Tsar's Palace & National Art Gallery – Alexander Battenberg Square – Sofia
To the north side of the Alexander Battenberg Square is an elegant building known as the former Tsar’s Palace. It is nowadays home to the National Art Gallery and the Ethnographic Museum. We arrived early in the morning and the art gallery was closed, but we were glad to huddle under the portico and be out of the morning chill as our tour director gave us a rundown on the building’s history.
The Tsar’s Palace was built in 1873, and during the Ottoman occupation, it became the residence of the ruling governor, with administrative offices and police headquarters on the lower floors. It was here that Vassil Levski was tried and sentenced to death. Vassil Levski was leader of the national revolutionary movement against the Ottoman rule and a national hero to the Bulgarian people.
After liberation, the Tsar’s Palace was the first building to be refurbished in contemporary Viennese style and it became the seat of Bulgaria’s first post-liberation monarch, Kniaz Alexander Battenberg.
The art gallery has recently re-opened and it would have been great to see the exhibits in the renovated chambers of the former royal palace. The Ethnographic Museum in the eastern wing covers Bulgarian folklore and traditions, including costumes from various regions. Although established in 1878, many valuable exhibits were lost during the bombing in 1944.
The gift shop was opened and we had a quick 20 minutes to look at the typically traditional Bulgarian handicrafts. The little shop was jammed with goods and no photography was allowed, the explanation being that this was part of the Art Gallery, a bit ludicrous we thought. Postcards, rosewater fragrance and soaps were popular quick purchases amongst the ladies. There was a thick woollen vest that I thought would look quite nice and ethnic and I asked for the price — only to be told that it’s an antique piece of costume that was part of the gallery display. It was a bit strange having it hanging amongst other clothing for sale.