In preparation for my trip to Bucharest, I spent a bit of time surfing the web - trying to get a feel for the city's atmosphere, architecture and abandonments. I came across Locuri Uitate. The site is run by Peppy, whose extensive experience of urban exploration in Romania has allowed him to sample and report on an impressive cross section of the city's secret places.
I got in touch, and Peppy was delighted to meet up and give me a tour of his city; starting with one of his own favourites sites, the abandoned subterranean stronghold known as the Leordeni Fortress.
The Fortifications of Bucharest
The Leordeni Fort No. 10 (or 'Leurdeni 10 Fort') was a part of the much larger Fortifications of Bucharest.
In the late nineteenth century, Romania's King Carol began drafting plans for the defence of Bucharest.* Neighbouring Bulgaria had only just declared its independence from Ottoman rule in 1978, with the help of Russian and Romanian troops marching south after Romania's own War of Independence.
Meanwhile, to the northwest the Austro-Hungarian Empire continued to cast an imposing shadow across Romanian soil.
The Fortifications of Bucharest were designed by a celebrated Belgian military architect named Henri Alexis Brialmont; construction began in 1884 on a ring of 18 forts, spaced roughly 4km apart. At a distance of around 12km from the residential areas of the city, this defensive wall sufficed to keep contemporary field artillery out of firing range.
The 18 forts were divided by the Dambovita River.** The project took more than twenty years to complete, and cost a total of 111.5 million Gold Lei - a sum three times greater than the army's annual budget.
The rewards were not to be enjoyed for long, however. The twentieth century saw radical new advances in military engineering; the threat of aerial bombardment, improved long range artillery and new, devastating explosives soon rendered these classical fortifications obsolete.
The 1914 Battle of Liège was a warning sign for the Romanians, as another of Brialmont's forts fell swiftly beneath German boots. By the time Bucharest was taken in 1916, the fortifications had already been stripped and abandoned.
Almost all of the forts fell into disrepair after this point. The Chiajna 18 Fort was reportedly in use as a food market during the Communist era, while the stronghold at Jilava served as a place of detention and execution for political prisoners under Ceaușescu's party. Even today, Jilava remains a notorious penitentiary.
Meanwhile, the other strongholds declined gradually into worse and worse shape; stripped of artillery and stores, their once fortified battements slowly giving way to the inevitable onset of nature. Such was the state of the site I visited, the tenth, or Leordeni Fortress.
Leordeni Fort № 10
Meeting beside Bucharest's picturesque Cişmigiu Gardens, Peppy and myself travelled first by metro, and then by minibus to reach our destination - a village to the southeast of the city centre. From there we followed the train tracks.
During their heyday all 18 forts had been connected by both road and rail, and the route forms the basis of the new Bucharest ring road. We walked along these dilapidated lines dodging stray dogs, past gypsies on horse-drawn carts, to reach the broken remains of a military barrack.
There were a cluster of figures stood talking in a neighbouring factory yard, so we dashed quickly for cover inside the compound. Picking our way past the skeletal structures we soon reached the entrance to the stronghold.
Several cars parked at the otherwise abandoned location made us uncomfortable at first, and it turned out we were not the only visitors to the Leordeni Fort this afternoon; a group of young Romanians had picked the site for an airsoft battle, and so Peppy and myself spent much of the afternoon dodging plastic pellets as the combatants stalked each other through the tunnels around us.
The walls of Leordeni are as much as two metres thick in places.
Some of these forts are still occupied by the military, in particular those southwest of Bucharest. They're used nowadays as ammo stores or firing ranges, and it's easy to see why; the majority of Leordeni, by way of an example, is buried beneath the earth and accesible only through a handful of stone doors around its circumference. Between the fortresses were arranged a series of subterranean batteries, many now all but forgotten.
After stepping into the entrance chamber we made our way along a series of arcades, large stone windows pouring thick beams of dusty light.
The passages fanned out from here into a grid, path after path leading further into the dark, subterranean regions of the fort.
Some of these passages culminated in dead ends, others opened onto large chambers and vaults. Two separate corridors fed into the same circular area, a crumbling brickwork chimney open to the sky above.
Another turning had been long since bricked up, a makeshift barrier which itself had begun to collapse over time. Climbing through the broken brickwork, we carefully made our way down the steps to Leordeni's lower levels.
There was no light in the labyrinthine tunnels beneath Leordeni. The broad stone chambers here would have served as barracks or ammo dumps, secured deep beneath the earth. None of the airsofters had ventured this far from the bright open corridors near the entrance, and the stale air was heavy and still.
At the far end we reached another flight of stairs, this set leading up and into a new area of the fort. We stepped out of the stairwell, and into a long, straight corridor; here a row of portholes shot bright white circles onto the opposing walls, a series of spotlights arranged with the rank and file of a military parade.
This semi-lit corridor took us to a defensive position. Past the brick entrance a rough, low-ceilinged passage led upwards, and into a circular chamber mounted with an iron-plated turret. Here at least the air moved, and the walls were thick with the fur of age-old cobwebs. Even on the passage walls life had taken root, erupting in a thick hide of mould that shone powderblue in the pale autumn sun.
After the turret chamber we entered a stone cavern with a gun position mounted in its outer wall; no more than a metal-lined slot in the brickwork, set in with a rusted iron gun mount.
We headed back by a different route, exploring some of the stores and housings above ground level. In places the floor had fallen away, creating a series of platforms balanced on the wooden beams beneath doorways. Navigating the area made for an enjoyable challenge, and with its numerous obstacles and multiple levels I could imagine this site making a great destination for parkour enthusiasts...
Following the fort's circumference we came within range of the airsoft battle. Peppy caught a bullet from a sniper outside, and for a moment I was able to imagine this fortress as it was in life.
Near the main entrance, we found a map of the stronghold chalked onto a brick wall. We were able to trace the clockwise route that had led us from the city-side entrance to the lower levels, and then through the defensive positions pointed south towards the Ottomans.
We left the Leordeni Fort by the same way we arrived - back along the train tracks to wait for a bus in the nearby village. It had been an afternoon well spent, and this historic site felt all the more significant for the high standard of preservation within; while the stronghold may have been stripped of its teeth, it nevertheless remains untouched by litter and graffiti.
One down, seventeen to go.
*For a more thorough look at the history of the Fortifications of Bucharest, I would recommend reading the fascinating report on Bulgarian Artillery.
**The forts of Chitila, Mogosoaia, Otopeni, Tunari, Stefanesti, Afumati, Pantelimon, Cernica and Catelu lay on the left bank; arranged on the right were Leordeni, Popesti, Berceni, Jilava, Broscarie, Magurele, Bragadiru, Domnesti and Chiajna.