One of the most colourful places in our capital that definitely deserves a visit is the old Jewish quarter in the centre of Sofia, which today gathers many modern shops, restaurants, and cafes. It is located between four central boulevards in the northern part of the city centre – between Alexander Dondukov Blvd. “Maria Louisa”, Blvd. “Slivnitsa” and “Vasil Levski” blvd. Rakovski” divides it into “two lungs”. The Old Jewish Quarter is an emblematic symbol of Old Sofia. It used to be reached by the former “Targovska” street – today’s “Lege” street, which, after the bombing in 1944, cut off the bourgeois quarter and Old Sofia from the Centre. Then, the Largo and all the administrative buildings in the area, the Council of Ministers, the National Bank, the Presidency, and the Central Department Store of Sofia were built on the site of the bombing.
In the 20th century, many Bulgarian Jews lived in the neighbourhood. The predominant architectural style of their family houses, as well as of the first residential buildings in Sofia to be erected there, was the Venetian Secession. Many of the stone details of the buildings that can still be seen there today were brought from Vienna. There is no such production in Bulgaria, and this makes them even more desirable and valuable.
The district is also famous for having been inhabited by many intellectuals and poets. Urban legend has it that it was here that the writer Ivan Vazov found his death during a sexual act. On the other side of Maria Luisa Blvd., the Bulgarian poet Geo Milev lived in a now ruined house after losing his right eye in the First World War. Urban legend to this day says that it was for this reason that the children of the neighbourhood wrote “Here lives a cyclops” on the poet’s door.
Joseph Herbst, one of the founders of Bulgarian journalism and a staunch defender of independent speech, also lived in the neighbourhood. Both he and Geo Milev, like many others, disappeared without a trace after the purges that followed the St. Nedelya Church bombing. Legend has it that after Joseph Herbst’s disappearance, his wife Viola, who loved him endlessly, pinned a portrait of him on her Victorian dress and so went around the streets of Sofia asking if anyone had seen him.
Interestingly, this particular neighbourhood was also known as the “red light district”. All the diplomats and guests of the Tsar stayed there when they came to visit Sofia. It was here that some of the first casinos and gentlemen’s clubs appeared and in many of the dungeons, the famous and, at that time, forbidden French dance, the cancan, was danced.
The history-rich old Jewish quarter of Sofia, along with the entire Oborishte area, is still saturated with the most cultural monuments of architecture and numerous archaeological excavations. It is also the old commercial district of the capital, which today attracts many modern craftsmen, contemporary galleries, Bulgarian design artists, and interesting craft restaurants, pastry shops, and cafeterias. It is because of the charm of the place and its rich history that the KvARTal initiative was born here in 2016.
Its initiators, Martina Stefanova and her team tell us that the idea behind the project is to revive the old Jewish quarter and people’s interest in it by organising an annual festival that takes place every year around Sofia Day on September 17. Through the event, its organisers aim to draw public attention to the neighbourhood, the preservation of its cultural and architectural heritage, and the creation of more public and urban spaces. The festival is also that time of the year when the neighbourhood comes alive and fills with events organised by all the small businesses and residents. The event usually includes a diverse program of historical and educational tours, children’s events, workshops, pop-up exhibitions, pedestrian zones and streets, musical events, literary tours, graffiti painting, theatre, and various discussions.