interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Sofia is the pith of an energy vortex

Diana Rowan.jpg

Born in Ireland, Diana Rowan has lived, performed and studied on the US East Coast, in Europe and the Middle East before choosing Berkeley, California, where she received her Master of Music degree. Each country left a strong impression on Diana's music, which interweaves Celtic, Eastern European, Near Eastern and classical arts with mythology. Besides performing from the Australian Harp Festival to Washington DC's Smithsonian to Eastern European cathedrals, Diana teaches to advanced level and can be heard on many CDs and soundtracks for film and TV, including her three solo albums Panta Rhei, The Bright Knowledge, and upcoming As Above, So Below. She splits her time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Eastern Europe, completing a PhD in harp composition at the National Academy of Music in Sofia, Bulgaria. Diana believes strongly in the healing power of music and plays often in hospitals and healing centres through her company Harpists for Health.

How long have you lived in Sofia? Why did you come here in the first place?

I have been to Sofia four times now, adding up to about a year total, and I’m looking forward to many more visits to what is now my second home. I came here originally for three reasons: to see my parents, who moved here three years ago, to find out more about the National Academy of Music, where I am now completing my doctorate, and to pay homage to the country that inspired me to learn harp. An incredible series of coincidences led me away from my classical piano career, starting with hearing Bulgarian vocal musical accompanied by harp to one of my piano students immediately and mysteriously producing a harp for me to practice on – it was through Bulgarian music that I appreciated the harp’s true nature for the first time.

Bulgaria Hall is full of great memories, from hearing brilliant music to performing there myself with the Philharmonic Choir and conductor Iliya Mihaylov, and I’m looking forward to the next concert season starting up. I love its old-school atmosphere. Plus Tova Café has been my invaluable study hall working on my dissertation; the tea is top quality, the furniture super quirky, and the food they make there looks fantastic if only I could eat it (I’m Paleo).The crypt of St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral has a profound atmosphere and Sofia Synagogue is eye-poppingly gorgeous. There are too many fantastic bars and restaurants to mention.

Is Sofia a cosmopolitan city?

Absolutely! For one thing, I haven’t learned more than 20 words of Bulgarian since the people are such incredible multilinguists, so right there you see the cosmopolitanism of the city. Whatever I want to find is available if you look, from Chinese medicinal herbs to tango. Everyone seems to have read Ireland’s beloved James Joyce, everyone travels, and everyone is unusually well versed with the world at large. It’s so easy to enjoy world culture in Sofia that I actually wish I could find more traditional Bulgarian music and events.

Your favourite hangouts in Sofia?

Wandering around downtown is one of my favourite activities – Sofia becomes increasingly surprising and mysterious the more I come here, in contrast with most places. Sitting with friends and family at a great Sofia restaurant – in my neighbourhood I love Cabra, Atelier, Troika, the Architect’s Club, Local, Salt & Sweet, to name a few – is one of my all-time favourite activities here.

Three things you find amazing about Sofia.

The energy here is very raw, very direct, unpolished, which I appreciate. It feels like Bulgaria in general is an energy vortex of some sort, very powerful. Second, I find it amazing how accomplished yet modest the people of Sofia are. Seems like everyone I meet is deep in their craft yet maintain a sense of humour. They are so friendly and open to collaboration, for example I had the incredible opportunity to perform several times with Vessela Trichkova, the Sofia Philharmonic harpist, a real honour. Third, it is so easy to access incredible art. Walking into Asen Kushinchanov’s music store/café and hearing brilliant violin-piano duo Josef and Zornitsa Rodianov playing 10 feet away is unforgettable.

Three things you dislike about Sofia?

As an outsider I know there’s a lot I don’t see in Sofia, perhaps I have a bit of an idealised version of it but there is very little I don't like. Sometimes I find it surprising how comfortable people are making disparaging remarks about the Roma people. It seems out of line with the high level of educational people have here to view other humans as unequal. I’ve heard some scary stories about friends’ hospital/medical experiences, and since playing harp in hospitals is one of my main missions in the US, it pains me to think of people having to suffer additional indignities when they are already vulnerable. I also wish people would be paid what they deserve and not have to stress so much, although money of course is not the answer to everything.

Apart from local culture, are there any other events that visitors and residents should take a note of?

Bulgaria in general is outrageously gifted in terms of landscape, culture, people, food and of course wine. Now that I’m getting closer to finishing my dissertation and can get my head out of the laptop, I really want to explore the areas outside Sofia, which I’ve only touched upon, like three amazing days in Veliko Tarnovo. Bulgaria is one of the most varied countries I’ve encountered; I’ve only scratched the surface. And maybe travelling outside Sofia will increase my 20 word vocabulary!

Does Sofia deserve to be named European Capital of Culture in 2019?
Absolutely, it has it all! It has real culture, not manicured presentations. Sofia is the result of so many cultures and paradigms throughout time that it truly represents the complexity of Europe. I’m voting for Sofia!

For more information please visit

Logo Sofia MunicipalityLogo Sofia 2019This project is sponsored by Sofia Culture Programme of Sofia Municipality for 2013, and is in support to the Sofia and the South-west region nomination for European Capital of Culture for 2019


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