The Bridge That Kept Coming Back
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BULGARIA
STRADDLING the Osŭm River in north-central Bulgaria is the covered bridge of Lovech. Much like the people it serves, this magnificent structure has a rich history.
One of the first to draw attention to the bridge was Austrian geologist Ami Boué, who visited Lovech during the first half of the 19th century. He wrote about “a stone bridge, covered and decorated with small shops.” Yes, this unique bridge was part of Lovech’s transportation system, connecting the two parts of the town, and it also served as a market! As such, it was a landmark of the community.
Originally, the covered bridge of Lovech was built, not of stone, but of wood. Over the years, however, the span was repeatedly damaged by floodwaters and had to be rebuilt. Finally, in 1872, the bridge was completely washed away, depriving the townspeople of this vital link.
Restoring the bridge would not be easy. Therefore, the famed Bulgarian builder Kolyo Ficheto was hired to design and build a new and stronger bridge.
An Innovative Design
Ficheto decided to stick with the original concept and design a covered bridge with small shops on it. To support the 275-foot-long by 33-foot-wide [84 m by 10 m] bridge, he added elliptical piers. These 15-foot-high [5 m] footings, whose narrow edges pointed upstream, had an innovative feature. Situated at midpoint and extending up near the top of the piers were openings to allow floodwaters to pass through the piers. On top of the piers, Ficheto laid solid oak beams and planks. The remainder of the structure, including the 64 shops arranged on both sides of the street, was made of beech. The roof was likewise made of beech and lined with sheet iron.
Another interesting feature of Ficheto’s design is that he preferred to connect the bridge’s support beams with wooden plugs and joints rather than with iron fittings and forged nails. The street was finished by paving the wood subfloor with stone and then overlaying it with gravel. During the day, small side windows and openings in the roof allowed natural daylight to filter in. During the evening, gas lanterns were lit. Altogether, the design and construction of the new bridge took about three years to complete .
Life on the Bridge
What was life like on the bridge? Notice the description by one eyewitness: “Sellers, passersby, and onlookers, who were rarely disturbed by a passing car, horse cart, or loaded donkey, mixed their voices with the noise from the tinsmiths . . . and the cries of the vendors, who offered their wares with loud voices. The bridge had its own inner life. The many colorful little shops, filled to the brim with woolen braiding, beads, and various goods, had their own rhythm and traditions.”
Besides doing their shopping on the covered bridge, people gathered there for entertainment, since many storekeepers doubled as musicians. The eyewitness quoted earlier added: “In the barber shop, there were five or six barbers who, besides being barbers, were also good musicians, primarily playing stringed instruments. They often found some free time to play, and the patrons were pleased to wait for them to finish.” Following the first world war, some of the barbers became the founders of the so-called Barber’s Orchestra.
For half a century, Ficheto’s covered bridge endured floods, wars, and other calamities. But on the night of August 2/3, 1925, huge flames lit up the sky around Lovech as the town’s picturesque bridge caught fire and was reduced to ashes. How did it happen? To this day no one is certain whether the fire was the result of negligence or arson. Whatever the case, Lovech was once again without a bridge to connect its shores.
In 1931 a new covered bridge was completed, along with small shops and workshops that bordered the street . However, rather than fashion the bridge out of wood and stone, the new builder used steel and concrete. The overall design was very different from Ficheto’s. The roof was made of glass, and a section of the center span had no outside walls. In 1981/82, the bridge was rebuilt according to Kolyo Ficheto’s original design .
The covered bridge of Lovech is a symbol of the town and an expression of an artisan’s achievement. Today the bridge continues to attract the interest of residents and visitors alike as they walk on the bridge that is lined with shops.
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Photo 2: From the book Lovech and the Area of Lovech