LOOKING AT BURGAS, DARKLY

by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Galina Usheva

Photographer takes in heritage of Black Sea city, and finds... freedom

old burgas

Despite some researchers' claims that Bulgaria's largest city on the southern Black Sea coast is ancient (related in some way to... Troy), most would agree that Burgas is quite new.

The first poverty-driven settlers came here at the end of the 19th century, only to find themselves in a swampy, malaria-infested area fit for little save fishing. Burgas began as a maze of squalid streets, randomly built harbour warehouses and tumbledown buildings. It took 13 years to approve the first town plan with its 289 small neighbourhoods and seven parks.

Burgas did develop, however – faster than most other Bulgarian cities, including the then new capital Sofia.

This happened largely thanks to the determination and zeal of its vibrant and at times extremely multicultural community. Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Jews, Wallachians and many others used to live side by side in a truly cosmopolitan city. They were driven by capitalism, industrialisation and their desire to make money – a little Brooklyn unseen anywhere in the Balkans at the time except Salonika.

Looking at The City of Burgas Jubilee Book 1878-1928, it emerges that the city was top notch at the time. Its harbour was large, and its traffic accounted for a third of the Bulgarian Kingdom's foreign trade. At least a dozen dailies were published in Burgas, and there were Belgian, British, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish consulates.

old burgas

A court report from the 1920s provides evidence of the port city's cosmopolitanism. "In a case brought before the Burgas District Court, the accused, a Russian, was represented by Bulgarian, Armenian, and Greek solicitors. The plaintiff was Russian, and the prosecutor was Czech, a Mr Mracek. The Bulgarian pleaded in his tongue, the Armenian used Turkish, and the Greek spoke in Greek. The wronged Russian gentleman spoke in Russian, while the prosecutor, who spoke none of these languages at the beginning of his appointment, elected to plead in French. Fluent in all five tongues concerned, Judge Petar Uvaliev responded to each party in the tongue of their choice.”

The outcome of this case has been lost in the mists of time, yet it illustrates that Burgas was probably Bulgaria's most dynamic city at the time. A great many of its citizens were fluent in French due to the forceful marketing of the Pension Française, and the city displayed all signs of having adopted Mediterranean culture as its own. The surrounding lakes echoed to the growth of industry such as the Italian South would not see for at least five more decades, and commerce boomed.

When the Communists came to power on 9 September 1944, Burgas was a flourishing European town. That is when things rapidly took another turn. Seized by an envy born of deprivation, the new rulers set about with megalomaniacal fanaticism, turning Burgas into a "showpiece Socialist community." Translated into everyday language, this meant declaring war on heritage, ringing the city with a forest of multi-storey pre-fab projects, and developing heavy industry that spread environmental malaise around the entire bay.

Multiculturalism slowly came to an end. Most of the Jews emigrated to Israel, most of the Turks went to Turkey, most of the Greeks had already resettled in Greece.

old burgas

The madness reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, when a Communist mayor destroyed the historic Town Hall with... an army tank. Fearing intervention from the National Institute of Cultural Monuments in Sofia, he ordered the tank to demolish the magnificent fin-de-siècle edifice under cover of darkness... A similar fate befell Burgas' covered wholesale market, and a large part of the city centre gave way to a high-rise hotel. Several streets around the Maritime Gardens were also destroyed to make room for a thoroughfare.

What little remains of Burgas's erstwhile heritage and atmosphere has been the subject of a local photographer, Galina Usheva. Usheva has roamed meticulously the streets of Burgas, using her camera to document and breathe new life into the ghosts of old Italianate buildings, many of which have been left in various stages of dilapidation. There are many and diverse reasons for this. One of them is neglect, ignorance and sheer stupidity. Another is the many heirs to the erstwhile owners never being able to agree what to do with the property of their ancestors. Yet another involves the old trick to wait until a listed building collapses and then erect a flashy multi-storey estate on the plot...

Galina Usheva, who is first and foremost an artist rather than an urban planning critic, takes no stand regarding the reasons. Instead, she is fascinated by the charm of the times gone by, amplified by the disarray of construction packaging – some of which in a state of dilapidation comparable to that of the buildings it is supposed to conceal. By exploring the interplays of light, the bizarre shapes and the gentle chiaroscuri, Usheva asserts, she has found her own freedom as an artist.

The Finding Freedom exhibition by Galina Usheva was originally on display in her native Burgas. However, it holds meanings that are relevant to the whole of post-Communist Bulgaria's urban heritage. 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.

WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?
Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES
Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where co

WHERE IS GOD'S BRIDGE?
Lilyashka Bara, the brook that flows near the village of Lilyache, a few kilometres from Vratsa, is a quiet and peaceful stream.

SOFIA'S TOP 10
Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country.