Strange proportions, unusual materials and extravagant designs: quirky sculptures can be found all over the world, and Bulgaria is no exception. In addition to the monumental angular creations of Socialist Realism and the sometimes traditional statues of historical figures, a number of other statues exist in the country, attracting the attention, the ridicule or the fury of passers-by. Many of these somewhat ridiculous monuments, however, were produced with very serious aims in mind. Some of them commemorate a prominent figure, a historical event, or a local curiosity. Have a look at some of Bulgaria's most memorable sculptural oddities.
A Horse, Kremikovtsi
The Factory for Unique Constructions of Metal – Kremikovtsi Ltd manufactures metal structures for industrial, transport and civic buildings. Apparently, someone decided that a crude horse made of rusty metal would be a good advertisement for the company's business.
King Samuil, Sofia
It is easy to see why Sofia's most recent monument – a statue to King Samuil unveiled in 2015 – has became a talking point not only in Bulgaria, but also features on some very popular Internet lists dedicated to strange monuments around the world. Created by sculptor Aleksandar Haytov on the initiative of a nationalist party, the 2015 King Samuil has raised many eyebrows. Artists were unhappy with its proportions. Historians were unhappy with its inaccuracies. Many were unhappy with the king's LED eyes, which glow in the dark.
Even the monument's supporters were unhappy – with the public reaction. In typical fashion, they proclaimed that anyone who disliked the monument was not a true Bulgarian patriot. President Rosen Plevneliev, obviously, does not fall into this category, as he attended the statue's official launch, making it the only one on our list that merited the attention of a current Bulgarian statesman.
If it had not been for the eyes, King Samuil might not have been that popular: for weeks after its unveiling the statue attracted dense crowds eager to see that glow in the dark. Fans of Game of Thrones were quick to discover a similarity between the king and the feared white walkers in that fantasy saga.
Sadly, the harsh winter of 2016 has taken its toll on King Samuel's piercing gaze. The heavy covering of snow on the king's head broke something inside, and one of his eyes went out, leaving the king blinking in the night.
Ironically, King Samuil was one of Bulgaria's most tragic figures. On the cusp of the 10th and 11th centuries he fought relentlessly with Byzantium for Bulgaria's independence. In 1014, he lost a crucial battle, in the aftermath of which Emperor Basil II gouged out the eyes of all his Bulgarian captives and sent them back to Samuil. When he saw his blind soldiers, the Bulgarian king suffered a heart attack and died. Four years later, Bulgaria fell under Byzantine rule.
In the meantime, the sculptor became increasingly popular. He unveiled a similar statue in Vidin, in northwestern Bulgaria, parts of which glow in the colours of Bulgaria's national flag.
Monument to John Atanasoff, Telephone Office, Sofia
A man with his brains hanging out: yes, the monument in front of the Telephone Office in central Sofia could be that, but no, it is not what it seems. The strange protuberances haloing the head of the engineer John Atanasoff probably represent this man's greatest achievement: the invention of a prototype for the modern computer.
Bulgarians consider John Vincent Atanasoff a compatriot because his father was born near Yambol, overlooking the fact that the mother of the inventor had French and Irish blood, and that the family was American. The statue in Sofia was unveiled in 2003, and was made by sculptor Valko Tsenov and architect Stefan Minchev.
The Slaveykovs, Sofia
Created in 1998 by sculptor Georgi Chapkanov, the statue of father and son Petko and Pencho Slaveykovi on Slaveykov Square in Sofia was probably Bulgaria's first example of a monument of prominent historical figures not on a pedestal, but as a part of everyday life. Today, the monument of two of the country's finest poets is nothing more than a good photo opportunity. It is often vandalised, and the father and son are being referred to as "the brothers," possibly by the kind of people who think that Cyril and Methodius were one person.
A Bull, Bulgarian Stock Exchange
What is a stock exchange without a statue of a bull? Bulgaria's institution, established in 1997, follows in the tradition. The bull appeared on the corporate logo in 2008, and a statue of the animal now adorns the entrance to its offices on Tri Ushi Street in Sofia. Quite obviously, this is not Broadway, but still worth a look.
Aleksandar 'Sweet Sasho' Nikolov, Plovdiv
He sits and smiles in front of Plovdiv's Academy for Music, Dance and Arts, as if his life were as sweet as his nickname suggests. Violinist and jazz musician Aleksandar Nikolov was a popular figure, famous for his wit and bravery in making fun of the Communist regime during its darkest years, but the system was unforgiving. In 1961, Sweet Sasho was arrested and sent to a labour camp for political prisoners in Lovech. Within days after his arrival, he was brutally murdered (the accounts of witnesses make for gruesome reading). In 2002, one of his former schoolmates, who had emigrated to the United States, funded the monument in Plovdiv, by the sculptor Danko Dankov.
Boza Seller, Radomir
Most foreigners who have been brave enough to try boza would say that this traditional sweet drink of fermented barley should be banned because it looks as if it has already been drank once. Bulgarians, however, love their boza unapologetically and even know where the best beverage is made: Radomir, a town in the west of Bulgaria. Hence the local monument of a boza seller, by artist Evgeni Kuzmanov.
Boza is actually an Albanian invention and the best boza prior to Communism was sold by Albanian street-sellers.
A Gayda Player, Shiroka Laka
One cannot imagine the majestic scenery of the Rhodope without the deep, melancholic voice of the kaba gayda, or big bagpipe. However, there is only one monument to a gayda player in the mountains, at Shiroka Laka. This traditional village is the home of a famous school of folk music, and in August the nearby village of Gela is the centre of a popular bagpipe competition. Bulgarians, like the Irish, do take their bagpiping seriously.
A Bear, Shumen
Under Communism, many Bulgarian cities and towns had a menagerie of wild beasts (mainly bears, does and goats) cast in bronze and displayed in parks and gardens. Sadly, many of these beasts fell victim to the economic crisis during the transition to democracy. As unemployment rose, a number of them were stolen and sold for scrap metal, but some still survive, like this bear in Shumen near the Shumensko Pivo Brewery. Yes – in front of the place where Carlsberg now produces its famous Shumensko beer.
Bat Petyo Pandira, Burgas
Who stole Petyo Pandira's seagull? This was one of the hottest questions in Burgas in the summer of 2015. The seagull in question was made of bronze and perched on the hand of the newly-installed statue of one of the city's most well-known eccentrics. Bat Petyo Pandira was a restless man, whose big mouth and freewheeling lifestyle reportedly secured him several visits to the Belene Political Prisoners Camp. He was a drinker, a womaniser, a joker, and a storyteller. His talent for making up hilarious stories out of everyday situations is still remembered by the ageing bohemians of Burgas. Petyo Pandira died in 1986, and his statue by the artist Rusi Kostadinov was installed on Burgas pier in 2015.
The seagull is still missing.
Some identify the stone quadrupeds on the bank of the Tundzha River in Yambol as camels, but bulls they are. The nearby bridge reflects their nature, as it is called Bikov, or Bulls', Bridge. The statue appeared in 1981 and is the creation of sculptor Ivan Kolev.
Open Air Museum of Creation, Novo Selo
When you are feeling a bit under the weather, a visit to the Open Air Museum of Creation at Novo Selo village, near Plovdiv, will have you laughing until you are breathless. This museum is like the combined nightmares of Darwin, Richard Dawkins and Steven Spielberg.
The name of the "museum" does sound a bit pretentious, but it is a lot more fun than many Bulgarian museums that seem to be stuck in the 1970s with their stuffy atmosphere and hawk-eyed staff. There is a bilious-green concrete T-Rex, and a sauropod of the same material and hue. There are some apes with elongated hands and an unexplained penchant for oranges and mushrooms. There are several shop window mannequins dressed like primitive Homo Sapiens. And there is a Tree of Life, made of scrap metal. And a Thracian rider. And a fortress.
Hollywood-style letters saying NOVO SELO rise above the complex.
The Open Air Museum of Creation is the brainchild of mayor Todor Atanasov, and was mostly made by the local welder. Mayor Atanasov says that everything was funded by private donations, with the aim of boosting tourism. Novo Selo's other claim to fame is the nearby range used by the US Army.
Not everyone is happy with the museum. The mayor was accused of spending public money on kitsch, of ignoring safety regulations and of illegal construction on a Nature 2000 protected site. So far, he is determined not only to protect his creation from nay-sayers, but also to enlarge it. As a result, with every year the Museum of Creation is getting bigger and (ahem) better.
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 opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.