Thursday, November 18, 2010


It was 11pm by the time Deni and Kamen dropped me off in the centre of Nessebar's new town. Perfect for me as the place was deserted and it was easy to sneak behind an empty office and hotel complex and roll out my mat and sleeping bag on their porch with a nice view of the sea. The nighttime view is better than the daytime one because you don't see the unending rows of giant concrete hotels that blight the seafront. The Black Sea coast, especially between Varna and Burgas, is an almost constant sprawl of ugly package tourism developments that cater to the majority of visitors to the country who generally stick to the coast. And despite the crisis building doesn't seem to have stopped, with housing developments sprouting up in the middle of scrubby fields, far removed from any amenities. I don't know who in their right minds would want to live there. Amongst all this concrete Nessebar is the supposed cultural jewel in the crown - formerly an ancient Greek trading colony that thrived all the way to the beginning of the last century under Byzantine and then Ottoman rule. There are plenty of old churches (though all but one of them are either in ruins or been turned into trendy art galleries) and a large number of houses typical of the National Revival style (ground floor stone, first floor wooden with an overhang). However most of the houses, upon closer inspection, were modern and concrete with only wooden cladding, and the whole atmosphere felt fake. I couldn't last long before I decided to head back inland away from the unchecked developments. So I headed down to Burgas and got on the first train to Kazanlak.

Sunrise in Nessebar. (I don't see many sunrises when I'm travelling, but seeing as I was sleeping in someone's back yard I thought it best to get up early before they showed up.)

Bulgaria is neatly divided into two, roughly equal, halves by the Balkan mountains (known locally as the Stara Planina - Old Mountains) that run west to east along almost the whole length of the country. So I had a lovely view all the way to Kazanlak, which lies in the southern foothills of the Balkans. The place is famous in Bulgaria for its roses and the region around the city is said to produce the majority of the entire world's supply of the sweet smelling stuff. Rose season is over and instead my reason for visiting was the ancient history of the town. Close to Kazanlak was the only known Thracian capital of Seuthopolis ... unfortunately the Communist government of Bulgaria built a dam and flooded it in the 50's. So although you can't see the city itself there are a number of burial tumuli dotted around that.

Okay, not super-exciting to be honest, but I was still glad I came because the girls I was staying with told me about something that wasn't in the guidebook and I would have been gutted if I had missed. In the mountains above the city lies the peak of Buzludzha. It was here that the first Bulgarian Socialist movement assembled at the end of the 19th century, and, in honour of this, in the 80's the Communist government built a grandiose, monumental assembly hall atop the mountain. It was a statement of power and domination. The flying saucer-shaped structure commands views for miles around and its scale is humbling. Since the fall of Communism the place has been slowly falling apart. Nobody wants to look after it, but it's too remote to warrant the cost of demolition. But its remoteness also means that although vandals do come along, they are few and far betweem. Instead Mother Nature is slowly ripping the place apart, one roof and mosaic tile at a time. The day I went clouds had decided to interrupt the pristine weather I had been experiencing for the past couple of weeks. As I ascended visibility dropped to less than 50m. I knew I was getting close, and then, all of a sudden, the mist thinned and the dome of the hall loomed above me like a mothership before being swallowed up again. Finally I came to the wide, processional steps that lead up to the front gates; which were locked. But it was easy enough to creep round the side and slip in through a low, broken window. The inside was dark and littered with concrete rubble. I made my way up the central stairs to the grand hall where light entered through holes in the roof where tiles had been ripped off by the wind and through which the mist was now streaming, filling the space with an almost physical presence. Around the walls were the remains of Socialist Realist mosaics portraying Lenin, Marx and Engels as well as scenes showing triumphant workers, mothers and the general proletariat victorious over the venal bourgeoisie. The floor was damp and in patches there were soggy heaps of what looked like drowned cats - I think it may have been asbestos but wasn't curious enough to carry out a thorough inspection. The wind added its own soundtrack as it kept working at the stubborn tiles that had so far managed to cling on. The place is without a doubt one of the most evocative I have been to, easily worth the 3 hour uphill slog with my backpack, and looks like the remains of some ancient, yet extremely developed civilisation. Eerie with a capital eeeee!

My first view of Buzludzha as it appeared through the clouds swirling around the mountain top.

Due to the poor weather I couldn't get any decent pictures, but to get an idea of what the place looks like have a look at this guy's post (although I think he overdoes the fish-eye effect a little for my taste).

1 comment:

Andrei C said...

It's not me overdoing it, it's the lens. My fault is just overusing it. :) :P