman. Both reflect the legend about how the bridge came to be.
Once upon a time, three brothers who were builders were commissioned to construct a bridge over the River Struma. The work went awry from the very beginning. Each night an unknown force demolished everything they had built during the day and every morning they had to start all over again. The builders realised that the bridge needed a human sacrifice and agreed to entomb in its foundations the first person to pass by on the following morning.
The elder brothers told their wives about the agreement. The youngest did not. On the next day his young wife came to the construction site to bring his lunch.
Neither the builder nor his wife protested against their fate, and carried out their roles in accordance with tradition. He "built" her into the bridge and she asked him to leave one of her breasts uncovered so she could feed their child.
So, the bridge was finished.
Legends are legends, but Kadin Bridge preserves traces of its real history: a builder's inscription recalls that it was built by Ishak Pasha, Grand Vizier of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, in 1469-1470 to facilitate travel from Constantinople to Skopje and the western Balkans.
Today local traffic in sleepy Nevestino still uses the bridge, but the times when Kadin Bridge was on a major route are long gone.
The Stara Reka eco path, in the Stara Planina mountains near Antonovo, between the villages of Stevrek and Bogomilsko, is a 10-kilometre trek which ends at a beautiful old bridge that spans the Stara Reka river amid lush greenery, and is mirrored perfectly in the slow waters. It is now remote and far from any functioning road, but it used to be on a busy route crossing the Stara Planina mountains.
Most locals assert that the Stevrek Bridge was built by the Romans, but it is Ottoman.
The purpose of a bridge is to connect people and to facilitate travel. When it was built over the Rezovska River, near Malko Tarnovo, at the beginning of the 19th century Valchanov Bridge had to do just that. Although it was the notorious brigand Valchan Voyvoda who sponsored its construction, the Ottoman authorities did not seem to mind. They probably saw the project as the means for some of the money, stolen by Valchan Voyvoda from Ottoman caravans, to return to the community. A century later, the old bridge was replaced with a new one, built by an Italian architect. The name remained the same.
And then came the Cold War. At the end of the 1940s Bulgaria and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, and Valchanov Bridge changed from being a means of travel and communication to a threat to Bulgarian national security. To prevent possible invaders from using it, the Bulgarians bombed their side of the bridge.
The bridge is still on the border, but can now be visited. Right next to it stands another reminder of border tensions: the fence that the Bulgarians put up in the 2010s to deter immigrants from entering.
Bulgaria's oldest covered bridge was one of a succession of at least three covered bridges which spanned the Osam River at Lovech for more than 250 years. As with its more famous peer, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the bridge at Lovech was designed to accommodate shops.
It is not known when the first covered bridge of wood on stone pillars was constructed over the Osam, but the earliest evidence of its existence is from 1838. After a flood destroyed it, a new bridge was commissioned from Kolyu Ficheto. In 1874-1876, he created an 84-metre long bridge with six spans each 11 metres long. The bridge itself was 10 metres wide, with a five metre "street" running between the rows of 64 shops.
That bridge was reduced to ashes during a catastrophic fire in 1925.
In 1931, it was replaced with a bridge of reinforced concrete, which had 40 shops and a road over which cars used to roar. In 1981-1982, however, the bridge was reconstructed again, and this design was closer to Ficheto's original bridge. Today, the bridge at Lovech is 104 metres long, has 14 shops and is pedestrianised.
Masterminded by the Ottoman governor of Ruse, the reformist Midhat Pasha, the bridge at Byala was constructed by Bulgarian master builder Kolyu Ficheto, in 1867. The construction was a challenge, as the Yantra River here is wide and fast flowing, but the master solved the problem brilliantly and, moreover, never went over budget. On its opening day, the story goes, Ficheto stood under the bridge to prove it was safe to cross.
The bridge at Byala is 276 metres long, nine metres wide, has 14 arches and was designed to withstand torrential floods.
All the arches were decorated with quasi-Gothic reliefs of allegorical and mythical creatures.
Sadly, in 1897 the Yantra got the upper hand, washing away almost half of the bridge. In the 1920s the bridge was reconstructed using reinforced concrete, though the surviving half of the original bridge is still an arresting sight.
Built in 1529 by Mustafa Pasha, a vizier of the sultans Selim I and Süleyman the Magnificent, the bridge was part of a complex consisting of a roadside inn, a public bath, and various other buildings. With its 295 metres it is the longest Ottoman bridge in Bulgaria. It has 21 arches, the widest of which spans 18 metres.
Before the bridge was built, this stretch of the Maritsa was uninhabited. Just a few years after the masons had finished their work, a settlement with a lively market place sprang up by it – Mustafa Pasha town, the predecessor of Svilengrad.
There is a curious legend about the construction of this bridge. When the work was done, Süleyman I felt jealous of the magnificent structure and wished to buy it. Mustafa Pasha was unwilling to see the bridge into which he had put his heart and his money in the hands of another, but his refusal would have dishonoured the sultan. The pasha was at his wits' end and asked for a night of reflection. Süleyman agreed.
During the night, the pasha killed himself. Enraged, Süleyman cursed the bridge: May the first man who crosses it die.
Only one man dared to cross it, and this was Mustafa Pasha's father, a now childless parent whose life had lost its meaning.
The bridge you see today in the centre of Svilengrad (the name was adopted in 1913 after the city became part of Bulgaria) is not exactly the same as the one from the 16th century. In 1766 a particularly high surge of the Maritsa swept away half of its arches. The bridge was rebuilt in 1790.
The building inscription is still in place, in the middle of the bridge. It reads: "This bridge was built when Caliph was the greatest among sultans Sultan Süleyman Khan, son of Selim Khan, may he continue his safety and security, their vizier Mustafa Pasha – may God bless all that he creates. And it [the building of the bridge] was his most lasting good deed in the year, on the day on which an eternal good deed came to be."
NUDE WOMEN BRIDGE, KYUSTENDIL
This 1909 bridge spans across the River Banshtitsa in central Kyustendil. Its simple iron construction, designed by the Austrian engineer, Rudolf Fischer, is pretty much run-of-the-mill. What stuns about it dates back to 1969, when the government commissioned a sculptor, Lyuben Dimitrov, to decorate it. At the height of Communism, known for its austerity and zealous adherence to puritanical values, Dimitrov, who had been known for major design works such as the Freedom Monument on Mount Shipka as well as the National Library, the Bulgarian National Bank and the lions in front of Sofia University Library, installed at the bridge a quartet of unabashed women in various stages of undress.
The white sculpted women are still there. The locals are used to them and, interestingly, rarely vandalise them. But any visitor, especially from America, will be astounded by their daring eroticism and teeming voluptuousness. Why the Communist Party leaders and their subservient workers and peasants, whose ideas of erotica were probably forged in a tractor factory, did not censor Lyuben Dimitrov's audacious sculptures will probably remain one of the mysteries of late 20th century Bulgaria.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners