Bulgaria's seaside capital

Varna is a treasure-trove of Thracian, Greek and Roman heritages

Roman thermae, situated in the city centre, are among the best preserved in the world.

Varna, the third largest Bulgarian city, is often styled as 'the seaside capital' of the country and is famous throughout the world for its wonderful beaches and thermal water springs. Less known, however, is the fact that the city has been built over the vestiges of an ancient Greek colony, which grew in an earlier Thracian place.

The earliest traces of human habitation in this region date back to the Old Stone Age, 100,000 years ago. In 1972, the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis was unearthed, dated 4,400 years BC. Objects of the earliest processed gold in Europe, as well as artefacts of silver, copper, bronze, stone and earthenware were found here. Over 2,000 gold finds were discovered weighing a total of over two kilogrammes. The treasure is on display at the local Museum of Archaeology.

In the 6th century BC, Greek colonists from the ancient Ionian city of Miletus cast anchor in the Bay of Varna to build Odessos, meaning “town upon water”. It soon evolved into a self-governing classical polis to become an important port and trading hub of the Black Sea, carrying on trade both with the mother city and other Greek city-states. Odessos minted bronze, silver and even gold coins in its own right. Thracian god Darzalas was frequently depicted on its coinage lying and holding a cornucopia or amphora turned upside down.

Since 4th century, Odessos was within the borders of Alexander the Great's empire; after his death, the city fell under the diadoch Lysimachus, while in the 1st century it was annexed by the Roman Empire. The Romans were aware of its importance and the city was granted freedom to trade and enjoyed administrative privileges. Odessos was fortified and urbanised; a number of temples were built along with a theatre, gymnasium, central water-conduit system, etc.

The rise of the city is best demonstrated by the majestic thermae, built in the late 2nd century on an area of 7,000 sq m. Apart from being the best preserved archaeological site in Odessos, the thermae are the biggest ancient public building ever discovered in Bulgaria, the biggest Roman bath in the Balkan Peninsula and the fourth largest Roman thermae across the world. The complex was built in the vicinity of naturally warm, mineral-rich waters, used until today.

Apart from their vast terrain, the thermae were notable for their height: in places the vaults over the pools were as high as 20 metres. The facility had a unique heating system of its own, connected with special cavities leading the air, warmed up by the hot mineral water, to the top of the building. So, the visitors entered warm rooms, providing a natural barrier against external cold air.

Functioning until the late 3rd century, the thermae played an important social role in the ancient city, being a venue for men to discuss major social issues. Shrines of Asclepius and Hygeia, deities of medicine and health, were built in the northwestern end of the baths. Fragments have been discovered, related to the cult of Heracles, guardian of the springs.

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