Bulgaria's traditional architecture of the 18-19th centuries has a charm that few – if any – newer buildings in the country can compete with. Preserved in small towns and villages, it is a harmonious blend of building and landscape, the intelligent use of natural materials and simple layouts which create nice living spaces during both hot Balkan summers and freezing winters. In the minimalist interiors, each detail matters. This architecture, both civic and religious, is aesthetically pleasing and designed to last for centuries.
The people who built these beautiful, strong houses, churches and clocktowers were not only Bulgarians. In fact this style, with local variations, was the architectural fashion of the period all over the Balkans and in a great part of Anatolia. The names of its creators, however, remain largely unknown. Working in the rigid pre-modern atmosphere of the Ottoman Empire, the builders saw no need to record their identities.
Among these men, however, one stands out, and we do know his name – the Bulgarian Master Kolyu Ficheto.
Born Nikola Ivanov Fichev in 1800 in the tiny but lively town of Dryanovo, in the Stara Planina mountains, he is famous for his elegant architecture, innovative details and bold designs, which even impressed European travellers, including the Austrian-Hungarian Felix Kanitz. In his long and productive life, spanning 81 years, Ficheto tackled every task which came his way – he built churches and mosques, bridges and water fountains, private houses and administrative buildings. His work was mostly confined to the region around Tarnovo, and the central parts of the Danubian Plain.
Erected in 1851, the St Nicholas Church in Dryanovo is now seen as the first building representing in full Kolyu Ficheto's individual style: blind arches, triple arcade porch, curved cornices, octagonal belfry
Even non-architects can easily identify Ficheto's buildings by their trademark details such as the rows of blind arches on the walls or the triple curved projections above the western façades of his churches, and by the oblong porches and projecting bay windows of his civic buildings. The stone figurines and reliefs of men, double-headed eagles, angels, lions and other fantastical creatures are another telltale sign for Ficheto's workmanship.
Most details of the life of the man who created these beauties are lost to history. Ficheto was a genuinely humble man; he did not even leave a photograph of himself – the only picture of him is from his own funeral.
What is known for certain about Nikola Fichev is that at the age of 10 he was apprenticed by his widowed mother to a master mason in Dryanovo. As the years passed, Nikola Fichev progressed through the ranks of the builder's guild that thrived in the 19th Century Ottoman Empire. He changed masters from time to time, enlarging his knowledge of building techniques and architecture, while acquiring such practical skills as hewing stone, woodcarving and the construction of details such as window frames.
Ficheto earned his master's status in his early 30s, when he was already living in Tarnovo. His youth and lack of contacts in the highly competitive construction trade, however, forced him to work as a hired hand for a more established master builder. Ficheto's star rose in 1836, when his boss fell ill during the construction of the Sveti Nikola, or St Nicholas, church in Tarnovo. Aware of Ficheto's talent, the old master recommended him to the benefactors as the right man to finish the job.
Kolyu Ficheto built the covered bridge in Lovech in 1871-1874 after the Osam River repeatedly destroyed the construction's predecessors. His withstood the waters, but was lost in a fire, in 1925
This was his breakthrough moment. In the following decades, Nikola Fichev became the most sought after architect in the region, and newly prosperous Bulgarian citizens and local authorities commissioned him to construct churches and houses, bridges and administrative buildings. Ficheto even designed several mosques – in Kazanlak, Tarnovo and Svishtov.
Ficheto built the Ottoman administrative building, or konak, in Tarnovo, in 1872. In 1879 it became the seat of the first Bulgarian parliament. The builder was invited to the opening session and, as the story goes, was met with standing ovations by the deputies
He dealt with the pressure of work in a manner similar to that of modern architectural practices. Master Ficheto would take on a commission, visit the site, then draft a detailed plan and build a model from wood. Then he would delegate the actual construction to a disciple, and move on to another task.
Ficheto eagerly worked on projects which required him to leave his comfort zone, and explore what could be built of stone, wood, and brick. His two most famous bridges, at Byala and Lovech, are some of the best examples of his willingness to take a risk.
Commissioned by the Ottoman governor of Ruse, the reformist Midhat Pasha, the bridge at Byala was a challenge. At this part of its course, the Yantra River was wide and fast flowing, and building a strong and inexpensive bridge here was seen as next to impossible. Ficheto, however, came up with a brilliant solution to the problem, and in 1867 the bridge was ready. It was 276 metres long and 9 metres wide, and had 14 arches decorated with quasi-Gothic reliefs.
About a decade later, in 1874-1876, he built the beautiful covered bridge over the Osam River, in Lovech. This flat bridge was 84 metres long, with six equal spans of 11 metres, and a 5-metre wide promenade sheltering 64 shops.
Both bridges, sadly, have suffered over time. In 1897 the Yantra got the upper hand over the bridge at Byala, washing away almost half of it. In the 1920s the bridge was reconstructed with reinforced concrete, though the surviving half of the original is still an arresting sight.
The Lovech bridge burnt down in 1925. What you see now is a modern reconstruction from the 1980s, which vaguely recreates the original design.
Another of Ficheto's most daring projects is now also very different from the original. It is the konak, or administrative building he created for the Ottoman authorities in Tarnovo, in 1872. The konak is situated on very demanding terrain, on the steep bank of the Yantra, but Ficheto dealt with it brilliantly. The building has two levels on its northern side, and four on its southern. What is even more astonishing is that on one of the levels he created a large space for meetings, without a single supporting column inside.
Master Ficheto built the Ss Cyril and Methodius Church in Veliko Tarnovo, in 1870. His trademark curvature is applied on the balcony for women
After Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878, the former konak was used as the meeting place of the first Bulgarian parliament, which in 1879 adopted the first Bulgarian constitution. In the 1980s, the konak was renovated (it houses the Museum of the Revival Period and the Constituent Assembly), but the modern architect could not work out how to restore the building without internal support, so filled the hall with columns.
Churches built by this amazing architect can be seen all over the central Danubian Plain in Svishtov, Gorna Oryahovitsa, Lyaskovets, the Kilifarevski Monastery and other places. The beautiful water fountain in the Sokolski Monastery is also his. The only museum to this architect and builder is in his native Dryanovo, close to the Sveti Nikola Church he had built in 1850-1851. Near the city, on the road to the Dryanovski Monastery, still stands the first bridge Ficheto built.
Tarnovo, however, has the most extensive collection of buildings by Ficheto. In addition to the Constituent Assembly and the St Nicholas Church, there is also the Hadzhinikuli Han, or the Inn of Hadzhi Nikuli, dating from 1858. The Sveti Spas, or St Saviour, Church from 1858-1859 and the Ss Cyril and Methodius Church from 1860-1861 are still functioning. Several residential and foreign consulate buildings have been attributed to the master. The most famous of these is the so-called House With the Monkey.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.