Old and new, 'Roman,' Ottoman or Communist, this country's bridges span across rivers, epochs and cultures
A legend is told all over the Balkans about a bridge and a stonemason. Once upon a time, a group of builders was commissioned to construct a bridge over a river, but whatever the men had built during the day was mysteriously destroyed during the night. Each morning the builders had to start from scratch.
Finally, the men saw the writing on the bridge, and realised that it wanted a human sacrifice. They reluctantly made a deal among themselves: on the following day, they would inter in the bridge the first person who came near.
The men went home, burdened with the thought that the following day one of their relatives might become the victim. Of course, all but one of them betrayed the agreement and warned their loved ones to stay away from the building site.
The only one to keep his vow was the youngest mason, Manol.
On the following day, about noon, his beautiful wife came to the bridge to bring her beloved Manol something warm to eat.
In spite of his distress, Master Manol stayed true to his word and his wife was forced to submit. She was built into the bridge and, as soon as her body disappeared behind the stones, the work progressed smoothly. The bridge was finished without further delay, and was so strong that it could withstand even the most violent floods.
This story has many variations, and is told about bridges such as the one over the Drina, in Bosnia and Herzegovina's Višegrad, and about the bridge at Arta, in Greece, and the Devil's Bridge and Kadin Bridge in Bulgaria.
This legend, actually, is the legacy of a pre-historic custom of the Neolithic Balkans. Back then, new buildings were believed to be haunted by invisible forces, which must be appeased with the blood of a victim. The story of the built-in wife, however, can also be seen as an expression of sheer human awe at the engineering achievements of those who construct strong, stable, and bold bridges over rivers that flow slowly and gently most of the time but are prone to sudden and violent floods.
The oldest bridges preserved in Bulgaria date from the 15-16th centuries, when the expanding Ottoman Empire needed reliable transport connections with its newly-conquered territories and its European borders. Some of the finest bridges in modern Bulgaria, the Mustafa Pasha Bridge in Svilengrad, the Kadin Bridge in Nevestino, and the Devil's Bridge near Ardino date from this period. Commissioned by sultans and dignitaries, they were important infrastructure projects.
As the centuries passed, bridge building changed. The empire was shrinking and dignitaries were less interested in grandiose public construction. The bridges became cruder, though still sporting the typical "humpback" arch, and were now commissioned by local communities. In the 19th Century, bridge construction was revolutionised by the talented architect Kolyu Ficheto, whose level bridges are memorable.
When Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878, construction of bridges again became a priority, especially in urban settings. It was the time when Sofia got its Lavov Most, or Lion's Bridge, and Orlov Most, or Eagle's Bridge, and in Tarnovo the cast-iron Stambolov Bridge was erected.
Under Communism, construction of bridges went a step further. For the first time since the Romans, a bridge spanned the Danube between Ruse and the Romanian city of Giurgiu. Its official name is The Bridge of Friendship, but it is commonly known as Dunav Most, or Dunav Bridge. The second one, at Vidin and Calafat, was finished in 2013. It is officially Nova Evropa, or New Europe, but to everyone it is just Dunav Most 2.
As elsewhere, bridges in Bulgaria are often not merely a means to cross a river. Some are stunningly or eerily beautiful, others provide a good excuse for a trek through the Rhodope or the Stara Planina mountains. Adrenaline lovers have long become a fixture at Asparuhov Bridge in Varna and Stambolov Bridge in Veliko Tarnovo, both of which are excellent for bungee jumping.
Masterminded by the Ottoman governor of Ruse, reformist Midhat Pasha, the bridge at Byala was constructed by the 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, completed the bridge under budget. On opening day, the story goes, Ficheto stood under the bridge to prove it was safe to cross.
The bridge at Byala was 276 metres long, nine metres wide, has 14 arches and was designed to withstand the most 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.
Kolyu Ficheto completed only four bridges during his long and productive life. His first was in Sevlievo, in 1857, but it went through such extensive changes in 1924 and 1940 that its original humpback design is no longer visible.
The bridge Ficheto built in his native Dryanovo, in 1861, still preserves its original design, and is a classical humpback construction. It is 38.5 metres long and five metres wide, with four irregular arches. It was the last Ottoman-style bridge Ficheto built. His next projects, at Byala and Lovech, are level.
What is probably 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, 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 has this name are more than 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 to facilitate travel 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 the bridge's 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.
Bulgaria's oldest covered bridge is the latest of a succession of at least three covered bridges, which have spanned the Osam River at Lovech for more than 250 years. As with its more famous peer, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the bridge in 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 it was destroyed by a flood, a new bridge was commissioned from Kolyu Ficheto. In 1874-1876, he created an 84-metre long bridge with six spans each 11metres 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 another 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.
The construction of the first bridge over the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania was a huge and very political affair, clothed in Socialist propaganda. Built in 1952-1954, when both countries were in the grips of Stalinism, The Bridge of Friendship between Ruse and Guirgiu is 2,223 metres long and 30 metres high. It has two levels, for cars and for trains, and for decades was the main point to enter or leave Bulgaria when travelling further into Europe.
The bridge is often congested but, even so, do pay attention to the five-pointed stars adorning the lamp posts as reminders of its Stalinist origins.
THE STAMBOLOV 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 plans, 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 locally-born prime minister Stefan Stambolov, who 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 the onlooking crowd 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 preserve its Revival Period central area almost intact. The other main sights of Tryavna are the 22-metre clock tower and the wood-carved suns on the ceilings of the Daskalovata Kashta, or Daskalov's 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 – it is 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.
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 ASPARUHOV BRIDGE
One of Bulgaria's grandest engineering achievements, the 2,050-metre long and 46-metre high Asparuhov Bridge is the busy connection between Varna and the southern stretch of the Bulgarian Black Sea. It spans over the canal between the sea and Varna Lake.
This bridge was built in 1973-1976, and bears the name of Khan Asparuh, who founded Bulgaria in 681. If you crave an adrenaline boost and are in the area, the Asparuhov Bridge is the answer, as it is one of the most popular places in Bulgaria for bungee jumping.
High Beam 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.