The forgotten figures of Bulgarian history
At 3 o’clock in the morning of August 3rd 1925, flames span the wooden structure of the covered bridge over the Osam River in the town of Lovech. This was the “Bridge of Kolyu Ficheto”, built half a century earlier, and in that night Bulgaria irrevocably lost an architectural and historical landmark, work of the famous Bulgarian artisan. The determined cause was intentional arson, but the perpetrators remain unknown today. There are several hypotheses about the potential motives and identity of the criminals. The first one is that the local population secretly burned the construction, in order to force the local authorities into building a new, safer bridge, since the old one was already in an extremely poor condition. The second theory rests on the fact that in these turbulent for Bulgaria times there was a flaring conflict between the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) and the government of Alexander Tsankov. In 1923, the September uprising erupted, which was suppressed with extreme brutality. As a result, BCP was banned by the government and continued operating illegally. In April 1925, just a few months before the arson of the covered bridge the terrorist attack in St Nedelya Church took place. This act of terror was initiated by the BCP’s Military organisation and aimed to eliminate as many government and military figures as possible. Against the backdrop of these bloody conflicts, there are suspicions that the crime in Lovech may have been the work of left-wing terrorist groups. The truth is that solid evidence, revealing the identity of the perpetrators with certainty, has never been uncovered.
It is not a very well-known fact that the construction of covered bridges in Lovech is a tradition with deep roots, which marks its beginnings at least half a century before Kolyu Ficheto built the emblematic wooden bridge. This custom is the outcome of Lovech’s unique urban plan, whose main shopping street is separated by the Osam River. Over the time, the idea prevailed to build not simply a bridge connecting the two opposite banks of the river, but rather, a construction that would present a natural extension of the crafts market. In other words, the notion of creating a covered bridge in this place was not inspired by the genius of a single artisan, but was instead a manifestation of the creativity of local folklore, seeking solution to a problem that is typical for this specific settlement.
The first historical sources, describing this developing tradition, are the travel memoirs of the Frenchman Ami Boue, who visited Bulgaria between 1836 and 1838 and wrote about a “covered and decorated with shops stone bridge” over the Osam River in Lovech. The river’s flood waters destroyed this structure most probably around the year 1848. In 1871 the Austro-Hungarian scientist and traveler Felix Kanitz described another prototype of the covered bridge. Unfortunately, however, this construction impressed the foreign visitor far more with its miserable state than its original appearance. Perhaps, not by accident, this building followed the fate of its predecessor.
The “Bridge of Kolyu Ficheto”
In 1874 Kolyu Ficheto, funded by the town-hall and with the help of the local population, built his covered bridge in Lovech. This is the covered bridge, which has been most deeply sealed in the memory of the Bulgarian nation. The structure was based on 5 stone pillars, which had special cavities to lighten the water pressure during floods. The bridge itself was entirely wooden, the lower part of it being of oak material, and the upper one of beechwood. The roof was covered with metal sheets. Very few iron nails were used in the construction because specially carved wooden wedges kept the building firmly together.
Only a few months after the people of Lovech lost their architectural monument in flames, the Ministry of Public Buildings, Roads and Public Works announced “a project for the construction of a bridge over the Osam River in the town of Lovech”. The budget of the work was set at BGN 5 000 000. In the following years the construction advanced slowly. In February 1929 the river flooded again and demolished the progress that had been made so far. As a result, the Ministry of Public Works decided to intervene in order to speed up the work. The initially approved project was reviewed and a decision was taken to resort to a different, more modern option, designed by the 28-year-old architect Stefan Olekov.
About Stefan Olekov
Stefan Olekov was born in 1903 in Gabrovo.He finished his primary and secondary education in Veliko Tarnovo and, like many young Bulgarians nowadays, undertook his university education abroad, graduating in Rome.
Unlike today’s diaspora reality, however, the young architect managed to find a prospective job back home, a testimony to the economic progress of our country at that time. Immediately after his graduation, Olekov joined the Ministry of Public Works, where he was assigned the first serious project, namely the construction of the covered bridge in Lovech. The 28-year-old architect approached his first major responsibility with the energy and enthusiasm typical of any ambitious young man. The construction began to move at a rapid pace and only within a year, the new foundations were cast and the asphalt road laid. The bridge was officially completed in May 1931.
The new bridge
The new building is made of reinforced concrete – a new and very resistant material invented in the early 20th century. Its rooftop, now changed, was made of reinforced glass, which provided an abundance of daylight inside the bridge. Its outside appearance was entirely white at the time and as many experts explain, successfully provided an organic link between the Bulgarian Renaissance architectural heritage of the city, represented by the houses of the Varosha neighborhood, and the post-liberation architecture of the city street on the other bank of the river. Architect Olekov’s attention to detail and desire to preserve the status of the covered bridge as a symbol of the city is evident from his correspondence with his superiors at the Ministry.
In a letter from 1930 Olekov states that he had commenced a research of the city’s emblems to be used later in the decorative elements, and in a further communication mentioned that the outer and inner plasters of the bridge, as well as pavement mosaics, had been selected with respect to its surrounding environment. The fact that the bridge stands to this day, almost 90 years after its construction, is in itself proof of the strength of the structure, which is unquestionably the result of high-quality work and attention to detail.
Manipulation of history
In 1967, at the National Conference on Architectural and Urban Issues, the idea of rebuilding the covered bridge so that it would replicate the bridge of Kolyu Ficheto, began to emerge. Many architects condemned this proposal by arguing that the construction of architect Olekov was a completely new interpretation of the covered bridge theme and any structural alterations imitating the creation of artisan Kolyu Ficheto would undermine the aesthetic qualities and authenticity of the building. Attention was also drawn to the fact that, even then, the mistaken opinion that Olekov’s bridge was actually the work of Ficheto was widely spread and that such drastic visual change would exacerbate public confusion. Despite the protests of the expert architects, the Socialist government decided to continue with its undertaking and in 1980-82, having the support of Lyudmila Zhivkova, the bridge of Olekov underwent a “restoration” as a result of which it was enclosed within a wooden frame. This architectural injustice, a product of socialist propaganda, remains unchanged today.
In 2015, the need to improve the thermal insulation of the bridge reissued the concerns of contradictory changes in its appearance from more than three decades ago. With chants “Architects Out!”, the proposals of public and cultural figures as well as the Union of Architects in Bulgaria (UAB) to reveal the truth and remove the wooden envelope of the bridge were rejected. The reason put forward was that, since according to the tourist brochures the bridge was built by Kolyu Ficheto, the municipality should not take the risk of public embarrassment. The agreed solution to the problem was to keep the secret. There is no answer to the question why, instead of hiding the truth, other qualities of this spontaneous creation of local traditions are not emphasised, such as the fact that a person may encounter such a bridge incredibly rarely. The only other covered bridges in Europe are the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and only the second one combines commercial and transport functions. Olekov’s bridge may not be an example of Bulgarian Renaissance architecture, but it is certainly a monument to post-liberation culture and construction, a brilliant example of the abilities of the best Bulgarian architects of that period.
Lessons for contemporary Bulgaria
The history of the covered bridge in Lovech should not be considered as an individual instance. Its main importance lies in the fact that it is the emblem of a long-standing Bulgarian reality, deeply rooted in our socialism past, continuing in today’s reality. Instead of serving the society, the cultural policy of the government in our country is focused on manipulating the masses by authoritatively imposing the historical figures who are celebrated and choosing the individuals who may not have place in the national memory. It can be suggested that this artificial sifting does not rely on individual merits and qualities, but often in accordance with the interests of the ruling political elite. Opportunities for expression and career development are often prioritised to persons connected to the authorities, whose dependence on their benefactors makes them obedient to political strategies. This kind of action is not necessarily related to a particular political regime, it undoubtedly applies to the entire Transition period. At the same time, the hard-working Bulgarians, such as the creators of the covered bridge, are sometimes ignored and forced into oblivion. That is why it is so important to recognise the inheritance left to us by every single Bulgarian citizen deserving admiration. Otherwise, we continue to build our national pride on a false foundation. The Bulgarian society needs modern role-models that inspire younger generations, not just the titans of a “mythical” for the Bulgarian culture past. More examples are needed, to show that modernity is not always synonymous to superficiality, duplicity and large scale industrialism, but sometimes to the unique and beautiful, the distinctive. What would be a better inspiration for current and future generations, than showing them that our community does not respect only the historically established intellectuals of the past but all deserving admiration individuals? Let us seek and encourage talent in the ranks of today’s Bulgarian citizens, who will build our nation in the years to come, by recognising and appreciating the merits of the present.
The end of the Transition means that history should not be manipulated in any way and all historical figures should be considered solely based on facts, rather than political preferences.
Author: Vasil Kolev
2018 Millennium Club Bulgaria
- Ловешкият Покрит мост на архитект Стефан Олеков (2016). Съставител: Васил Колев, Издателство “Чернат”, ISBN 9789548561112