The Day I Met the Bulgarian President
[Sofia, Bulgaria, Sept 17, 2017]
Today is another big holiday in Bulgaria. We celebrate St. Sophia, Vyara, Nadezhda and Ljubov. The last three names mean Faith, Hope and Love in Bulgarian, and Sophia means The Holy Wisdom of the Lord (from Greek, Agia Sophia). Everyone who carries one of these four names celebrates what we call a name day. Since I carry the name Nadezhda, today was my name day. The city of Sophia was also named after the Holy Wisdom of the Lord, and took its name from the St. Sophia Basicila, which as built here in 5 AD. Therefore, today is also what we call the day of Sofia, the day of the capital. Although the city of Sofia has had this name from5 AD, this day was not formally celebrated as the day of the capital until 1992.
In celerbation of the day of the capital, there were many events around Sofia throughout the day. One of these events was the opening of the office of the president to the public between the hours of 10 am and 1 pm. My mom and I got there shortly after 11 am, and found a line of people waiting to get in.
There were letting people in in waves of 30 or so. As we were patiently (well, in my case not so patiently) waiting our turn, some commotion in the front let us know something important was happening. Low and behold, the president of Bulgaria Rumen Radev had come out to greet the people in line before continuing to some of the other official events in the capital. I don’t know much about him or about what he’s done in the 8 months since he’s been in office, but it was nice seeing him nonetheless. He’s the one in fhe front left waving at people.
The tour of the presidency was nice. First was the room with the coat of arms. This is a sort of receiving hall where visiting guests are first greeted. Bulgaria’s coat of arms consists of two lions holding up a shield with another crowned lion on it, and another crown above the shield. The lions and the shield are supported by oak twigs, and a sign below reads “Unity Makes Stength.” You’ll also note the Bulgarian and European Union flags here to the left. These two are always displayed together in any government building now that Bulgaria has been in the EU for 10 years.
Next up was the president’s office. This is the actual office he uses – the guide made sure to point this out as she’d been getting questions about this due to the super clean desk. The office features paintings by Bulgarian painters on loan from the National Art Gallery depicting historical moments and persons.
The mirror room, which we went into next, was where official dinners and lunches are hosted. The guide explained that protocol required the president to sit on the side of the table across from the guest if the guest was another president. For all other guests, the Bulgarian president sits at the head of the table with hosts on one side and guests on the other. Guests are given the side facing the window as this is considered the better side of the table. This room also featured beautiful chandelliers.
After a stop in the vice president’s office (a woman), we visited the press area. This is where the president makes his statements to the press. We had fun taking photos at the podium. 🙂
Our final stop on the tour was a very mini version of what you’d call a presidential library in the United States. Bulgaria was ruled by khans and kings in almost its entire history, save for the time under Turkish rule and the 45 years of communism in the 20th century. Therefore, the office of the president has only really existed since 1989, and we’ve had five president’s since then. The mini presidential library we saw here recounted the history of the five and included videos and pictures of their time in office. I enjoyed many of the pictures of our second president Peter Styoanov, who was in office at the same time as Bill Clinton was president in the US. There were several pictures of the two here. We also enjoyed a collection of the medals that the president awards for various achievements.
Our next stop was the 2-year old museum of the history of Sofia. It is housed in the old central bath. This was the building where people in the neighborhood came to take a bath back in the day when they din’t have hot water at home. My dad remembers coming here with his dad (my grandpa) twice a week when they didn’t have hot water at home due to some repairs. But I digress.
In this museum, I learned or remembered many aspects of Bulgarian and Sofia history. Sofia used to be called Serdica and then Sredetz by the Thracians and Romans, respectively. It is a city that has several thousands of years of interrupted inhabitation. Until recently, the oldest traces of inhabitants were from 6000 BC, but new discoveries underneath the current Sofia street level may push this back another 1000 years. Here’s a reconstruction of what archaeologists think it looked like back then.
The original name, Serdica, was after a tribe who lived here named “serdi.” The Romans then took over and fortified the city in the first and second century AD. The sign above the gate is exhibited here. It definitely looks like something from Game of Thrones:
The Romans renamed the city to Sredetz. When Christianity took hold, they built the basilica St. Sophia around 500 AD just east of the city. When the Bulgarians came from the East and took over, the city was renamed Sophia after the basilica in the 8th century AD. The city was not the capital at the time although it served that purpose for a little while on a temporary basis. The Turks took over in the 14th century and everything stopped.
Once the Bulgarians gained their independence in 1876, a monarchy was established following the example of most western nations at the time. The new king was to be chosen from the Western aristocracies. The first king, Alexander Batenberg, came from Prussia. He was nephew to Russian tzar Alexander II, who took part in the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 through which we gained independence. It was him who recommended his nephew for the throne. Alexander Batenberg was well connected but young and inexperienced, and the politics in the new nation proved too complicated for him. He abdicated in 1886. His successor, King Ferdinand the I, an officer in the Astro-Hungarian army, had relatives in many royal courts in Europe. He was eagerly awaited in Bulgaria although Western courts took time to warm up to him. His family connections proved helpful. He introduced the country to the more ostentatious rituals of a monarchy. His marriage to Italian princess Maria Louisa in 1893 was an extremely lavish affair, the likes of which had not been seen in the country.
The chariot the couple arrived in for their ceremony came from Versailles, and the horse ornaments were custom made in Vienna.
Another striking piece from this time was his desk, given to him by Otto von Bismarck.
Slowly but surely, Sofia became a modern European capital. There were various pieces from the early 20th century in the exhibit, including fashion, furniture donated by a politician, household items, etc. It was quite fascinating, and I was wondering how all of this had been preserved given that the communists were trying very hard to bury anything to do with the monarchy.
By the way, the monarchy ended in 1945 with the end of WWII and the Russian occupation.
I really enjoyed doing a couple of new, different things in the capital today. There are always new and exciting things happening in the city. As a matter of fact, our whole neighborhood is now known as the arts center of the city and there were various events going on all weekend long as part of an art festival.
Besides playing tourist in the city, I also got to catch up with some of my friends. One thing after another and the whole weekend was a flurry of events and meetings. I spent Sunday evening with my parents at home since we are leaving for Greece in the morning.