Tripping through the Bulgarian countryside in search of communist-era monuments is perhaps the most Western experience I have ever had. The thing is, most people who live in nations that were once under the Soviet sphere of influence, would like to forget that whole communism thing. It’s the original c-word. These days, many locals seem hell-bent on absorbing and aping as much American influenced popular culture as possible. Young Bulgarians dream of taking selfies with Tiffany and Billy-Ray, punishing Jetski’s, shot-gunning beers, and taking spring-break vacation down in Florida. Ironically, they don’t realise what lays right in their own back-yard. For what could be more “Western” than three people who haven’t worked a real job in years, cruising the back roads of a former-communist nation in search of Instagram’s and Facebook posts? There’s only one thing could be more first-world than that – blogging about it.
And so, here we are.
Nobody did communist monuments bigger than Bulgaria. Nobody. Sure – Ukraine, Georgia, and a few other ex-Soviet puppet nations built a giant lady-statue or two. But in communist Bulgaria, money was spent on concrete and bricks like a forced-labour-camp buying cold gruel. The Bulgarian propaganda machine skillfully combined architecture and design with enormous wads of cash to produce a collection of enormous “Pametnik” that are about as subtle as a Cadillac in North Korea.
Buzludzha, the UFO shaped former Communist Party Headquarters, meeting hall, and laser-tag arena, is becoming more well known, and currently grabs much of the attention. Infiltrating the iconic concrete UFO perched atop a remote Bulgarian mountain has reached the status amongst urban explorers normally reserved for a tour of Detroit ruin-porn. And, deservedly so. But, Bulgarian communist monuments don’t stop at Buzludzha. Oh no.
Home to the cubist-styled memorial, the “Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria”, the city of Shumen was my first insight into just how determined the communist Bulgarian government was on demonstrating their concrete expertise. The monument at Shumen was built in 1981, designed by Bulgarian sculptors Krum Damyanov and Ivan Slavov, and I really had no idea of the colossal size of this structure. Driving about twenty kilometers out of Shumen, I looked in my rear-vision mirror, and noticed my friend Darmon had that contented grin only a British-born bohemian-freelance-urban-explorer-writer-musician-dark-tourism-expert living in Bulgaria is capable of. “So, Nate, I should tell you, that Transformer’s-esque horse monument you want to see, it’s over there.” I could see it, jutting out above Shumen, from twenty kilometres away. Up close, the Shumen monument is a collection of somewhat menacing cubist concrete statues, housed in a modernist geometric building, positioned atop a hill overlooking the city.
Unlike many Bulgarian communist-era monuments, the Shumen memorial has been well maintained. On the day I visited, apart from being trapped due to a fittingly grim storm (I will never, ever, forget the look on the staunch faces of the statues I sheltered beneath being lit-up by lightning), a wedding party was utilising the memorial for a photo shoot. Not all of Bulgaria’s monuments receive this kind of love and attention. Particularly the more “Russian” of the bunch. Over on the Bulgarian coast in the Black Sea town of Varna, the “Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship”, is now 10,000 tonnes of vandalised concrete and iron being left to decay. Perhaps it has something to do with the message of the monument, often interpreted as “dear strong, brave, and fearless Russian soldiers, please accept these gifts of bread, flowers, and salt from our finest Bulgarian women, seriously, thanks so much, we couldn’t have looked after our poor country without your help, you’re the best”. To top it off, the memorial at Varna was built in a position that faces towards Moscow. Subtle.
Beneath the Varna monument, a long, deep, concrete staircase descends into a dark and long abandoned nuclear bunker, with symbols painted on the wall that appear to be letters. However, it’s not from any alphabet on this planet. I’m not saying Aliens had something to do with this memorial, but I’m sure the History Channel would agree that the evidence of Aliens working with the Russian and Bulgarian Politburo’s is basically irrefutable and conclusive. In the upper section of the Varna monument are various rooms, once used for official communist business, but today used as shelter for the homeless.
Plovidiv, one of Europe’s oldest cities, went the truly abstract route – with the amazingly named “Knoll of Fraternity Memorial Complex”. Slabs of concrete create a symphony of 1974 geometry, layered atop one another to symbolize a Thracian hillock. The Thracians were one of many peoples that have inhabited the ancient city of Plovdiv throughout it’s seven thousand year history. Yes, thousand. The concrete knoll was constructed at one end of a grand soviet-styled boulevard – designed to run through the city as a place to celebrate communist-era “festive activities”. As with the mythical “Memorial to Great Farmers of Potatoes”, the plans for Plovdiv’s spacious boulevard were never fully realised. Today, much like The Bangles, even the “eternal flame” in the middle of the Plovdiv monument has long been extinguished and forgotten about.
It’s true, these monuments remind the locals that Bulgaria did indeed live through a sinister, murderous, brutal, communist regime, hell bent on the spread of propaganda and oppression. But in the 21st century, perhaps the Bulgarian people can get a bit of their own back, using these symbolic reminders to capitalise on the growing number of international tourists with a strange nostalgia for a time and place that existed in the “West” only though our own government propaganda, which was being distributed at a rate that would make the Bulgarians blush.
In any case, I have visited Bulgaria multiple times over the last year (most recently, just a few weeks ago), and can’t wait to return.
When in Plovdiv, the cast and crew of Yomadic stay at the only Hostel on the entire planet that I can recommend whole-heartedly and without reservation – The Crib.
PS, did you hear I’m running an un-tour this year? Ten nights through the Balkans, from Belgrade Serbia to Kotor Montenegro and then back to Belgrade riding on the worlds best train journey. If you would like to join Phillipa, myself, and Larissa AKA The Blonde Gypsy on a trip you won’t forget, use the contact form here to ask me for details. Our first trip (taking place in May) sold out in a matter of hours, and there are just a few places left on the June YoGypsy trip. Get in touch, we would love to have you join us and our small group as we trip though the best of the Balkans!