The beautiful blue Danube was neither beautiful nor blue.
Gazing over a ramshackle assortment of trailers, creaky amusement-park rides and abandoned Mercedes parts, I surveyed the waterfront of the city Bulgarians call “the little Vienna” and concluded that Strauss would have trouble with the appellation. We were in Ruse, a Bulgarian city on the banks of that fabled river, which was an unappealing shade of gray. From our perch on a pedestrian wharf, we watched shady-looking men in dark jackets prowl and puff on cigarettes among the detritus below.
Oggi and I had come to Ruse to see whether its reputation as the Balkans’ most elegant city was deserved. While the regions just next door — Serbia, Hungary, Bosnia — were paved in cosmopolitan splendor under the more urbane Austria-Hungary, with grand boulevards and curlicued façades, Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria remained underdeveloped well into the 19th century. Ruse is always cited as the exception, the lone Bulgarian city that resembles Central Europe.
To say this is an exaggeration is a radical understatement. Ruse looks more or less like any other neglected, crumbling provincial city in full post-Socialist decline. Endless gray blocs sprawl across what could have been a pretty green hillside on the Bulgarian banks of the Danube — which, as it narrows toward the Black Sea, is only about half as wide as the Hudson.
Yes, Ruse was profoundly disappointing. But I had a fabulous time anyhow. As it turns out, a city in decay can be as fascinating — in a mournful, nostalgic way — as one in full flower.
Rejecting a modest English guesthouse, we followed signs for a hotel just off Ulitsa Alexandrovska, a pedestrian promenade, which gives onto a grand, pleasantly landscaped plaza known as Freedom Square. For $35 a night, we relaxed amid the well-preserved vestiges of Socialist splendor: a suite with two bathrooms and a living room, steaming-hot palacinkas with forest-berry jam and Nescafé for breakfast. In the foyer was a self-service shoeshine machine, a hallmark of hotels from the Soviet era.
The heyday of Ruse, and the zenith of Jewish life here, ended a century ago. Ruse’s first synagogue was built around the year 1800, when a Sephardic community coalesced on Eastern Europe’s most prominent waterway. Jewish merchants traded around the region, known as the Mizia, and across the Danube; several large synagogues, catering to Ashkenazic settlers as well as the dominant Sephardic population, were erected alongside neoclassical buildings, in fashionable shades of pink and yellow.
The ambitions of that time are still evident in the grandeur of Freedom Square, where an Italian classical-style statue known as the Monument of Liberty — the city mascot — towers over formal gardens. A few cobblestoned blocks away in Battenberg Square, the History Museum of Ruse is arguably the most beautiful building in town, occupying the daffodil-yellow fin-de-siècle Battenberg Palace. (Prince Alexander Battenberg, for whom many of Bulgaria’s notable places are named, was the country’s first sovereign ruler following independence from Istanbul in the late 19th century.)
It is telling about Balkan cities that their most prominent cultural institutions are history museums, rather than galleries of art. Few artists of international renown have emerged from the region; on the other hand, there is no shortage of history in the so-called powder keg of Europe. Jews form an integral part of that history in this polyglot corner of the Balkans, where Slavs, Hungarians, Romanians, Roma and Turks all contribute to the ethnic mix.
Little of that vitality endures on the streets of Ruse today. Crumbling sidewalks, shady in the verdant bloom of a South European spring, were largely empty during our visit. Sad, hulking Socialist-era buildings blight the urban center, while the few prewar façades have fallen into neglect, sooty and windowless. The overall feeling is one of abandonment and dilapidation. Across the post-Communist landscape, third-tier cities like Ruse — once engines of regional industry — have seen an entire generation of young people migrate to the capital or abroad.
The Jews of Ruse were on the vanguard of emigration; a community that once numbered around 4,000 has dwindled to less than 200, with Shalom Ruse, the local Hebrew organization, serving as a resource for the largely elderly Jewish population that remains. As did Jews from elsewhere in the Balkans, most Bulgarian Jews resettled in Israel after World War II, though ties remain strong to the cities they left behind.
After visiting the History Museum and taking a stroll down Alexandrovska, we followed signs through a courtyard toward the elegant dining rooms of an 1890s villa, now a Turkish restaurant. Large parties, formally dressed, dined on tomato and feta salads and grilled kebabs in the soft glow of Old World chandeliers. The retro effect was enhanced by a singer who crooned a mix of 1980s Italian pop and Russian drinking songs — Cold War favorites that struck a nostalgic chord in Oggi.
The night was warm, and an evening crowd strolled through the gardens of Freedom Square long after dusk. In the rustling shade of elm trees, watching a moonrise over the Monument of Liberty, we settled into a café and imagined how the scene might have looked a century earlier, when Ruse was the Vienna of the Balkans.