Architecture / Art / Bulgaria / Travel

Upside-Down Wedding Cakes and Gossip Rooms: Bulgarian Revival Houses

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.

Blue House 2

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.

Orange House 2

Orange House

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.”

Bulgarian Revival 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.

Pink Gossip Room

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.

Carved Ceiling

Painted Ceiling

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.

Under Eaves Detail 2

Under Eaves Detail

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.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Window w Bulgarian Flag

62 thoughts on “Upside-Down Wedding Cakes and Gossip Rooms: Bulgarian Revival Houses

    • Laura, I especially like the three-floor pinkish one on the corner. It’s such a clever design and all the windows must make it feel huge inside. I’ve never really seen a design like it, and I wonder why it is used more in places that have tight on space. ~James

    • Tess, this is a amazing area to spend some time. There are a few small tour groups wandering about, but it’s traffic-free, there’s something to see around every corner, and a few small cafes for a sit-down. And, as an added bonus, the Roman theatre is on the side of the hill a 100 meters away. ~James

    • You’re right about the unique architecture. We’ve seen similarities in some small design aspects, but as a whole, it’s amazingly original. I love the inverted-cake design, and as I said before, I’m surprised that such an ingenious design hasn’t been used more in crowded areas. ~James

    • “Roller coaster roof.” That’s a perfect description Marilyn. I wish I’d come up with it myself. That blue house is now a museum and the greatroom behind those windows is larger than our entire townhouse. It had some fabulous woodwork inside as well. ~James

    • Joyce, most of these houses were large and looked fancy, but the one we visited was very livable. I love all the balconies, bay windows, and of course the gossip rooms. I’ve always been partial to small, cozy, private spaces in a house. It was a real surprise and pleasure to see you and Dascal yesterday. Love, JH

    • No problem Randi. We’re just glad you stopped by. BTW, it’s no big deal, but I’m curious how you were linked to the post from a photo. These are all original photos, and haven’t been published before. Again, no big deal, we just try and understand how readers find out blog. Thx. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. These houses and this lovely historic area were unlike anything else that we saw in Bulgaria. It also helps that it’s a quiet, pleasant place to walk and the small shops and cafes give it a very inviting feel. ~James

    • We were very impressed at the time, and while putting this post together, we were reminded what an impressive collection of historic houses this is. And there were a number of houses that didn’t make it into the post. ~James

    • Susan, Terri and I have owned a number of historic houses, and learned the hard way that they’re a labor of love. We still love old houses, but honestly, today we’d rather admire someone else’s old house and live day to day in our small, modern, easy to maintain townhouse. ~James

      • James (and Terri) – Yup. The bungalow (600 sq ft) was our labor of love, and we wouldn’t want to do it again. But it sure gives an appreciation for the effort behind the interesting exterior of older buildings. Maybe that’s one reason your photos are so well-done – you have the eye of appreciation!

    • Darlene, the blue house with the garden is a museum today, so we were able to tour inside. The woodwork was exquisite, and its state of preservation was amazing. But my favorite is the salmon-colored upside down wedding cake. I can see myself sitting in a window seat (wine glass in hand) gazing out over the valley below. ~James

    • Lynn in addition to the beautiful houses, it’s also a very pleasant neighborhood. It has the buzz and hum of a real neighborhood with old ladies walking their dogs, kids playing, and little cafes serving coffee on outdoor patios. It’s a delightful little pocket of history. ~James

  1. Plovdiv here we come … and hopefully soon! Your series of posts on this fascinating city have been outstanding and brought to my attention a place I was previously unaware of. These home are artistic and architectural treasures and Bulgaria has every right to be proud of them. This area well deserves its UNESCO world heritage designation. Anita

    • That’s great news Anita, and I know that you won’t be disappointed. I’m not sure why Plovdiv hasn’t shown up on some “Top Ten” unknown places list, but it hasn’t. But with its Capital of Culture award, it’s only a matter of time, so I’d suggest visiting sooner rather than later. You and Richard will love it. ~James

  2. Really, really stunning! While I admired the painted wood, what I really loved was the natural wood on the ceiling. Do you know if it’s (wormy) chestnut? Looks like it, but I don’t even know if they have chestnut trees!

    • Thanks Lexie. I’m a big fan of natural wood, and you’d think that I could identify more types, but beyond a few of the basic types, I’m clueless. I do know that they have beau coup chestnut trees in northern Europe, but I don’t remember seeing any in the Balkans. Usually, I just point and say: Isn’t that beautiful wood? 🙂 ~James

    • Thanks Gilda. This was one of the loveliest collections of historic houses that I’ve seen in a while. And I liked the fact that in addition to being attractive, they were practical – a great combination. ~James

  3. You two always do a great job of capturing the architecture of an area. The houses of Plovdiv are indeed special. I like their upside down look, the colors, and the plants. The inside ceiling was incredible. –Curt

    • Curt, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. As I said before, I can’t believe that the upside-down plan isn’t more widely used. It isn’t overly complicated engineering, and it adds so much extra floor space – the perfect solution in crowded spaces. ~James

  4. This architecture is absolutely stunning!!
    I have a mental picture of you giving yourself whiplash trying to capture as much of this beauty as you can. It seems to be everywhere! 🙂

    All those little jut-outs add so much architectural interest – I especially like the one jutting out from what I assume is a stonewall fence.

    • Joanne, one of the things that I love about these houses is that in addition to being colorful and attractive, they’re practical as well. I’ve always been a sucker for cozy, private spaces like that small enclosed balcony. After seeing designs like these, I wonder how we can continue to spend so much money to build drab and boring houses. ~James

    • Thanks Virginia. I thought this might be right up your alley. I liked bits of all the buildings, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the 3-level coral-colored. I love all the windows and the upwardly increasing floor space. ~James

  5. Such charming architecture. No wonder you were in heaven, so to speak, as a photographer/blogger. I like the term “upside down wedding cake” — just so darned accurate for this style! We’ve headed to Romania in July to renovate a school in Bucharest. Here’s hoping we have lots of time to roam around and find some similar, charming abodes.

    • Great news about the Romania trip Rusha. When we were planning our Balkans trip Romania and Moldova were on the list to consider, but we decided to leave them for the next trip. I’ll be interested to hear how you and Bert like it. It’s an interesting part of the world, and one that I was woefully ignorant of. I’m sure that it will fun (and hard work). How long do you plan on being there? ~James

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