Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ferdinand I of Bulgaria: Part II

Fancy Uniforms, Palaces, Lavender Walls
And a Stable of Blond, Blue-Eyed Chauffeurs

When Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became Prince of Bulgaria in 1887 at age 26, he found himself ruler of a rag-tag country struggling to be taken seriously by the rest of Europe. Though he was bowled over by the country’s picturesque landscape and captivating antiquities, there was little else to enchant a spoiled young Prince. The centuries-old monasteries, mosques and churches, monuments to the successive Thracian, Roman and Byzantine civilizations that had thrived in the lands of Bulgaria, were all well and good, but Ferdinand needed a place to live that was suited to his lifestyle, which tilted toward grand opera, formal French etiquette and other bastions of luxury, particularly fine cuisine and wine.

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.

Sofia had been famous for its mineral springs. In 1911 Ferdinand oversaw the opening of a grand Public Mineral Bath House and Spa (left) built in Vienna-Secessionist architectural style with noted embellishment of majolica tile work inside and out; at present a section of this magnificent edifice is being converted for use as the Museum of Sofia. Also in 1911 the great Central Market Hall complex of 170 shops and stalls opened, occupying an entire city block; this Renaissance/Neo-Byzantine complex was recently restored to its original function and appearance. The façade bears a bas-relief of the coat of arms of Sofia above the main entrance.

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.

Ferdinand next purchased a vast tract of land twenty miles southeast of Sofia to build Vrana Palace (1906), set in a large park with a hunting lodge. This became Ferdinand’s favorite residence and the place where his family spent most of its time. Ferdinand indulged his horticultural interests to great effect there and kept three elephants, bison and antelope on the vast grounds. Vrana Palace was much larger than his in-town official palace in Sofia. Still not satisfied, Ferdinand kept royal apartments in monasteries, numerous country houses and hunting lodges*. Not to mention purpose-built chalets and cottages in the Rila mountains, for which he had to build access roads. Once his son Boris converted from Roman Catholicism to the Greek Orthodox church, rooms were kept for the royal family in the 10th-century Greek Orthodox monastery in Rila, where today Tsar Boris III lies buried.

*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.

Shielded from the main coastal road by a small woodland, Euxinograd palace was built as a replica of the right hand wing of France’s royal Chateau de Saint-Cloud. It would have pleased Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria to know that since 2007 this palace has hosted the annual opera festival, Operosa. Ferdinand was an accomplished musician who habitually played piano arrangements of his favorite opera excerpts by Gluck and Wagner before retiring to bed, and he saw to it that each of his many palaces and country homes had a music room. The spacious music chamber in his palace in Sofia, for instance, was outfitted with a pipe organ, harp and three pianos.

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.

Through his French mother, Ferdinand had acquired a part of the ruined Chateau de Saint-Cloud,  located outside Paris. The palace had been burned by the Prussian armies in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War and was subsequently pulled down. Ferdinand had surviving architectural elements of the French palace incorporated into his new seaside summer home. He loved pointing out to guests the main pediment of Saint-Cloud palace, now embedded into the wall supporting Euxinograd’s main terrace. Depicting the French royal coat-of-arms (above), these architectural remnants had been transported stone by stone from Paris to the Black Sea on the Orient Express railway coaches.

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.

The palace boasts an underground wine cellar that covers two floors. Constructed in 1891 to house an extensive collection of wine for royal consumption, a scandal erupted in 2002, when it was discovered that extraordinarily valuable vintage bottles (left), some dating from Bulgaria's 1878 liberation from the Ottoman empire, were missing from the Palace's cellar. Three French wines, well-preserved and each worth thousands of dollars, were among 137 bottles that disappeared. Last seen in April, 2002, the 124-year-old French wines had been a gift to Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand I and his son, Tsar Boris III. The wine master was immediately dismissed, amidst scandalous charges. The Euxinograd estate grounds are surrounded by vineyards, which still produce white wine and brandy that are among the best in the country. The root stocks were selected and brought here by Ferdinand himself, who was an avid and expert naturalist. Today’s Euxinograd Chardonnay is world famous.

The palace grounds lead down directly to the Black Sea. It took several decades to complete the gardens, and today they are home to more than 300 species of plants from Asia, Latin America, North Africa and the South of France. Ferdinand ordered 50,000 trees from Marseille and planted them in especially rich soil transported from the mouth of Bulgaria’s Kamchiya River. Coniferous shrubs and evergreens were brought to the estate from Europe, Syria and Algeria, each species chosen by the Tsar himself. The palace gardens are a most pleasing fusion of French and English design devised by noted French landscape architect Edouard André. The grounds include two ornate bridges (one of which is made to look like a fallen tree) under which flows the Kestrichka Bara River. Embellishments include French bronzes, a statue of Neptune (above) and a lake filled with water lilies. Not to mention a Japanese garden. And a butterfly garden.

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.

As well, Tsar Ferdinand had ancestral palaces in Germany, Austria and Hungary. He was the last occupant of St. Anthony Castle (photo at left), a well-preserved Baroque palace (1749) in a mountain setting near Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia,  in what was then Hungary.

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:


  1. Never knew any of this! Thank you for putting it all together.

    1. Same here--utterly fascinating and one of your most superb posts. 'Bulgarian glamour'--who knew?