Barefoot in Little Vienna

Petyo the Musical Piece, a Jazzman and a native of Ruse, used to tell stories how the peasants, who went shopping in Ruse in the distant past, took off their leather moccasins at the Hali (Market Hall) for fear of griming the pavement and walked barefoot along Alexandrovska St., staring at the surrounding buildings with their mouths open...

This story is one of the myriad that Nikolay Nenov, director of the Ruse Regional Museum of History, has recorded during his trips round the region. ‘Field research – talking to old people and collecting stories – is my life and driving force. Stories are what make the world go round,’ says Nenov, whose personality combines a former boxer, a historian, an ethnologist, a hoaxer and a sweet-voiced performer of folk songs. Nikolay speaks modestly about himself, claiming that he is just an ordinary guy who works for his hometown. And there is a reason to do so.

European architecture

Ruse owes its modern image to Ottoman reformer Midhat Pasha. In just four years, from 1864 to 1868, he managed to transform it from a sleepy oriental town into an administrative centre boasting European architecture, culture and healthcare.

The town was dubbed Little Vienna due to its location on the Danube and its European architectural appearance from the late 19th and the early 20th century, which combined neo-baroque, neoclassicism and secession styles. Today, 267 of its buildings are registered as monuments of culture.

The most iconic of these aristocratic buildings is Dohodnoto Zdanie (The Profitable Building), located in the central Svoboda Square. It was designed by Austrian architect Peter Paul Brang in the neoclassical style and erected in 1901. The name of the building speaks to its purpose - to earn profit for the then Board of Education from rental fees from the theatre, the library, the casino and the shops that it housed. So it is no coincidence that Mercury, the winged god of trade, is perched on its roof. Today, the Profitable Building has sheltered the Sava Ognyanov Drama Theatre and the International Centre named after Ruse-born writer Elias Canetti (1905–94). ‘Everything I experienced later had already happened in Ruschuk [Ottoman name of Ruse],’ wrote the Nobel prize winner in his The Tongue Set Free trilogy.

The city garden with the Monument of Freedom, the symbol of Ruse, spreads in front of the Profitable Building. The monument was erected in 1909 by Italian sculptor Arnoldo Zocchi on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Liberation of Bulgaria. The two Krupp cannons behind it are veterans of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78).

The Museums of Ruse

They showcase the 19th-century way of life and habits of the citizens of Ruse. The House of Kaliopa (1865), where the marching steps of the Prussian Consul once echoed, is now a museum of the urban lifestyle of the time. The second floor hosts restored interiors of the homes of wealthy notables, while   the ground floor is a display of porcelain and silver tableware, furniture and ladies’ clothes. Speaking of local ladies, Kaliopa must have been among the most outstanding ones, given the fact that Midhat Pasha himself had presented this house to her.  As city legend has it, this was an award for her victory in an archery competition, in which the Bulgarian woman pierced the target and... the heart of the Turkish ruler.

In the National Museum of Transport, which is one of a kind in Bulgaria, you can board locomotives and carriages used by Turkish sultan Abdul Aziz, Bulgarian monarchs Ferdinand and Boris III Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Soviet military commander Marshal Tolbuhin.

Once you get off the old-time trains and walk along the Danube, you will reach the remains of the Roman fortress of Sexaginta Prista. Its name suggests that in the first century AD, it was a port for 60 battleships propelled by oars. In the summertime, this ancient outdoor exposition becomes a stage for cultural events.

In Ruse you can go back even further in time – by visiting the Ecomuseum. There you can see a life-size model of a Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), as well as the lower jaw of Mammuthus rumanus – the only one to be found preserved anywhere. The Ecomuseum also houses the largest freshwater aquarium in Bulgaria with fish from the river Danube and its tributaries.

Spiritual stronghold 

Two of the expositions of the Regional Museum of History are out of town, but are a must see. These are the rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo (one of the seven Bulgarian cultural heritage sites under the protection of UNESCO) and the medieval city of Cherven. Both are located in the picturesque canyon of the Rusenski Lom river - home to the black stork, the Egyptian vulture and 190 other rare and protected bird species.

Hesychast monks, who had chosen the path of ascetic life and meditation in order to move closer to the Creator, settled in these lands as early as the 12th Century. The intricately branched St Michael the Archangel Monastery was founded with the generous financial assistance of Tsar Ivan Assen II (1218-41) by a monk named Joachim, who was later elected as the first patriarch of Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. In its glory days the monastery boasted 41 rock-hewn churches, decorated by artists belonging to the famed Tarnovo School of Painting. The murals, which suffered acts of

vandalism and damage by earthquakes over the centuries,

have survived in just four of these temples. The Sveta Bogoroditza (Holy Virgin) Church, which was built in the 14th Century, when Hesychasm was recognised as an official religious denomination in both Bulgaria and Byzantium, houses the best-preserved frescoes. Among these top achievements of Balkan Mediaeval art is a portrait of the temple donor, Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-71), who divided the kingdom between Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir (his two sons from different wives), thus contributing to its downfall. Scenes from the Passion of Christ co-exist with provocative secular images that break the church canon. The latter include the naked bodies of Atlants propping a temple on their backs, acrobats and a long-sleeved jester, who amuse the guests of a nobleman, probably the boyar of the nearby city of Cherven.

Cherven was the most significant city in north-eastern Bulgaria and one of the largest military, administrative, economic, religious and cultural centers of the Second Bulgarian kingdom (12th-14th Century). Today you can spot the foundations of the walls of the inner fortified city, the ruins of the Boyar fortress, the metropolitan church, and some of the houses on the main street. The best preserved building is the 12-metre-high watchtower – an exact copy of the Baldwin Tower in Veliko Tarnovo. During the Ottoman invasion, Cherven was destroyed, and life came to a standstill. Today, however, the red streamer flag of the Boyar of Cherven is once again waving over the watchtower and the nobleman himself is the central character in a wedding ceremony, reenacted by actors of the Ruse Drama Theatre.

The rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo are open to visitors every single day from 9 am to 6 pm. They are located 4 km (2.4 miles) from the village of Ivanovo and are accessible by car or train from Ruse. There is also a signposted track to the site from the village. Prior to Ivanovo, you can stop at the village of Bassarbovo and discover what the rock temples looked like in their heyday. High up in the rocks above the village stands the picturesque monastery of St Dimitar Basarbovski, restored in 1937 by a local monk. The patron of the monastery was a poor shepherd whose life took an unexpected turn when he accidentally trampled on a sparrow’s nest, killing the birds. Today the relics of the holy man, who is also the patron saint of the Romanian capital, are kept at the St. St. Konstantin and Elena Church in Bucharest. And people say they work miracles…

You can find more information about the city landmarks and  accommodation opportunities on;