The Yunatzi (strongmen)
Development of a healthy mind and body; moral education and character-building of the young generation; spiritual and cultural education of the youth; adoption of European values and ideas.
Those are some of the ideals of the Yunashki movement outlined in 1898 by its ideologue in Bulgaria – Todor Yonchev. The Yunashki movement remains history’s oldest and most worthy organisation aimed at developing physical education in Bulgaria, even though it only existed for the relatively brief period of around 50 years. Perhaps the brightest mark left by the movement is in our speech: we chant “Bulgarians, the strongmen” at stadiums or in front of the TV in support of a team or competitor representing Bulgaria.
But that is far from everything. In the very first years of the organisation’s existence, sports halls were built around the country. Today one of them, the Yunashki Salon in Varna, is among the city’s most emblematic buildings both from a cultural and architectural perspective and in terms of elicitation of pure emotion. Thanks to our help, the municipality can now boast of the restoration of the Yunashki Salon and the opportunity to pursue some of the activities in which its visitors engaged from the very start.
History of the Yunashki Salon
The building was constructed by design of the architect Manol Yordanov Statelov, with donations from citizens, partial funding from the municipality and the involvement of several sports organisations. It was opened in 1911 on the Mitropolit Simeon Square. A message dating from that period and written on the façade – Bravery, harmony, solidarity, health, work, and consistent – has been preserved to this day.
From the very start, the Yunashki Salon attracted young people, who wanted to train in gymnastics, dance, athletics, boxing, fencing, weight-lifting, wrestling and all sports modern at the time, such as basketball, volleyball, football and even baseball. An interesting tidbit is that, in its early years, the sports hall also hosted the debut of the Varna Symphonic Orchestra.
It was inevitable that the historical cataclysms of the 20th century would leave their mark on the Yunashki Salon. As early as the Balkan War, military units were temporarily accommodated at the newly-built sports hall. During the Second World War, it was turned into a shelter for German soldiers. A fire at the end of the war destroyed most of the facility. However, the building suffered the most severe consequences after being turned into a grain store. That was the first time its structural integrity was threatened, because nobody gave even a moment’s thought to how many tonnes its pillars could bear and the floor collapsed under the weight of a heap of grain. Despite the damage inflicted on the Yunashki Salon and the break-up of the Yunashki movement, even during the communist regime, it remained a venue for the Varna community and a place to meet and train for sportspeople..
Until 10 years ago, in spite of its poor condition, the interior sports section of the Yunashki Salon was still being used for sports like boxing and basketball. But then ravers started to hold techno parties there and the vibrations damaged the building even further
said Kristiana Gencheva, Chief Expert on sports activities at the Sports Directorate of Varna Municipality, as she recounted the vicissitudes surrounding the building’s existence – its appropriation by the state and the threats of its demolishment or sale. In 2014, the structure was again officially declared as municipal property, marking the beginning of concrete measures by Varna Municipality for the full restoration of the Yunashki Salon.
We meet the small team from the Sports Directorate at the Varna Youth Centre, where they are working temporarily in expectation of being accommodated in the new Yunashki Salon. Mrs Gencheva speaks with infectious enthusiasm about the project and the renovation of the building, which was declared a site of cultural and architectural heritage in 1982. Later, during our tour of the sports hall, which still resembles a construction site (summer of 2015), she proudly points out that the repairs are fully consistent with the building’s status of a cultural monument. “The façade will be almost fully preserved, as well as the roof’s wooden structure and tiles,” she adds. She also shows us the area where the office of her father was located when he was chair of the district council of the Bulgarian Union of Physical Culture and Sports in Varna. Gencheva comes from a family of sportspeople, and she herself used to be actively involved in rhythmic gymnastics, passing through the different stages of a typical sports career – competitor, trainer, sports club manager, until she finally took her current position. To her and other representatives of Varna’s sports community, the renovation of the Yunashki Salon is a long-awaited event and makes their dream of a home for sports in Varna come true.
Since the beginning of this year, the new sports hall has been open to visitors. It is suitable for the practice of various sports such as wrestling, table tennis, dance and badminton. “Unlike before, it won’t be possible to train rhythmic and ordinary gymnastics or, say, basketball there, because the spatial requirements for the practice of such sports are different these days,” Kristiana Gencheva explains. The hall is mainly intended as a place for training and the conduct of tournaments of professional and amateur sports clubs. Its spectator stand has 70 seats. The repairs and the provision of modern sports, video and audio equipment were financed thanks to our fund. The new Yunashki Salon can be used by a wider circle of people, because, in addition to the sports hall, it now functions as a museum of sports and a venue for concerts, round tables and other cultural initiatives. In the course of a public discussion, it was decided to put pictures of deserving Varna sportspeople, such as Olympic and world champions and medallists, on the walls of the renovated building. The photographs are from the archive of the Yunashki Salon and the personal collections of Varna residents. The medallists’ names are also displayed on separate plaques at the entrance of the Yunashki Salon. In the future, you will also be able to see other relics of Varna’s sports people here. They are still to be collected through donations by the city’s sports community.
The building’s beauty and functionality, as well as its central location near the cathedral are advantages to also turning the Yunashki Salon into a tourist attraction, which will offer a rich programme of sports and cultural events. The successful management of the building will ensure a return on the investment and the sustainable development of the Yunashki Salon in the future. There are also plans to create an interactive electronic portal that will provide information about the history of the Yunashki Salon and sports in Varna in general. The new café in the building is a convenient meeting place and has a potential to attract people to its cosy and modern interior every day. The repaired space will provide many opportunities for fun, sports and culture to the local community and this is precisely our goal – to implement urban projects of high public importance.
photography: Simona Ilcheva and Mihail Novakov
The project in figures and facts
The investment amounts to more than BGN 2 million, with BGN 1.8 million granted by the Regional Urban Development Fund and Societe Generale Expressbank as a 15-year investment loan; the funds under the Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas (JESSICA) through the Regional Fund amount to BGN 600,000 and the Bank has provided co-financing of EUR 1.2 million.