Some 65 years before Marilyn Monroe in her candid fashion made the world dream by confessing to a magazine she went to bed in Chanel No.5 only, Bulgarians dreamt a wild dream of their own.
Having just emerged from a five-hundred-year infidel dominion, inebriated by their initial steps in politics, discouraged by the abdication of their first 20-something prince, timid and vulnerable in their rough homespun clothing, they were observing with eyes wide open the extravagance of their second monarch, also imported from Germany, who used Sofia’s unpaved streets, all mud and grass tufts, to stage a wedding procession involving footmen in gilded liveries and an ornate Versailles chariot drawn by six horses.
Shown are the uniforms of the coachman and footmen of the Louis XVI chariot, imported second-hand from Versailles on the occasion of the wedding of Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, Bulgarian monarch between 1887 and 1918, and Maria Luisa Pia Teresa Anna Ferdinanda Francesca Antonietta Margherita Giuseppina Carolina Bianca Lucia Apollonia di Borbone-Parma. I can’t boast with quite as many names or a royal title, but I have exactly the same boots as that coachman.
Cinderella, illustration from a beloved Charles Perrault book from my childhood. That was pretty much the material plight of Bulgarians towards the end of the 19th century.
Then, lo and behold, a gilded chariot! According to information by the Sofia History Museum, other parts of whose excellent exhibition I have covered here and here, the chariot was made in the second half of the 18th century. The parts bearing the Bulgarian coat of arms were custom-made in Vienna ahead of the royal wedding which took place on April 8, 1893.
The same chariot, looked from the other side. As I have recently been telling a friend, I believe its use was the first instance in what has later become the norm in Bulgaria – namely of importing Western Europe’s old vehicle fleet both for public and for personal transportation purposes. Or, one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.
Dummies of the six horses. Imagine the impression all of this must have made on my poor compatriots! Prince Alexander Battenberg, our first monarch, was very modest and down-to-earth and did not complain when he settled in the large yellow house that was designated to be the royal palace. It was in need of repairs and had a leaky roof. Ferdinand on the other hand, had much higher accommodation requirements and insisted on a complete renovation of the building before moving in.
I leave it to you to find the differences between the Sofia and the Cinderella chariots.
The final destination of the chariot – the main entrance and fence of the royal palace, which the communists later demolished. I wonder what has made them leave the palace standing, as their role models in the USSR were not above using churches for barns and stables.
..I am particularly acid these days, as we’ve just commemorated the victims of the Bulgarian communist regime on February 1. On that day in 1945, the so-called People’s Tribunal, a totally illegitimate get-together, started issuing, and executing, arbitrary death sentences targeting Bulgaria’s political and cultural elite of the time. Some of the court sessions were held in the Military Club, where people nowadays have cocktails.
The rocky peak of Kajmakcalan, belonging to a mountain at the Greece-Macedonia border of today, where Bulgaria suffered one of its most bloody defeats during WWI but did not surrender its positions until nearly the last soldier alive, is a skiing slope today. Bones of Bulgarian soldiers are occasionally emerging from the ground, making skiers trip over and curse, and Bulgaria has installed a commemorative plaque there only recently, and that thanks to a private initiative. I don’t know about a great healer, but Time is surely merciless, and short memory or deliberate disregard play the healing part.
Letting the annals speak.
One can’t very well go about his day as a monarch in a pompous Versailles chariot, so how about a nice Mercedes with a Rothschild touch ? The Mercedes car was coveted like nothing else in communism and became THE status symbol during the wild transition to democracy. It has even been immortalised in a chalga song, which had the scantily clad heroine proclaiming the staunchness of her morals as far superior than the attractions of a white Mercedes car and its owner. If you’re up for a serious aesthetic challenge, take a look. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A desk which Ferdinand received as gift from Otto von Bismarck, if I remember correctly.
The wedding gift to Ferdinand and his consort by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It is in good taste to splurge for a cousin…
Thrones for Tsar and his consort from the throne hall of the palace. I really can’t help saying this, but monarchy has been so devalued that today, in referring to a throne room, a Bulgarian has in mind an entirely different thing altogether…
Now that comes closer…Tsar throne at the house of parliament.
Against the royal splendour, the meeting room of the Bulgarian cabinet looks quite modest.
The private study of Bulgarian statesman Stefan Stambolov, assassinated at 41 in 1895. Similarly to Napoleon who made French statesmen and civil servants wear French silk garments made in Lyon to revive the national industry, Stambolov ordered Sofia’s politicians and clerks to report for work in clothing made of domestically produced flat-spun wool. The fabric was rougher than the fine British exemplars of the time and its thickness and texture were not well-suited to fashionable European tailoring, which gave urban Bulgarians the quaint look summarised as A Top Hat and Homespun Breeches, a 2016 book containing fun stories of the everyday life in Sofia in the early 20th century.
Back to Stefan Stambolov’s study, please take a closer look at his adorable ink pen blotter, shaped as a spider. I fell in love with it and watched it like a fly entangled in its web for about 10 minutes straight.
Writing time is up for today. I’m waiting in my cold cell when the bell begins to chime…That’s Iron Maiden, I remember listening to their The Number of the Beast album when I was in the seventh grade, or at about 13… What I also remember is how, in the era before Internet, the extravagant and sometimes surprisingly deep lyrics of the rock and heavy metal songs gave me access to English I had no other way of knowing. Ability to read fiction fluently was far away, textbooks were childish, and hit boy bands like Take That sang of babes and whatnot. So I am grateful to Iron Maiden and all other headbanger songs that I’ve pasted. Speaking of Iron Maiden, I can’t help mentioning the epic Manowar, as they sure go together like horse and carriage, or like six horses and a chariot.
Now for a really poetic and gentle adieu, this – Luigi Boccherini’s string quintets, which I have been listening to at work for days. The first quintet is a fine example of all and at about 5:52 minutes into the recording, a delicious lento starts that sounds like imploring conversation. I expect those strings to really start taking with human voice at some point…
Taking my Chanel No.5 to bed,