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Feature 11 Sep 17

Mystery Fires Rob Bulgaria’s Capital of its Heritage

Landmark buildings in Sofia seem doomed to disappear one by one from the city as a result of neglect – and curiously frequent fires. 

Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Sofia
The abandoned thermal baths in Ovcha Kupel. Photo: By Elena Chochkova (Own work)/CC BY-SA 3.0 

In Sofia, they call them the “abandoned beauties” – the old landmark buildings in the Bulgarian capital that have shared the same unfortunate fate of decay and ruin.

Left to rot by their private or public owners for decades, they face another risk – frequent fires.

The last building to suffer this fate was the spectacular-looking abandoned public baths in the Ovcha Kupel neighbourhood of Sofia.

Despite being designated a cultural heritage site, it was set on fire on Wednesday.

Fire fighters arrived and extinguished the blaze quickly and so prevented more significant damage.

But some citizens suspect that this fire – and many others – was not an accident.

“There are no accidental fires,” Gergin Borissov from the urban watchdog group Save Sofia, told BIRN.

The ''Vishneva'' tram stop on fire. Photo: Save Sofia

He listed a number of historic buildings, some of which have become caught up in disputes over ownership, or over redevelopment plans, that “accidentally” caught fire recently.

“This is a method of work. It is a mystery how buildings which are left to fall apart often catch fire,” he noted.

According to Girginov, this steady destruction of Sofia’s history and cultural heritage could be prevented if the municipal authorities enforced cultural heritage laws more effectively.

“They have the legal tools to expropriate mismanaged monuments of culture. But the measures have not been used – not even once,” he added.

It unclear whether these old buildings would fare much better even if they became the property of the state. The bathhouse in Ovcha Kupel suggests not.

A property of the Ministry of Health, it has been closed for nearly two decades now, despite the medicinal qualities of its thermal springs, which had been used since the 1930s.

The ministry, which has admitted it does not have the means to maintain the property, has launched a procedure to transfer ownership over the site to the Sofia Municipality.

But the procedure is still ongoing. In the meantime, the building was left derelict and vulnerable to accidents such as the recent fire.

BIRN asked the Sofia Municipality about the current status of the public baths, about its plans to conserve and use the building, as well as about any specific measures that the authorities had taken to prevent accidents.

No answer was received by the time of publication.

It was also just the latest site to catch fire in Sofia, leaving many citizens outraged about the poor management of the city’s ancient assets.

In July, the much-loved hut at Sofia’s favourite tram stop – “Vishneva”, or “Sour Cherry’s”, in the Lozenets neighborhood, was set on fire and its roof was almost destroyed. 

The tram stop is an important part of the city landscape precisely because of the hut, which had been used to store the construction tools of the workers maintaining the rails and to store luggage for passengers.

Shortly after the fire, Mayor Yordanka Fandakova promised that the municipal authorities would restore the building as soon as possible.

The so-called “Double House” on Vassil Levski boulevard in central Sofia, however, was less fortunate.

The landmark ''Double House'' before it was demolished. Photo: Extinguishing Sofia

It was abandoned for decades and its owners changed multiple times. But while its status as a cultural monument has protected it from demolition, it has been set on fire a number of times.

In 2016, the Ministry of Culture took the controversial decision to remove its protected status.

That ruling allowed its owner, the businessman Kiril Kirov, to demolish it in May, despite popular protests.

Krasimir Georgiev, owner of the former Vazrazhdane cinema – an architectural monument in central Sofia – had similar plans for his property.

In March 2016, he announced a plan to pull down the building, which housed a disco over the past decade, and build a new one, keeping the style and some of the ornaments of the former cinema.

The project was blocked after the state authorities determined that it violated the Cultural Heritage Act.

In March, however, the building was set on fire.

The police said they suspected that homeless people who had moved into the abandoned building had caused the accident.

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