CITY OF EAGLES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Look up for one of Sofia's hidden gems

sofia eagles bridge night.jpg

As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos. But if you look closely at the façades in central Sofia, you might have the impression that the nation has another symbolic animal, the eagle.

Made of stone and metal, these representations of the majestic birds of prey appeared in Sofia in the late 19th and the early 20th century, when the city was rapidly reinventing itself as a modern European capital and adopting all the popular trends in architecture and urban planning. The fashion peaked in Sofia before and during the Great War, when eagles spread their wings on ornate Neo-Baroque or fin-de-siècle façades. In the interwar period, the new aesthetics of modernism largely forced the eagles out.

Over the following years, many of Sofia's eagles disappeared forever. Some were destroyed during the British-American air raids in 1943-1944. Others became extinct during Communism and the construction boom of the 2000s. The most notable example was the grand eagle that topped the roof of the Eagle Corporation, on the corner of Graf Ignatiev and Alabin streets. It was carved by one of Bulgaria's best sculptors but was taken down by the Communist authorities as it looked... "Nazi" to them.

Yet, Sofia is still a place where you can meet the gaze of a stone, metal or plaster eagle.

3 DONDUKOV BLVD

In 1927, an ambitious building project appeared in the centre of Sofia. The headquarters of the Bulgarian Fenix Insurance Company had nine floors and rose to about 38 metres, and was easily one of the tallest buildings in the city.

The roof of the Phoenix Palace was equally impressive. Around the clock on the top, as a newspaper advertorial boasted, stood "allegories of the company life, fire and transport insurance policies - majestic and artistic copper figures made by a famous sculptor. Above them, a gilt fairy bird, called a phoenix, is spreading its wings, and it is colossal, about 2.5 metres in height and about 2 metres in width."

The phoenix was lost in the 1943-1944 air strikes, but the building still preserves two avian statues. A couple of proud eagles guard the main entrance of the National Employment Agency, which occupies the building today.

CORNER OF GRAF IGNATIEV AND PATRIARCH EVTIMIY STREETS

In the interwar period, the middle classes of Sofia finally realised that it was easier to live in a comfortable new apartment rather than сх an old and expensive house. They started building condos and within years dozens of them sprang up in the city.

These condos embraced the new modernist architecture, but sometimes their façades were decorated with the odd relief or sculpture. Some of them had lions, others squirrels, and at least one – this one on the corner of Graf Ignatiev and Patriarch Evtimiy streets – had an eagle. The building dates from 1932.

19 MOSKOVSKA ST

Once a bank, always a bank, the pair of eagles at the entrance of the DSK Bank in Sofia would say. This fine Neo-Baroque house was built in 1914 by the renowned firm of architects Fingov-Nichev-Yurukov for the owners of the Sofia Bank. The bankers conducted their business on the first floor and lived with their families in the residential part of the building.

The stone eagles are the work of Marin Vasilev, the first academically trained sculptor in Bulgaria.

EAGLES BRIDGE

Sofia's most famous eagles are also the oldest. They appeared on the pillars of Orlov Most, or Eagles Bridge, over the Perlovska River, in 1891.

Eagles Bridge was one of the first city projects and was designed by the chief architect of Sofia, the Czech Antonín Kolár. Two other Czechs, the entrepreneurial Prošek Brothers, sponsored the bridge.

The eagles have a symbolic meaning. Soon after the liberation of 1878, Bulgarian revolutionaries returning from Ottoman prisons in Asia Minor were met by Sofianites at this place.

After 1989, Eagles Bridge enhanced its symbolic meaning, as it became a focal point for political activities. One of the most memorable was an anti-Communist demo in June 1990, at which about a million people supposedly gathered. In the 2010s and the 2020s it became a popular rallying point, as blocking this crucial intersection is a quick and spectacular way to make more people aware of your grievances. Throughout the years, this has included environmentalists protesting against commercial construction in national parks, protesters against several governments, and pro-Russian nationalists expressing anger over the dismantling of the nearby Red Army Monument.

21 DONDUKOV BLVD

This eagle appeared on the semi-circular front of a building combining residential and commercial premises in 1911. The bird holds in its claws an olive branch and a parchment, reading Vincit veritas, or truth prevails.

45 MARIA LOUISA BLVD

This Neo-Baroque bank, adorned with a pair of eagles, was constructed on this central boulevard in 1914. In an artistic sense, these are probably Sofia's fiercest eagles – on the wing in search of prey.

33 ALABIN ST

Situated on the façade of a building designed to combine office and residential premises, this eagle has a secret. It hides the initials KTD, which probably belonged to the person who built the place in 1914.

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