They measure the passage of time and the heartbeat of the city. They are an institution and a mark of civilisation. The city clocks still tick away in their public places around the city, reminding people that the duration of the second is the same as a hundred years ago – it's only what they do with it that has changed.
Sofia has its share of city clocks, some well-maintained and some falling into disrepair. The advance of public clocks in towns and cities of Bulgaria throughout the 19th Century was hailed as a welcome Western influence at the time when few people had personal watches. As time speeded up in the beginning of the 20th Century, the influence of the clocks became even more pronounced. People consulted them as they went about their business in the city centre, as there was always at least one nearby. The adage that time is money has never had that much conviction behind it as today. The ability to organise yourself into neat little squares of time has become a sign of dependability. Timetables rule our lives from the setting of the morning alarm to bedtime. It's no wonder that the city clocks still have power over us, despite the mobile phones and wristwatches. Whenever we look up in Sofia's centre, there loom the implacable judges that tell us that it's time to get a move on. With the pictures of clocks from all over the city, go in search of lost time – and discover hidden pieces of Sofia's history.
Ministry of Agriculture
This Baroquesque building stands out in grey downtown Sofia at 55 Hristo Botev Blvd. It was built in 1920 to be a Commercial Palace. An international jury selected this design by Bulgarian architect Nikola Lazarov. He had studied in France and so stuck to his favourite style, with a curved façade, two towers and a dome with a clock. Nowadays the building houses the Ministry of Agriculture. It is preserved in the original, having been declared a Monument of Culture – and that includes clock maintenance.
Only the oldest Sofianites know the origin of this building on Garibaldi Square, which was commissioned by the banker Atanas Burov to house the administrative centre of his Bulgarian Commercial Bank. Completed in 1921, the building looked the same as it does today, with its impressive reliefs and sculptures, and two atlantes supporting the façade with the clock. Burov was forced out of commercial life in 1948 when his assets were nationalised. The banking business has a great respect for Burov – so much so that in 2001 a bank purchased this building to use as an office and preserved the rooms used by Burov in the original.
The Central Hali
The first decade of the 20th Century brought prosperity to Bulgaria and a number of projects were started, including the Central Hali, completed in 1911. The Renaissance style building designed by Naum Torbov on Marie Louise Blvd between the mosque and the synagogue featured a small arched tower with a three-faced clock to point out the time in the busy central area. Major restoration works took place between 1988 and 2000, but the Central Hali opened again and its clock still ticks away the minutes.
Numerous mosques were demolished in Sofia after the Ottomans left in 1878, but the Black Mosque, as the building at 25 Graf Ignatiev St had come to be known, was put to another use. The unorthodox idea of converting it into a church first came from Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev, but it quickly took root. Reconstruction started in 1898 and finished with the consecration of the church of St Sedmochislenitsi in 1903. The main body of the mosque, which dated back to 1528, was preserved, with many architectural additions. An electric clock was created by watchmaker Georgi Hadzhinikolov and fitted to the western facade in the 1930s. It still works today.
Aleksandrovska University Hospital
The Aleksandrovska University Hospital at 1 St Georgi Sofiyski doesn't show its age. Built in 1879 to house the first hospital in independent Bulgaria, it went on to experience all the wars Bulgaria was involved in. It became a military hospital between 1912 and 1919, and was the first site of the Medical University, founded in 1918. The building was badly damaged in the Sofia bombings in 1944, but restoration took place and now it stands in its original form. The clock on its facade is still working, counting down the minutes until visiting time.
National High School of Finance and Business
Sofia's Chamber of Commerce donated the money for this solid red building at 1 Rozova Dolina St in Lozenets. It was designed for the Commercial School and was completed in 1930, including the tower with the clock. The school has prospered, staying in the same building for 80 years and only changing its name. The curriculum is still the same, too – economics, entrepreneurship and finance. The clock ticks on, reminding the students that time should be money.
The Clock House
The Clock House at 15 Moskovska Street, behind the palace, has been the site of many "firsts" in Bulgarian history: the first theatre productions of independent Bulgaria, the first draft beer and the first officers' ball. It is alleged that the Parliament even held sessions in it in the 1880s, and it also doubled as a military museum. The tower with the clock has stayed the same since 1879, but the rest of the building has been extensively renovated and now the Clock House is a restaurant.
Central Train Station
The Central Train Station was officially opened at noon on 12 August 1888, when the train from London and Paris arrived. The building was low and sprawling, of Italian design, and naturally boasted a clock in a central position. The station was not big enough to handle the 20th Century traffic and in 1971 the old building was demolished. The new station opened on 6 September 1974, with a clock, of course, to tell intending passengers whether they will make it in time for their train.
National Palace of Culture
Bulgaria boasts about 20 sun dials, the first allegedly being at the Thracian rock sanctuary of Beglik Tash. One of the newest additions, celebrating Microsoft's fifth anniversary, is in the green space just in front of the National Palace of Culture.