by Dimana Trankova; photography Anthony Georgieff

Sofia's emblematic thoroughfare reflects changing face of capital, and some scandals

lions bridge sofia 5.jpg

Unlike most great cities, Sofia is located neither at a sea, nor near an important river. The Perlovska and the Vladayska, the two rivulets that skirt the northern, eastern and southern boundaries of the city centre, are too small to count. In spite of this, the two bridges that span them, Eagles Bridge and Lions Bridge respectively, are deeply embedded in the life and fabric of Sofia. Besides presenting photo ops, they each have their own history and are conduits for much of the traffic into the city.

Located on Marie Louise Boulevard, which connects the centre of Sofia and the Railway Station, Lions Bridge is the older of the two. The first bridge was built there in the 2nd century AD, when Serdica was a Roman city, to facilitate traffic on the Via Diagonalis, the route between the Bosporus and Central Europe. At the time of its construction the bridge was outside the city walls. This changed in the 4th century when Emperor Constantine, an admirer of and frequent visitor to Serdica, enlarged the city's fortifications. A new wall rose on the northern bank of the Vladayska, to protect not only the citizens' houses, but also the bridge.

It is not clear what happened to the Roman bridge during the Middle Ages, when Serdica shrank back to its old core. When archaeologists excavated the foundations of the bridge on the south bank of the river, they did not find any medieval artefacts. This suggests that the bridge was probably abandoned and in ruins at the time when the city became a stronghold of Byzantine and Bulgarian power in the region.

What archaeologists did discover was a significant number of Ottoman artefacts. When the Ottomans took Sofia, in 1382, they destroyed its fortification walls, but they definitely needed a bridge over the Vladayska, as their armies spread through the Western Balkans and Central Europe. A bridge at this location would also serve Sofia's citizens in conducting their business, villagers selling their produce in the city markets, and merchants from as far away as the Middle East, Dubrovnik and Venice, as well as German and French diplomats on their way to Constantinople.

A postcard printed soon after Lions Bridge was built still referred to it by its old name, Colourful Bridge

A postcard printed soon after Lions Bridge was built still referred to it by its old name, Colourful Bridge 

When this bridge was built was not recorded, but a legend explains how it came to be. A wealthy Ottoman, Halil Sali Efendi, bought up all the surplus hay Bulgarian villagers from the area had gathered one year, when the hay crop was plentiful and prices were low. Unable to understand why someone would stockpile something so readily available, the villagers mocked Halil Sali Efendi and nick-named him The Mad One. "Time will sell the hay," was all that Halil Sali Efendi would say, when asked about his seeming extravagance. The following year, Mad Halil had the last laugh. The hay harvest was meagre and animals starved. The villagers who had mocked Mad Halil found themselves buying hay from his warehouses at inflated prices. In true Muslim fashion, Halil Sali Efendi spent his profits on an infrastructure project that would serve the whole community: a beautiful bridge of red and yellow stone over the Vladayska, which he adorned with two inscriptions. One was pious: "When there is no bridge, build one. When there is no water fountain, build one." The other was not so humble: "I sold on time and built a bridge."

This bridge became known as the Colourful Bridge, a name that evokes exotic caravans of mules and camels arriving from the wider world into Sofia. The reality was grimmer. The bridge became the execution site for the city, and the most famous to die there were four Bulgarian rebels hanged in the aftermath of the 1876 April Uprising.

The Colourful Bridge was still in place when the Russian army liberated Sofia, in 1877, and when the city became the capital of Bulgaria, in 1879. A new era began, one that rapidly transformed Oriental Sofia into a modern European city with grand streets and elaborate public and private buildings. As early as 1880 it was decided that the old bridge should be replaced with a new one, which should be a part of a grand memorial to the four rebels hanged there, and also a part of the new boulevard that would connect the city centre with the Railway Station (the station was opened in 1888). The surrounding area was also transformed from a slum into a neighbourhood of grand houses for the new Sofia bourgeoisie.

Lions Bridge before the 2010s overhaul. The poplars were chopped down to make space for a roundabout

Lions Bridge before the 2010s overhaul. The poplars were chopped down to make space for a roundabout

The eagerly anticipated construction of Lions Bridge turned out to be an early example of the conflict between idea, realisation and the scandals in between that is so characteristic of infrastructure building in Bulgaria. The bridge was built, in 1889-1890, by the Czech entrepreneurs the Prošek Brothers for the exorbitant sum of 260,000 golden leva. The memorial never materialised. A small plaque was put up for the four rebels, and the four bronze lions on the bridge were advertised as symbolic representations of these martyrs for Bulgarian freedom. In a twist of historical irony, Sofianites paid hardly any attention to their beauty and symbolism. Instead they turned the lions, which were made in Vienna by Waagner-Biro (the company that made the tessellated roof of the Great Court at the British Museum), into a joke: Do you know why the lions have no tongues? So that they cannot say how much money was stolen during the construction of the bridge.

This scandal was forgotten soon enough, however, and with time, newer scandals and Sofia's transition from (sometimes tainted) democracy to Communist regime to (sometimes tainted) democracy again, Lions Bridge became an integral part of city life. Trams, cars and buses traversed it on their way to and from the Railway Station, but the neighbourhood around gradually began to deteriorate and lose status, attracting poorer migrants from Bulgaria and, after 1989, from the Middle East. Casinos, striptease bars, money exchangers, and second-hand clothes and street food hawkers took over. Grand old houses became cheap hotels. Pickpockets frequented the pavements by day, and prostitutes by night.

In 2010, the tail of one of the lions was cut for scrap metal. It was later restored

In 2010, the tail of one of the lions was cut for scrap metal. It was later restored

In the 2010s, probably inspired by the growing number of foreign tourists visiting the area and not being seduced by its somewhat sleazy charm, the Sofia Municipality started a project to revitalise the neighbourhood. Lions Bridge metro station was opened, and in 2014 the bridge and the two boulevards that intersect at it, Marie Louise and Slivnitsa, underwent a major overhaul.

Today, only trams and pedestrians cross Lions Bridge. Greenery and benches were added in an attempt to humanise the environment, but this failed, as the bridge is now enclosed by a busy roundabout and, because of the air and noise pollution, is hardly the nicest place to sit and enjoy the sun, the lions and the excavated foundations of the Roman bridge. There is still no memorial to the four rebels, but considering the quality of public art produced in Bulgaria in the past two decades, this is probably just as well. 

Lions Bridge is one of Sofia's emblematic sites

Lions Bridge is one of Sofia's emblematic sites


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