Laguna Vere in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the premier aquatic sports centre in the Caucasus.
Located on the city’s outskirts, the furniture factory known as “Sava Ganchev” (Сава Ганчев) has stood deserted for almost two decades. It doesn’t seem like much from the main road – a few broken windows and boarded-up doors in a narrow facade, now overgrown with brambles and vegetation. However, this sprawling manufacturing plant is deceptively large; and its workshops, halls and tunnels would prove to conceal a number of surprises.
Having first spotted the gloomy factory entrance from the window of a taxi, I returned later on foot for a better look. I visited the site with a friend – a local explorer and filmmaker. He had been inside the Sava Ganchev factory once before, but his previous visit had been cut short, he told me, when he had been forced to hide from a mentally unhinged vagrant inside a room full of discarded gasmasks.
The Sava Ganchev factory was abandoned after a fire caused serious damage to the building’s interior. Before that though, this had been a thriving hub of local manufacturing. It was owned by the company ‘Lazur’; often appearing as ‘Мебелна Палата лазур’, the Bulgarian for ‘Azure Furniture Hall’. The Sava Ganchev plant was formerly described as “the pearl in the crown of Lazur”… but while the furniture manufacturers at Lazur continue to trade, this particular facility has long since fallen into ruin.
The Furniture Hall is now devoid of furniture. The lower levels – blackened corridors and empty production floors – attest to severe fire damage; meanwhile, the spacious upper floor has become a canvas for local graffiti artists.
We entered the site through the front – squeezing past a gap in the barred perimeter fence, before dashing across an open courtyard to the corner of the main building. Here a large section of the brickwork had fallen away, and so we were quickly able to scramble inside a large, pillared chamber at the factory’s entrance.
A faded paper sign pinned to a wall here displayed the plant’s opening and closing procedures. We left this first vaulted hall by a side door, entering into a series of corridors and office rooms strewn with debris. While some of the refuse piled inside the factory had presumably remained here after the plant was closed (wooden offcuts, broken doors and sack upon sack of plastic furniture casters), other items seemed to have been imported more recently.
Black rubbish bags had been split apart, their contents methodically sorted into piles. We found a mountain of old shoes, rows of empty plastic bottles, and glass jars arranged on shelves and window sills.
In Bulgarian cities it is relatively normal to see people rooting through rubbish bins and skips – gypsies or homeless people, raiding other people’s waste for things that could be eaten, sold, or used in some other way. It would appear that such vagrants had made a home inside the Sava Ganchev building; dragging entire sacks of refuse back to their hideout, in order to sort through the rubbish in private. It reminded me of a similar horde I had found inside an abandoned communist-era monument, where the occupant had collected a mass of discarded shoes and faulty electronic goods.
One central corridor ran the length of the factory, its end disappearing into a darkness that not even our torch beams could penetrate. We followed this for a while, exploring the various rooms and corridors leading off, until we came to a large hole in the left-hand wall.
Here a lower passage ran parallel to the first, dug lower into the ground, and large enough for vehicles to navigate. Unlike the main corridor, this one had no doors and so the darkness was absolute. At the far end the passage took a turn to the left, and here we were faced by a section which had long-since been flooded.
There were wooden crates and tyres scattered about the passage floor, and from these I was able to construct a series of fragile stepping stones across the water. It took a fair while to successfully complete the bridge, as many of the crates were rotten and proved to be unreliable supports. The exercise took me back to games I had played in the woods as a child.
Beyond the flooded section of the tunnel, a metal ladder ran up through the ceiling and into the sunlit warehouse above. Instead of climbing it though, we decided to finish our exploration of the ground floor – and so returned to the darkened corridor at the factory’s core.
The Sava Ganchev factory was built in a heavily communist style. In keeping with the attitudes of the time, there are frequent signs and slogans still displayed on walls and doors. Most of them are reminders to keep clean and healthy, interspersed with calendars and checklists.
While exploring a series of rooms and corridors leading off from the main thoroughfare, we stumbled across what could only have served as a bedroom. A low counter had been used as a bed, partially hidden beneath a pile of rags. Numerous plastic bottles littered the floor, and the lintel where cigarettes had recently been extinguished was clean, and free from dust.
I was cautious as I made my way onwards through the warren of staff rooms, offices, washrooms and stores. Many rooms were piled high with junk, and one contained so many empty wardrobes that it was hard to get inside. I opened the wooden doors of one wardrobe, to find the interior plastered with portraits cut from magazines. The faded paper effigies showed obscure television personalities and failed pop acts.
Somewhat more alarming, a nearby wall had been covered in images of women cut out from pornographic magazines. The largest of these Jezebels had been painstakingly dressed in a bikini bottom drawn on with a staple gun. This was followed with the addition of a muzzle, stapled over the model’s mouth and nose. The artist then went on to repeatedly stab the crotch area with a rusted nail.
A more macabre discovery was yet to come, however.
Returning to the central passageway, we headed deeper into the shadows at the rear of the factory. Just outside the last doorway on the right, a torn canvas stretcher had been abandoned in a shallow pool of water.
We wheeled around the corner to find our gazes met by several hundred rubber gasmasks.
Presumably the masks had been here to protect site workers against toxic chemicals: the glues, solvents and varnishes used in the production of furniture. They had once been stacked in boxes, but time had eaten away the cardboard… leaving the masks to tumble out into gelatinous mounds.
A handful of gasmasks sat like grim spectators arranged around a vintage television set, whilst another had been hung from an upturned stretcher; the resultant form had an almost Gigeresque quality.
It was here amidst this sea of hollow plastic eyes, that we had our one and only sighting of the factory’s security guard. The aged guard could be heard long before we could see him, as he made his way around the outer perimeter of the building. He looked as though he must have been in his late fifties, dressed in a denim jacket which had faded past blue and into grey. We ducked back behind the gasmasks, and waited for him to pass.
Finally reaching the end of the corridor, we came across a long-deceased elevator beside a flight of concrete steps. These we followed, turning back on our ourselves to enter into a spacious, airy warehouse. The white walls and grey steel girders gave a sharp, clean image to this bright space; it stood in sharp contrast to the grim and grimy dungeons below.
Several fire escapes led down to the road, while vast hanger doors opened onto the higher ground east of the factory. It was here at the back of the compound that the security guard kept his quarters in an old caravan. We were careful to walk quietly, ducking past windows.
Bright light fell heavily from broken frames above, to form long waves and scrawls across the dusty ground. Local graffiti artists had also found the site, and the whitewashed walls served as a canvas for countless colourful images; many attesting to vast artistic talents. With its hushed, almost reverential atmosphere – accompanied by the clean, open spaces afforded by the empty furniture warehouse – this part of the factory felt very much like a gallery.
We took our time, walking from room to room to admire the art on display, before leaving discretely by the same way we had entered.
Epilogue: Sava Ganchev
While it was difficult to find out more about the Sava Ganchev factory or its staff, I was nevertheless able to uncover a little information about Sava Ganchev himself.
Admiral Sava Ganchev Popov served in the Bulgarian Navy during World War II, and went on to play an important role in Bulgaria’s own fight against National Socialism.
After undertaking officer training at Varna Naval Academy, Sava Ganchev was later dismissed from the army in 1943 – when he shot two German officers during a heated argument. He fled to his hometown of Lovech, where he became involved in the Bulgarian Resistance Movement.
Here he fought alongside Hristo Karpachev, a Bulgarian poet and journalist-turned-partisan, who is remembered for his struggle against the Nazi occupation of Bulgaria. Later though, during the Winter Offensive of January 1944, Sava Ganchev was shot and wounded near Krushuna in northern Bulgaria. Surrounded by the enemy, he used his last cartridge to take his own life.
Although Сава Ганчев is well remembered by the Bulgarians, it’s near impossible to find online references to Sava Ganchev in Latin script.
It’s a melancholy end to the tale, that – even in the city where he was best loved – those monuments of industry who once proudly bore the name of Sava Ganchev are now themselves reduced to ruin.
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