Our love of old houses had its start in New Orleans.
With the ink still drying on our university diplomas, we couldn’t believe our luck at finding our first jobs in The Big Easy.
We lived Uptown in one of NOLA’s historic “shotguns” just off Magazine Street, and if it wasn’t heaven, it was close to it. Our time there gave us a life-long appreciation for historic houses, and no matter where we travel, they draw us like magnets. Which is precisely what pulled us up the steep cobblestone streets to the Stari Gradia hill in Plovdiv.
Widely recognized as one of the finest collections of Bulgarian Revival Architecture in the country, this historic neighborhood is a living museum and UNESCO World Heritage Architectural Site – and for good reason.
We appreciated the historical significance of these mid-19th Century houses, but they appealed to us even more because they were colorful, ornately decorated, and well designed. We found ourselves saying over and over: “We could definitely live in that house.”
It’s impressive that a 175 year-old design still works so well today. We loved the clever “upside-down wedding cake” houses with overhanging upper floors adding extra square footage to a smaller street-level footprint. Windows on all sides flooded the rooms with natural light and took advantage of panoramic views of the valley below.
Walled courtyards provided private outdoor space, and cozy enclosed balconies near street level provided the opportunity for a little neighborly bonding. These unique structures were called clukarniks, which literally and humorously translates as “gossip room.”
Another attractive feature was the extensive use of natural wood. It complemented the exterior stonework and stucco walls, but the real standout woodwork was on the interior.
The intricately carved ceilings in the main rooms were particularly impressive, and in some cases a rainbow of colors was added to brighten things up.
Obviously, these unique designs are architecturally important, but what is this “Revival” business and why does it matter? The answer to this question goes back to 1364 – the year the Ottoman Turks conquered Plovdiv. It’s not necessary to read much Bulgarian history to see that this was a yoke that chafed.
Over the years, Plovdiv merchants traveled the Empire, taking advantage of Ottoman trade routes, and when they returned home, they not only brought exotic goods, but money. The city became an important economic center, and as wealth increased and Ottoman control began to weaken, Bulgarians began to rediscover their national identity and regain autonomy from their unwelcome rulers.
A successful merchant class could choose what they built, and what they wanted was an architectural style that appealed to them. They wanted a return to housing styles that had been used in small villages for decades.
The National Revival movement touched on all aspects of Bulgarian culture including encouraging literacy, education, and instilling a sense of national pride. And these hilltop houses were one tangible result of exercising their newfound independence.
The unique and attractive houses in Plovdiv’s historic area were built at a time when Bulgaria was in transition. In addition to being a pleasant walking tour, this neighborhood is also a good reminder that architecture can make a cultural as well as political statement. And no trip to Plovdiv would be complete without a hike up to see them.
James & Terri