Back in April I wrote a report on an abandoned Soviet propaganda centre in Bulgaria. The complex was built in 1974, and topped with a towering cubist memorial entitled The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. On that first visit I discovered that the monument was more than it seemed… but this time I managed to dig deeper still, exploring the warren of tunnels that make up a vast nuclear bunker hidden away beneath the memorial itself.
The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship
When I first visited the monument, I did so merely to admire a striking heirloom of Bulgaria’s communist past. Measuring 23 metres tall by 48 wide, this is one of the largest such structures that remains standing in Eastern Europe. As it turned out however, I was able to find a way inside the monument – whose hollow interior contained a network of tunnels, passages and conference halls. In addition to that, a stairway located inside one of the ‘legs’ of this vast concrete trapezoid led me down into the hollow hill beneath; which once housed a Soviet propaganda centre and bookshop, intended for the local distribution of Marxist-Leninist literature.
From this subterranean level a grand stairwell descended further still. I followed it all the way down to an imposing double doorway, which stood chained, barred and welded shut against intruders. All of my research pointed to the existence of a nuclear bunker built beneath the centre, in keeping with the Cold War tradition. While I knew I was tantalisingly close, for now the trail ended at these hermetically sealed gates, deep beneath the earth.
My original post on The Soviet Propaganda Centre had a strong response, and remains to date my most-read report on urban exploration in Bulgaria.
From the feedback I received, it seemed I wasn’t the only one eager to find out what was hidden behind that vast subterranean bulkhead… and so when I received an email from a local Bulgarian explorer who claimed to know another way in, how could I resist?
The Soviet War Bunker
My guide Svilen was a keen photographer and filmmaker. He had already paid numerous visits to the site, and had explored extensively in the bunker beneath. We met at a café early one afternoon and drank Irish coffees before heading out to the monument, located on the city outskirts.
On previous visits I had followed the flight of austere stone steps that form the main approach up to the imposing monument above; instead Svilen led me around the side of the hill, following a footpath that skirted a circumference beneath the dappled shade of thick green canopies. Pausing at a clearing in the bushes roughly a quarter of the way around, he gestured towards the mound itself – and there, set deep into the vegetation that bordered our path, I spied the rocky opening.
We had to climb over a pile of strewn boulders to get to the entrance, but once across there was no mistaking the thick iron bulkhead door, hanging open on its hinges before the darkness of the tunnel beyond. Faded paint scrawled over the metal hatch read, “ВЛИЗАНЕ СТРОГО ЗАБРАНЕНО”: “ENTRY STRICTLY PROHIBITED”. We powered up our torches, and headed inside.
As it turned out, this vast underground labyrinth was more than just a bomb shelter… the extensive series of long corridors and vaulted chambers beneath the hill could easily have served as a fully functional war base. Fitted with water, gas and electricity, it appears this complex once included mess halls, dormitories, offices and training rooms; in addition to kitchens, bathrooms and latrines.
The entrance corridor set the tone for the whole site – a long, cylindrical tunnel fading into darkness, and studded with bulkhead doors and metal pipes. Unlike the rest of the bunker though, this first passage was heavily graffitied, the words “FEAR THE REAPER” sprayed bold alongside an inverted pentagram. Clearly not all visitors had made it so far from the entrance however, the crude tags and slogans becoming rarer as we made our way deeper into the darkness.
This first tunnel bifurcated after a short distance; the left-hand passage leading into the main complex, while the right took us first to what appeared to be an old boiler room. Twisted metal ducts lay strewn across the floor like fallen branches, while a panel screwed to one wall featured the remains of an electrical switchboard.
An alcove tucked away at the rear of this chamber offered access to a narrow shaft beyond. Putting my torch to one side as I clambered over the chest-high lintel, I dropped down into a long passage with what appeared to be a drainage trench hollowed out in the floor. A rusted iron bulkhead divided the space in two – and here I was able to squeeze under the bottom of the metal plate and into a chimney-like structure. Above me a series of flaking, red-brown rungs disappeared into the darkness… I started climbing.
I didn’t get far though, perhaps fifteen feet or so, before a rung came away from the wall in my hand – crumbling as it did so into a coarse red powder. Common sense prevailed this time, and I decided to head back down.
Leaving the boiler room behind us, we made our way back to the entrance; this time following the left-hand passage into the main body of the bunker. The tunnels here formed a vast criss-crossed network. As we turned left and then right in the pitch dark, passing countless unmarked tunnels on either side, it was easy to get the feeling that we were becoming gradually more lost. In reality though, I suspect we were simply wandering around a large interconnected grid, a closed circuit.
Much like the first chamber we had explored, metal pipes and ducts lay scattered throughout the tunnels. While it seemed as though looters had managed to remove a number of the smaller fittings, it was refreshing to discover so much left behind – we found pipes and switches, metal hatches and glass windows fitted around the complex, while occasional lightbulbs hung lifeless from vaulted ceilings – some encased in ornate glass fittings.
Some of the larger items had been abandoned when trespassers apparently found themselves either unable to carry them, or to squeeze them through the narrow doorways… as was the case with a heavy water tank we found, bleeding rust and flakes of green paint into a powdery shadow. In another passageway a series of brick doorways featured identical scars, a chunk of masonry smashed out of the framework roughly a foot above the floor; as if a large and irregularly shaped object had been dragged through here at high speed, smashing into each doorframe in succession. The effect was strangely comical.
Most of the corridors were formed from concrete tubes, a level floor set into the bottom creating a hollow area beneath. Aside from the sheer darkness and labyrinthine layout of the bunker, one of the most unnerving aspects of exploring these subterranean passages was the way footsteps echoed and reverberated off the inside of the tunnels.
Sometimes the echoes even seemed to get lost, catching up with us later, or laying in ambush at the next turning.
Then there were the hand prints.
Save for the graffiti scrawled on several walls close to the entrance, the tunnels showed little or no signs of disturbance. However, other visitors had left their own unsettling marks on the site: while exploring the boiler room, my torch beam fell suddenly across a cluster of pale hand prints pressed into the black soot on the wall; elsewhere in the complex we discovered four long, trailing finger marks dragged across the edge of a broken doorway.
Despite the predominantly industrial atmosphere of the setting, nature too had managed to leave its signature – often with surreal and beautiful effect. Such was the case with the droplets of moisture which clung to ceilings and door lintels near the entrance; the translucent beads catching torchlight and reflecting it back like a hundred tiny prisms.
In another room the roots of some vine or creeper had managed to find their way down into the darkness of the bunker. Several clusters erupted from the flaking walls like acne, fanning out into an intricate pattern of blind, groping tendrils.
Meanwhile, fine black pellets lay in drifting mounds along some of the main corridors. On closer inspection it appeared to be rat poison. I’m not sure which notion seems the more unlikely; that rats would find any reason to live in these bare and lifeless tunnels on the outskirts of the city, or rather, that anyone should care enough to try and prevent them.
Reflections on the Labyrinth
Dusk was falling by the time we left the bunker. I had waited a long time to find a way inside this concrete burrow, and it took me a while to make sense of my feelings on finally exploring it.
I suppose a small part of me had been disappointed – perhaps I was secretly dreaming of stumbling across a clandestine command centre, dust settling heavy on control panels and gaudy communist posters hanging from the walls. Instead we found a network of bland concrete tunnels and stripped down boiler rooms, half-looted and graffitied by dare-devil children.
The more I thought about it though, the harder it was to get my head around the sheer enormity of this subterranean maze. While we were down there I found it difficult to keep track of each individual turning we passed, and there were numerous openings, alcoves and passages that we no doubt missed out while navigating our way around.
It is also worth bearing in mind that this whole expedition served only as an extension to my previous report; in total, I have now spent three days exploring the intricate structure of the monument above ground, the series of abandoned shops and offices built inside the artificial mound it stands upon, and now, a large complex of tunnels hidden deep in the earth beneath.
One can’t help but wonder what other mysteries lie hidden beneath the soil, particularly in countries such as Bulgaria which have experienced such radical and relatively recent changes in regime. Who knows how many concrete structures are now left to rot – namelessly – under the fields and forests of Eastern Europe?