And a Stable of Blond, Blue-Eyed Chauffeurs
A modest, leaky, unfinished “palace” awaited him in downtown Sofia**, whose citizens had to navigate muddy, rutted unlit streets with no drainage and few trees. Ferdinand (1861-1948), the bisexual subject of today’s post, had grown up in the lap of luxury at his parent’s palace in downtown Vienna, which then had a population approaching 2 million. When he arrived in Sofia, he took one look around that Balkan backwater and realized he needed to take drastic, immediate action.
**Sofia (pronounced SOH-fee-uh, accent on the first syllable) has a population today of 1.2 million, quite a growth spurt from 19,000 residents in 1887.
It was fortunate that his fantastically wealthy mother, herself the daughter of a French king, wanted to help out. In fact, she dedicated the rest of her life working to get her son established on a European throne (unfortunately she died one year shy of Ferdinand's elevating himself from Prince to Tsar of Bulgaria, thus re-establishing the country's monarchy). You may recall from an earlier post that, as a birthday gift, she gave her son a railroad connecting Bulgaria to the rest of Europe. He essentially set out to create a world capital from scratch. Over the next twenty years Ferdinand had to create departments for nearly everything found lacking when he first arrived in Sofia in 1887: for administration, police, finance, army, public education, commerce and industry.
Ferdinand rolled up his sleeves and got to work. In 1888 he founded both a zoo and a university, the first-ever institution of higher learning in all of Bulgaria. The following year he established a National Museum of Natural History along with opera and ballet companies, then charged on to commission a fine building for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1893), which he had founded earlier. He continued to seek recognition by world leaders; in 1903 he established diplomatic relations with the United States. Ferdinand founded a National Archeological Museum in 1905, housing it inside a former Ottoman mosque built in 1474.
Ferdinand established a National Theater and dedicated its magnificent new neoclassical building in 1907 (photo above).
When Ferdinand first took up residence in Sofia, the great and ancient sixth-century basilica of Hagia Sophia lay in ruins, abandoned after suffering damage from two earthquakes. Ferdinand oversaw restoration work on Hagia Sophia while simultaneously witnessing construction of the adjacent Alexander Nevsky Eastern Orthodox cathedral, which was dedicated in 1912 in his presence. This enormous gold-domed neo-Byzantine cathedral (photo below) has become the principal tourist attraction in Bulgaria.
Among the ways Ferdinand countered Bulgaria’s inferior international standing was to wear imposing, extravagant military uniforms; the other was to build/renovate a collection of castles, palaces and country homes furnished with the same sorts of chandeliers, carpets and table settings that were found in the great palaces of Europe. When he hosted foreign dignitaries, Ferdinand put on quite a show, and no detail was too insignificant to involve his direct oversight.
Guests would arrive at the official Sofia palace (above) to find bodyguards placed on every step, handsomely clad in splendid scarlet uniforms embellished with silver-braid. They were led into welcoming chambers that had been scented with pine. Violet and mauve, Ferdinand’s favorite colors, were represented in silk wall coverings, fabrics and elaborate floral displays. Crystal chandeliers, fine French china and porcelains, uniformed servants, rare Oriental carpets, extravagant silver services and the finest cutlery wowed his visitors. He took pains to place quartets of musicians behind upholstered screens, so that their sound was not so loud as to disrupt conversation. Here Ferdinand hosted private theatricals, fancy balls, dinners and parties that were over the top in pomp and luxury. Ferdinand himself chose the menus, music, flowers, entertainments and dinnerware.
Before you knew it, Ferdinand could chose among a growing collection of fine official residences. The city-center palace in Sofia (now housing the National Art Gallery) had been so woefully inadequate that he more than doubled its size just after moving in. The photo above shows the wing Ferdinand added to house his private apartments. As well, he planted hundreds of trees and established a garden surrounding the residence.
*Tsarska Bistritsa, in the Rila mountain town of Borovets, is a very large, fanciful hunting lodge built by Ferdinand along a course of cascading waterfalls. It was recently returned to the royal family of Tsar Simeon II, and in 2002 the wedding of Princes Kalina, Simeon’s daughter, took place there.
About five miles from the Black Sea resort of Varna, visible only from the sea, sat Euxinograd, which Ferdinand developed into a splendid royal summer residence surrounded by exotic flowers, fountains, shrubbery, trees and vineyards. This palace was built from scratch and reflected Ferdinand’s most idiosyncratic tastes, so I will make a more elaborate description of it.
Euxinograd was constructed in French château style, a reminder to all that Ferdinand was the grandson of a French king. Boasting a high metal-edged mansard roof, figured brickwork and a clock tower, this summer palace was the scene of splendid royal dinners and entertainments. A disused monastery on the property was transformed into a summer dining room. Jutting out over a cliff, the structure afforded guests the impression of floating in mid-air out over the sea.
As always, there was on staff a veritable stable of blond haired, blue-eyed male chauffeurs to drive Ferdinand around the magnificent landscape surrounding Varna in his ever-expanding collection of fine motorcars. He spent a lot of quality time in the company of his chauffeurs, if you get my drift. Cabinet ministers and affairs of state often had to wait until Ferdinand and his chauffeurs returned from their long "drives" through the forests.
The palace, sited on a promontory jutting into the Black Sea, can be visited today. It still contains the walnut and mahogany furniture from Ferdinand’s family, and a sundial, a gift from Queen Victoria, adorns the grounds. An enormous chandelier sporting gilded lilies and a royal crown still illuminates a reception room; it had been a present from the French royal house of Bourbon, from which Ferdinand’s mother was descended. Every door handle in the palace is engraved with Tsar Ferdinand’s coat of arms, including those leading to the toilets.
Ferdinand’s second wife Eleonore Reuss-Kostritz died at Euxinograd in 1917, and the next year, at the close of WW I, Ferdinand abdicated to his son Boris, in order to preserve the crown. When the Bulgarian monarchy was abolished after WW II, the palace became a summer home for Communist party bigwigs. When the Communist regime fell in 1989, the palace was used as a presidential residence, and during the summer, cabinet meetings are still held there.
Palace building was apparently in the blood of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas. When Ferdinand’s son, Tsar Boris III, visited the town of Banya in southern Bulgaria in 1925, he was captivated by the climate and local curative mineral springs. He built a large residence there in 1929, and subsequently supplied the village with electricity and had it connected to the Plovdiv-Karlovo railway line. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, Banya Palace was eventually returned to Boris’s son, the deposed Tsar Simeon II (born in this palace in 1937), who emerged from exile in Spain to serve as Bulgaria’s Prime Minister from 2001 through 2005. Simeon, who became Tsar at age six, has never renounced his throne.
Today’s visitors admire its famous Chinese Parlor (photo below). Ferdinand delighted in the manor house’s quirky “year” symbolism, with 4 wings for each of the 4 seasons, 12 chimneys for 12 months, 52 rooms for 52 weeks, 7 arcades for 7 days in a week and 365 windows for the number of days in a year. Well honestly.
After Ferdinand’s abdication in 1918, he retired to Coburg, Germany, cradle of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty, where he had a spare palace, Bürglaß-Schlösschen, in reserve. Stll in possession of his vast fortune, he lived the remaining thirty years of his life there as a bachelor, indulging his interests in horticulture, travel and male companionship. Ferdinand continued his month-long visits to the Italian island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples, infamous as a hang out for wealthy homosexuals in pursuit of young men. As well, he sustained his interest in fine motorcars and the young blond men who drove them.
The previous post (Part I) about Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria can be found through this link: