Queen Mary’s enchanted domain at Balchik, Bulgaria

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

Queen Mary loved this magical place so much that she demanded through her testament that her heart should be put to rest here, near the waves of the Black Sea. As Romania was forced to cede this peace of land (known as the Quadrilateral) to Bulgaria, the box containing queen’s heart was moved to Bran Castle, and then to the National Museum of History.
One must visit the charming castle from Balcik and the botanical gardens surrounding it in order to understand why the popular queen of Romania loved it so much.
The most wonderful place in the Blachik domain is the “divine garden”, which the Turks called the Garden of Allah, the queen herself being inclined to ecumenism and to understanding the great empire and civilization nearby. The model for this garden completed in just four years was the Biblical garden of Eden, described in the Book of Genesis and recognized as sacred by all three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To fit the biblical description, an artificial river was built, with four arms, which delineates Eden. The spring is a fountain with three mouths, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. Above the fountain is a ceramic representation of the Virgin Mary (also protector of sailors) carrying a ship.

At Balchik, the field is not dominated by an imposing castle or by sumptuous buildings. Megalomania was never the style of Queen Mary, a person with a lot of personality. What impresses instead is the animation of space and the way villas are built at a human scale. On the vast domain villas are scattered to accommodate members of the royal family and important guests.
The Blue Arrow is a villa built for Prince Nicholas, the second son of the Queen, and for her daughter, Princess Ileana. It is built on a slope, so that it has three floors on the west and only one on the east. Sculpted furniture with arabesque and heavy wooden doors were brought from Far East palaces. At the ground floor there is a painting of a mermaid, and Queen Mary remembered how her mother, Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander 2nd, used to read her The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen in her childhood.
The Holy Spring existed on this spot before the castle, some local legends being tied to its miraculous capacities. Today’s tourists continue the superstition by throwing coins in its fountain. From the spring, the water goes down on the steps to the Garden of Gethsemane, from where it goes on to the Blue Veil garden.
With its walls and columns covered in ivy, the Nympheum, or the Water Temple, is one of the most beautiful constructions in Balchik. The Biblical symbolism is not absent from here also: though the name is about the ancient nymphs that attracted sailors, the place is also named Bethesda (The House of Mercy). This place existed in real Jerusalem and ill people would gather to be healed by an angel that would touch the water from time to time. There, Jesus Christ did one of his miracles, healing a crippled that could not reach the healing water. Queen Mary used to have her anniversaries between the columns of this fountain replica in Balchik.
The Garden of Gethsemane was designed and planted between 1933 and 1936. It is, like every garden in Balchik passed by a creek. Inside there are diverse species, like the black tulip, madonna lilies and a huge magnolia. The type planted in Bulgaria is of North-American origin, with evergreen leaves, a tree that can get 20 m high. Its buds look like pineapple fruits and the flowers have 30-45 cm in diameter. On the pawn there are pink, yellow and white water lilies.
The artificial cascade, with 14 m terraces, is among the most spectacular items of the Balchik garden. On one side of the waterfall there is an electric plant, transformed into a souvenir shop. Here you can see a device for extracting oil out of roses.
Above the Quiet Nest villa, Jules Jannin, the gardener of Tsar Nicolai 2nd, built a vivid green maze, not as elaborate as the one you can see at Schonbrunn, but very nice. After the death of Jules Jannin, his work was continued by Swiss-man Carol Gutman, on whose honor a villa with his name was built. From the botanical garden you can see most of the Balchik beach.
The Quiet Nest villa is the easiest to recognize, having a minaret. This has no religious purpose, it was used as observation post, but is a sign of respect the Queen wanted to show to the Turks. In the balcony of the minaret there is an eolian harp.
Tourists can even visit the royal bath, a little odd invasion of privacy. Those excessively curious find out with this occasion that the water was heated through an ingenious steam system or that the guests were invited to relax in a Turkish style. The guide does not miss the chance to add bitterly that the bath and the smoking salon have excellent acoustics that would allow the Queen to eavesdrop on her guests conversations. As the Quiet Nest villa is actually a museum now, some antiques and icons were brought here from the Stella Maris chapel.
Princess Helen (Ileana) had the idea of building a monastery at Balchik, destroyed by a landslide. Like her mother, known as “the mother of the wounded” after her courageous visits on the first world war front, princess Helen was an active supporter of the red cross. Princess Helen also built a monastery in the United States, where she lived her last days as sister Alexandra.
Born at Kent, on the island of Great Britain, Queen Mary confessed that Balchik meant a return to her first love, the sea, a passion inherited by her daughter, princess Helen. After the death of her architect and gardener, the queen laid a stone with the following inscription: “To Jules Janin, the man who made my dream come true with this garden“.

Today, Balchik domain (called Dvoretza by the locals), is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Bulgaria, with over 400.000 tourists a year. Its administration is even disputed between the central and local government, with the locals picketing the entrance, demanding that the monument be handed to the local city hall.

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