The charming Revival Period houses at Plovdiv, Koprivshtitsa and Kovachevitsa are irresistible, but if you want to see the different face of Bulgaria in the 19th-early 20th centuries, go to Ruse. The biggest Bulgarian city on the Danube for decades was the main gate of European influence coming to Bulgaria – to an astonishing effect.
At the end of the 19th Century, the shops in Ruse sold dresses, suits, hats, shoes and gloves fashioned on the latest European designs, which came there by way of the Danube from Vienna and Budapest. The city was the conveyer of progressive ideas in commerce, industry, architecture and entertainment as well. The reason was its location on the bank of the river which links Central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia to the Orient. With such conditions, the development of commerce was inevitable.
In the 1st Century AD, the Romans built a fortress, Sexaginta Prista, on the site where Ruse is today. In the 7th Century, it was destroyed by one of a series of Barbaric invasions, but 300 years later, its ruins were settled again. The new town was called Rusi, which in the time of the Ottoman rule, was called Rusçuk.
In 1864, when Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha arrived there, the city was given a new sobriquet: Küçük Paris, or Little Paris. A reformist at heart, he transformed Rusçuk into a European-style city with stone-paved streets and Viennese streetlights. It boasted a post office, a telegraph office and the first railway in Bulgaria, which linked it with Varna. A number of trading companies set up in the city and European countries opened their consulates.
Life changed. While their children were studying in one of the two secular schools or the French Catholic College of Notre Dame de Sion, the educated Rusenites were reading Belgian and French papers and the locally published Dunav, or "The Danube", the first Bulgarian language newspaper in the Ottoman Empire.
The newly-fledged Bulgarian revolutionaries also flocked to the city because of its convenient location and transport links. In 1978, however, the Communist authorities commemorated Georgi Rakovski, Zahari Stoyanov, Angel Kanchev and Stefan Karadzha in a strange way: they demolished the Vsyah Svetih, or All Saints Church, built in 1889, and constructed an oversized Pantheon of the National Revival Heroes on its site.
Ruse's liberation came in 1877 with the beginning of the Russo-Turkish War and in the following decades the city became one of the power engines of the young Principality of Bulgaria's economy. It had 14 factories, 28 trading companies, banks and the first insurance company in the country.
When money flows into a city, it starts to show – wealthy citizens hired architects from Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany. Today, central Ruse abounds with buildings with opulent oriels, balconies, towers and columns that look like transported from Central Europe.
Start your walk from the Svoboda, or Liberty, Square with the emblematic statue of Liberty. The buildings around are astonishing, and the Dohodno Zdanie and Girdap Public Saving Company are two of the most arresting. The nearby Aleksandrovska Street is a charming collection of baroque and neo-classical façades and at Slavyanska Street is the birth place of the Nobel prize for literature winner Elias Canetti.