Colour, splendour, curious stories thrive in city's old quarter
The braw houses lining the cobblestone streets of Old Plovdiv are arguably the city's most recognisable sight. The only thing that can distract from marvelling at their painted façades, projecting bay windows and verdant gardens is the pavement. Polished by the feet of generations of passers-by, it is slippery even when dry, as the traveller and historian Konstantin Jireček noted as far back as the late 19th century.
The mansions were built in the 18th and 19th centuries by wealthy Bulgarian, Greek and Armenian merchants, who traded and travelled far and wide within and beyond the vast Ottoman Empire. The architecture reflected the Ottoman fashion of the day: bay windows, ornamental wood carving and overhanging eaves. However, they have their own idiosyncrasies that have led some Bulgarian researchers to label their style Plovdiv Baroque.
Kuyumdzhieva House has one of the finest façades in Old Plovdiv, and its interior reveals how 19th century Plovdiv residents combined traditional with European-style living
The design of the Plovdiv Revival Period houses reflects the society that created them. Built by men with significant disposable income, they provided luxurious living for their inhabitants. People in other cities and towns usually had ateliers and shops on the ground floor of their homes, but the rich Plovdiv merchants were above the idea of combining business and pleasure. Their mansions served only one purpose: to impress the visitor, while being comfortable living quarters for their families.
This was how the distinctive façades of the Plovdiv houses came to be, with their curved bay windows and eaves, bold colours and frescoes of flowers, landscapes and geometrical ornaments. High stone walls surrounded the small gardens, but at least one side of the house opened onto the street, as the inhabitants obviously wanted to keep up with what was going on in the city.
Located nearby, Balabanova House is another place that preserves an interior from a bygone era
This was particularly relevant for the womenfolk as, according to tradition, no reputable woman should be seen just walking in the streets, unattended by a male relative. A curious architectural invention, unique to Plovdiv, solved the problem. The Klyukarnik, or literally Space for Gossip, is a small projecting bay window at street level which allowed women to keep up with the latest news about town without leaving the comfort of their home. Interestingly, Bulgarians all over the country still use the word Klyukarnik as a nickname for Facebook.
The interiors of Plovdiv's Revival Period houses matched their exteriors in grandeur. A large drawing room took up the best part of the living area, where guests were greeted and entertained in an environment that combined the old and the new. Fine traditional woodcarvings covered the ceilings, but the furniture and the cutlery were imported from the West, while murals of flowers and cities near and far adorned the walls.
Wooden ceiling at Hindliyan's House
The beauty of Revival Period Plovdiv enchants today, but it was not always so. At the end of the 19th century, Bulgarians became fascinated with Westernisation. Suddenly, the houses of their fathers and grandfathers seemed obsolete, outdated and uncomfortable. Consequently, many houses were demolished or abandoned. By the middle of the 20th century the Old Town was a shadow of its former self, with houses in different stages of dereliction, inhabited only by elderly folk.
Luckily, just at that time the local council recognised the importance of the Old Town and its houses, and started to survey, document and restore them. According to some sources, in the following decades up to 80 percent of the houses in the neighbourhood were restored or built anew. Unfortunately, restoration works were often far from perfect. For example, instead of the original building materials such as clay mixed with reeds, bricks were used for the walls. Some of the restored murals also had nothing to do with the original decorations.
Hindliyan's House is one of the best places to peek into the lifestyle of wealthy Plovdiv citizens
In spite of these shortcomings, the Old Town of Plovdiv is now a place where the atmosphere of times long gone is still palpable and a significant number of its beautiful houses have become museums and galleries.
The Regional Ethnographic Museum Plovdiv is in one of the Old Town's most imposing buildings, the Kuyumdzhiev House. It was erected in 1847 by a wealthy merchant, Argir Kuyumdzhioglu, and makes good use of a natural slope and some medieval ruins that still exist. Its rear wall incorporates parts of medieval Plovdiv's fortification walls and Hisar Kapiya gate. Seen from the front, it has only two storeys, but at the back it has four.
The house where French poet and revolutionary, Alphonse de Lamartine, lived for some time in 1833, is named after him, not after its owners, the Mavridis
The Kuyumdzhieva House has 12 rooms and two drawing rooms decorated with woodcarved ceilings. Its magnificent interior suggests the wealth of its original owners but the house has seen poorer times as well. At the end of the 19th century it was used as a dormitory for girls, then variously as a milliner's factory, a vinegar distillation workshop and a flour storeroom. In 1938 its significance was recognised, and the predecessor of today's Regional Ethnographic Museum moved in.
The Balabanov House is another landmark of Old Town Plovdiv. It was built by a merchant, Panayot Lampsha, at the beginning of the 19th century, but is known by the name of its last owner, a timber merchant called Hristo Balabanov. It was modelled on the sumptuous residences lining the Bosporous in Istanbul at the time. The Balabanov House has all the telltale signs of a Revival Period Plovdiv mansion: large drawing rooms, lavishly decorated spaces and internal staircases.
The grand salon of the Klianti House is richly decorated with ornate murals and had luxury furniture imported from Europe
Unfortunately, the original Balabanov House was knocked down in 1935. It was rebuilt 40 years later using the master construction plans. Most of its rooms are now used for cultural events and exhibitions.
Next to the Balabanov House is the residence of the wealthy Armenian merchant, Stepan Hindliyan. In contrast to the Balabanov House, it has mostly remained in its original state.
The Hindliyan House is in fact a small mansion-type compound. In addition to the large main house it has service rooms, accommodation for the servants, a laundry and a summer kitchen. Interestingly, it also has a private safehouse in the form of a windowless two-storey building equipped with a heavy door, where the Hindliyan family kept its wealth.
Seeing the paintings of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev is a must when in Plovdiv. They are exhibited in the two-storey house of Dr Stoyan Chomakov, built in the mid-19th century
It was built in 1848 and it had all the mod cons of the time, including an Ottoman-style bathroom, a hamam, with running hot and cold water and a room for the bathers to relax in.
Most of the rooms are decorated with wall paintings depicting faraway locations that the owner reputedly visited in his business travels. These include St Petersburg, Stockholm, Venice, Lisbon, Athens, the Prince Islands in the sea of Marmara and Jerusalem. Curiously, whoever painted them had apparently done so out of imagination rather than real-life experience: Jerusalem, for instance, was depicted as being at a... sea.
Stepan Hindliyan's family left its opulent residence in 1915 and donated it to 23 Armenian families fleeing from the Ottoman Empire. In 1974 the house was listed, restored and equipped with 19th century furniture.
One of Old Plovdiv's grand houses bears the name of the French poet and revolutionary, Alphonse de Lamartine. The beautiful three-storey house with arches that seem to defy gravity was built in 1830 by a local, the merchant Georgi Mavridi. What Lamartine did to immortalise it was stay there for three days, in 1833, whilst returning from the Middle East.
The Veren Stambolyan House is dedicated to the works of Dimitar "Neron" Kirov, an emblematic Plovdiv artist
Today the Lamartine House belongs to the Bulgarian Union of Writers. One of its rooms is open for visitors and houses a small exhibition about Lamartine.
The Klianti House is one of the oldest in Plovdiv. Its construction started in the late 18th century and ended in 1817. During the following decades it underwent major renovations that significantly altered its architecture. Today only about three quarters of its original design remains. What impresses most is the sumptuously decorated ceilings that depict ornaments, vases and plants, and the murals of Vienna, Constantinople and Klianti House itself. In 2017 Klianti House and its decorations were restored to their 1817 design.
Built in the 1860s, the residence of the wealthy merchant from Karlovo, Georgi Nedkovich, makes its mark with its sumptuously decorated façade featuring ornate compositions and landscapes above its windows. Its furnishings reflect the 19th century vogue: European furniture and floors covered with Chiprovtsi and Kotel carpets.
Art by Dimitar "Neron" Kirov
Some houses in the Old Town merit a visit not so much for their architecture or interior design but for the artwork they house. The gallery showcasing Zlatyu Boyadzhiev's art is one of them.
The two-storey building was erected in 1858-1860 for Dr Stoyan Chomakov, who was a leading figure in the 19th century Bulgarian Church independence movement. Having graduated in medicine in Italy, he returned to Plovdiv and became the chief surgeon of Bulgaria's first hospital, founded in Plovdiv after the 1878 liberation. In the late 19th-early 20th century the house was used as a residence by Prince Ferdinand I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Bulgarian monarch at the time. In 1984 it was turned into a gallery for Zlatyu Boyadzhiev's art.
To call Zlatyu Boyadzhiev (1903-1976) a naivist would be to downplay the talent of a remarkable painter who depicted Bulgarian life in Plovdiv and beyond. His later style, inimitably grotesque, was the result of a stroke he suffered in 1951. Left partially paralysed, he was physically compelled to abandon realism, and thus a personal tragedy spawned one of the most influential Bulgarian artists. Zlatyu Boyadzhiev's paintings are explosions of life in bright, pure colours: women chat and pray in quaint chapels, while men drink, butcher pigs and go hunting. Priests pray over dead bodies, and children ride sledges in an ostensibly chaotic swirl of dramatic, comic and tragic tales.
The old Hippocrates Pharmacy is a true gem of Old Plovdiv
Whitewashed on the outside, the Veren Stambolyan House, dating back to the mid-19th century, looks misleadingly uninteresting. However, since 2010 it has housed a permanent collection of the paintings of Dimitar "Neron" Kirov (1933-2008), one of the emblematic Plovdiv artists.
One of the most pleasant gems of Old Plovdiv is a pharmacy set in the house of Dr Sotir Antoniadi. From 1872 to 1947 Plovdiv citizens came here to buy medicines prepared by pharmacists with degrees from West European universities. The tiny two-storey house is full of dozens of small bottles, drawers, scales, herbs, books, anatomical models and strange instruments that appear better suited for torture than cure. The house has a miniature yard, with medicinal flowers and herbs that it is as enchanting as the interior.
The Revival Period citizens of Plovdiv spent their money not only on building houses for themselves and their families but also on projects that benefited the whole community, one being the Yellow School. This is the oldest building in Plovdiv that is still being used for its original purpose. It was erected in 1868 through a sultan's decree, which is indicated by two stone tablets on its wall, one in Ottoman Turkish and one in Bulgarian. Initially, the building housed the First Plovdiv High School. In 1964, the Plovdiv Academy for Music, Dance and Visual Arts moved in. At present, it is the home of its Folklore Faculty.
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