Tales from the Rousse Riverbank
Article by Andy Anderson, The Sofia Echo, 24th October 2005
|'Everything that I was to experience later in life, had already happened in Rousse'|
THIS enigmatic phrase was written by Elias Canetti, Bulgaria's only Nobel Prize winner for Literature as he reflected on Rousse's cosmopolitan atmosphere in the mid 19th century.
Canetti was born when Rousse was the place to be in Bulgaria - since 1944 geography and politics have combined to transform this once thriving European city into somewhat of a backwater compared to its former self. Rousse is now, however, shaking off its socialist induced slumber and emerging once again to a bright future.
|As an expat living away from Sofia, I have got to know a different side of the country. For many expats, the promise of a weekend away from Sofia often consists of the Black Sea or the more familiar areas of the mountains. When the Sofia Echo suggested a piece on Rousse I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce some of the flavour of the town. I would recommend taking the time to visit both the town and its surrounding rural villages, which are more redolent of English countryside, with its rolling hills, small wooded valleys and arable lands. Rural Rousse is quite different to the more dramatic, though very beautiful, Balkan mountain ranges.|
|I first came to Rousse in 1998. UNDP were recruiting international architects/urban planners to help set up the Beautiful Bulgaria Project. This was at a low point in Bulgaria's transformation. Many of Bulgaria's finest buildings were in a state of severe decay, having suffered years of neglect. My first views of Rousse were on a cold, grey February morning - St Valentine's Day to precise - but it wasn't love at first sight. Our UN vehicle travelled along a barren and bleak landscape to reach the town from Sofia. Finally we reached a hilltop where the road overlooks Rousse. The sea of grey tower blocks below was not a welcoming sight. Most tourists would have stayed on the road and driven straight past. |
|It is only upon on entering the town that it becomes clear that Rousse is something special. Its centre is dominated by turn-of-the-century buildings, from classical baroque to fin-de-siecle art deco, dripping with ornaments. Its centre consists of two stunning town squares, lined with cafes, shops, hotels, art galleries, concert halls and all manner of places for leisure, relaxing and strolling. A network of pedestrian streets makes the centre a paradise for shoppers, walkers and a wonderful space for the town's folk to meet and interact. As I spent more time here, the city's past unfolded - but slowly, gently, subtly - as so often happens with many aspects of Rousse life. When I first arrived I was literally the only westerner working and living here.|
|It was therefore amazing for me to discover that a little over one hundred years earlier, there were over 3000 expats living and working in Rousse. Just before the liberation in 1878, Rousse was at the heart of diplomatic life in the Ottoman- held territory of Bulgaria. The Danube town hosted the Consulates of Great Britain, Russia, France, Austro Hungary, Greece, Prussia, and Italy. One of my pastimes was to explore the old streets of Rousse, and try to imagine the lives of expats during this period.|
Wanting to dig further, I contacted the Public Records Office in London. They sent me copies of papers relating to the British Consulate in Rousse for the 1860s.
The Consular records reveal that after all this time some things never change - including the lives of expats! The records tell stories of expats being fired for unsatisfactory work, complaints about local conditions, arrests and warnings for British workers to avoid the 'poisonous' local plum brandy - and best of all, to drink tea in the mornings on hot days.
A visitor can also imagine the streets of Rousse playing their part in 'The Great Game' struggle between Britain, Russia and the Turks. The diplomats watched each other as much as they watched for commercial opportunities. British Consular papers at this time note both the corruption and poor administration of the local Ottoman officials. The seeds of rebellion had already been sown, and many organisers of the liberation used Rousse as a place to enter and leave the country as they organised uprisings from nearby Bucharest.
It was, perhaps, no coincidence that during the opening battles of the Russo-Turkish War, a Russian artillery bombardment of Rousse led to a direct hit on the Her Majesty's Consulate. Fortunately the Consul was not at home (in those days he lived above the shop like Jeremy Hill today). The Consul, a Mr Reade, escaped the Russian shell and made it safety home to suburban London. Here he engaged in another traditional hobby of the expat - the claiming of expenses incurred in the line of duty. In fact he spent a year in fraught correspondence with the Marquis of Salisbury (then British Foreign Secretary) in respect of his claim for expenses resulting from damage to his home and furniture. Reade's problem was that he incurred certain expenses with prior authorization.(sound familiar?)
The claim is finally signed off by a 19th century version of the TV civil servant in 'Yes Minister'. A scribbled note in the margin of a memo reveals the FO finally relented. "This Mr. Reade", the notes says, "threatens to turn the consular service in Turkey into a tribe of beggars. Pay him 1200 pounds and not a penny more".
To me, one of Rousse's charms lies in its layers of history, and its organic form. It is not a town which has been drawn up by a committee of utopian urban planners. Instead it has matured slowly like a good wine (another good reason to come to the region - Rousse is filled with vineyards). Each period of history has left its mark. The sites for the visitor today reflect the many cultures and empires which have been carried by the ebb and flow of the Danube.
The town exists due to a dialogue between man and physical geography. The town is built around a natural harbour on Europe's largest river. From Neolithic times, fisherman built huts along its shores and banks. The Romans chose these banks of the Danube as the location of a major port and castle, known as Sexaginata Prista - or the port of 60 ships. The remains of the castle, alongside the new excellent visitors' centre, are one of a series of forts along the northern border of the Roman Empire. The job of these forts was to guard shipping along the Danube and to protect the Empire against the barbarians on the other side. Finally however the barbarian tribes destroyed the castle and the Empire. From the 6th century, the town sunk into oblivion as the population moved south to the hidden valleys of the Lom River, about 40km away from Rousse. These valleys now form the wonderful Rousse Lom Wildlife Park, a gem of a national park just outside the town.The centre piece of the park is the Medieval Citadel in the village of Cherven. This medieval citadel (a bit like a small Tsravets in Turnovo) provided a safe haven for people at the time when lawlessness and war ravaged the countryside around. Later, in the 14th century, the Ottoman Empire bought peace and stability once again and people returned to Rousse.
The Ottoman Empire designated Rousse a major fortress and trading post with Europe. The lines of the city wall today form the inner ring road and provide a concentric ring of history, dividing pre-Ottoman and post-Ottoman Rousse. Remains of the city wall can be seen in the town today. The wall itself was dismantled under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin which required the defortification of the towns in the new Bulgarian Principality. (Many of the stones from the city wall appear in the houses of Rousse built around this time).
Following the liberation the new city architect, an Italian, encouraged all new building to be based on the styles of Vienna and Budapest. Designs, fashion and business flowed along the Danube. It is following this period that Rousse earned it nickname, Little Vienna, and the buildings of this period dominate the city today. The city has been given a face-lift in recent years by the Beautiful Bulgaria programme and something of its past splendour has returned.
From 1945, the town became a model socialist town, complete with industrial zones, living quarters named Friendship III, and statues of Lenin. The interested visitor can seek out the air raid shelters built for the Cold War, graves of Russian soldiers killed in 1944, and the empty plinth where Lenin's statute once stood.
Throughout such changes there is a spirit of Rousse which survives - a continuity which is hard to put your finger on. In part, it is the architecture. The grand houses of merchants and famous Rousse families. Partly, it is the local stories, such as one connected with the Anna Palace Hotel (recommended for staying). This beautiful and newly renovated hotel was the palatial home of a merchant who in 1898 gambled the house away in a game of cards. Partly it is the weather -Rousse is the hottest place in the country. The relentless sun in August reduces each generation to a lethargic mass seeking the shade of tree-lined streets. Roman, Ottoman, Nazi or Turk would have shared this experience. And in part, it is the views which have remained unchanged for centuries, such as that across the Danube to the vast stretches of forest opposite. But mainly it is the people, who continue to work hard, and strive for the best for their families in a quiet and modest way. Rousse is a town for which the communist period is merely an episode in its history, albeit a major episode with both positive and adverse legacy.
One my favourite old photographs of Rousse shows Nazi German troops parading down the main street of Alexandrovska. These young soldiers march proudly along streets which would, quite soon, be filled with Russian 'liberators'. The Nazi soldiers march in formation, past a building which in the space of 60 years has hosted swastika flags, the hammer and sickle, and now a British estate agency. The latter is opening up the region to another influx of cultures upon the shores of the Danube, where the red sand cliffs have seen it all before
Click here and find your second home in the border town of Rousse