Friday, 25 January 2013

Dark Tourism: Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

Located 80km north of Bangkok, the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya sits on an island at the confluence of the Lopburi River, the Chao Phraya River and the Pa Sak River. Nowadays it's little more than a sleepy market town, while Ayutthaya's many ruined temples and palaces are some of the most enduring icons of Thai Buddhism.

However, a darker current lies beneath the surface of this picture-postcard destination. In 1767 the Burmese invaded Siam, leading to the ruthless sacking of Ayutthaya. The ensuing massacre reduced many of the city’s temples to rubble, and a tour of these breathtaking monuments reveals a hidden history of cruelty and persecution.


The Fall of Siam

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya existed from 1350 to 1767, located in the heart of Thailand... or as it was known at the time, 'Siam'. This was the precursor to the current monarchy of Thailand, and after four centuries of rule it was finally brought to a violent end during the Burmese–Siamese War of 1765–67.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

As the Burmese swept east across Siam, the capital of Ayutthaya came under siege for the second time in 200 years. Whereas the Kingdom of Ayutthaya survived the 16th century Burmese invasion however, this time the city fell - and at sunset on April 7th 1767, the Burmese finally made it over the city walls.

In the chaotic massacre which followed, starving inhabitants of the city were slaughtered on site, while every building was set alight.

I visited this ancient city with a couple of travel buddies I had picked up in Bangkok. While a day tour of Ayutthaya costs somewhere in the region of 1,000 Baht (about £20) from most Bangkok travel agents, we opted instead for a local train service – paying the equivalent of just a few pounds for the two-hour journey.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

The temples (or ‘wats’) of Ayutthaya range from bustling centres for prayer and worship, through to sacred, rocky ruins. With a huge number of holy sites scattered around the town and surrounding area, exploring them on foot would make for a monumentous task.

We caught a pedestrian ferry from just opposite the train station, crossing the river towards the historic heart of Ayutthaya. Here we stumbled across a bustling market full of spices, meat and fine fabrics. Flies buzzed noisily around a stack of severed pig heads on nearby stall, while solitary rats stalked the blood-stained gutters.

Outside the market we caught the eye of a waiting tuk-tuk driver. After some negotiations, we agreed on a rate of 750 Baht for a day’s tour; at 250 Baht each – about a fiver – we probably should have angled for less. Our driver proved an invaluable asset however, and spent an entire day driving us around the town of Ayutthaya while sharing his wealth of local knowledge.


Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

Our first stop was at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol; or as it is sometimes known, ‘Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon’. Located southeast of Ayutthaya across the Pridithamrong Bridge, this living wat is a popular destination for both tourists and worshippers alike.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

The wat is centred around one vast stupa (or ‘chedi'), which towers over the skyline for miles around.

Arranged around the stupa lay ornate, green gardens, populated by tropical birds and white stone buddhas. Some of these likenesses stood in line to receive a blessing, others sat in solitary mediation. Around the central stupa the buddhas fanned out in long rows of near identical figures; though closer inspection revealed subtle variations in posture and facial expression.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkol was built in the year 1357, by the first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya - King Uthong. The site was dedicated to the monks of the Pa Kaeo Sect, recently returned from Ceylon where they had been studying under the influential Buhddist teacher Phra Vanarat Maha Thera. The monastery which was born here took its name from them: 'Wat Pa Kaeo'.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

In time the head of the sect was raised by King Uthong to the position of 'Patriarch on the Right Hand Side'... and so the monastery soon became 'The Temple of the Supreme Patriarch', or 'Wat Phra Chao Phya-thai'.

When the first Burmese invasion force arrived at Ayutthaya in 1592, reigning monarch King Naresuan the Great fought valiantly to defend the city; according to the story, the king rode out on elephant back to meet the Burmese leader in single combat. The chedi at Wat Phra Chao Phya-thai was raised in memory of his victory.

Although the grand chedi at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol is held sacred by the monks who still live and worship here, visitors are permitted to enter during the day.

The steep ascent up stone steps cut into the side of the stupa was made all the more challenging by the sweltering Thai sun - but was rewarded with a cool, serene prayer chamber set inside the spire, its walls lined with golden figures of the Buddha in smiling contemplation.


Wat Phanan Choeng

Not far from Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, we came across another active temple; this time at Wat Phra Chao Phanan Choeng.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

Unlike the monastery of Wat Phra Chao Phya-thai, the temple here – sometimes simply referred to as ‘Wat Phanan Choeng’ – appeared to serve Buddhists from all walks of life.

Sat right on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, this wat was allegedly built in the year 1324 - 26 years before the founding of Ayutthaya itself. Later, in 1407, the temple was mentioned by the Chinese Muslim historian, Zheng He.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

As we headed inside the main buiding, even our tuk-tuk driver stopped to pay homage to a flower-strewn figure of Ganesha.* The main focal point of Wat Phanan Choeng however, is one of the largest Buddha figures to be found anywhere in Thailand.

Reaching a height of 19 metres, the reclining titan known as 'Luang Pho Tho' is housed within a specially constructed building. As we approached the Buddha’s chamber, we found it full of Thai children. The Buddha’s orange sash seemed to fray into a dozen separate strands of silk. The children sat crowded around the Buddha's feet, wrapping themselves up in the long strips of sacred cloth, or hiding beneath it as a part of some ceremony.

It is said of this Buddha that when the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, "tears flowed from the sacred eyes to the sacred navel".


Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Our next stop would take us to the former site of the Royal Palace, and the most magnificent of Ayutthaya’s ghost temples.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet is now surrounded by the Ayutthaya Historical Park. Here visitors can take a ride on an elephant, or watch a monkey show; there are shops and restaurants located in one large covered market, while the picturesque streams that criss-cross the park are populated by prehistoric-looking monitor lizards - which can grow to as much as two metres in length.

The construction of Wat Phra Si Sanphet took place during Ayutthaya’s 'middle period', at the behest of 15th century King Trailok. This wat is distinguished by a series of three immense, grey stone chedis. These were joined in 1499 with a Viharn built by King Rama Thibodi II, designed to contain a vast Buddha plated with roughly 200 kilos of solid gold. This figure was named 'Phra Si Sanphet', from which the title Wat Phra Si Sanphet is derived.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

The chedis stand to this day; the Viharn was destroyed by the Burmese however, and its precious custodian stolen away.**

Visitors at Wat Phra Si Sanphet are given free range to explore the ruins, presided over by the three grand chedis. Broken colonnades tail off into the dust, while here and there amongst the foliage you’ll find half-formed courtyards and mutilated figures of the Buddha. The site is curated by local monks, and even the headless effigies are lovingly adorned in orange silk sashes.

This wat is a popular destination for both foreign tourism and Buddhist pilgrimages... as was apparent from the group of robed monks, who stood posing for photos in front of the ruins. The three chedis themselves are believed to contain the relics and ashes of Ayutthaya’s greatest rulers: King Trailok, King Borom Ratchathirat III and King Rama Thibodi II.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

A series of steps leads up to each of these stupas. The entrance to the first was sealed with bricks, while the second opened into a simple stone chamber. Here, peering into the gloom, I found a large bat nestled into the apex of a brickwork arch.

When I came to look at the third stupa I discovered a shallow passage, bricked in on all sides. A plastic-wrapped package left on the earthen floor contained the freshly laundered orange robes of a Buddhist monk. As for how it came to be discarded inside this holy ruin, your guess is as good as mine.

At the back of this chamber, part of the brickwork had weathered away to leave a narrow gap though the wall into the tomb’s darkened interior. My curiosity was aroused, and so I squeezed myself through the rough hole; falling face-first into the narrow space beyond. Here a small passage veered first to the right, before correcting its aim towards the centre of the chedi. I wriggled through the tiny space on my elbows and knees... at times wondering what I was doing, but more often wondering what I would find.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

I would know soon enough.

The passage opened up suddenly around me, into a high, hollow chamber right at the chedi’s core. It was pitch dark inside, though there was a freshness to the air. And, as I listened, I became aware of a noise.

The sound was hard to place; a faint crackle and hum that seemed to come at me from all directions. Then I recognised the distinctive, throaty chirruping of bats. I reached for my phone’s LED torch, and my heart skipped a beat as I found myself surrounded by a frantic whirlwind of leather wings.


Wat Phra Mahathat

Still high on adrenaline from my experience in the batcave, we made it to the last stop on our Ayutthaya tour: the 14th century Wat Phra Mahathat.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat is characterised by its rich, red brickwork set through with traces of black and brown. The central structure resembles the cubist form of a Mayan pyramid, although little now remains of this once-glorious place of worship; of all the temples of Ayutthaya, this site was amongst the worst casualties of the Burmese invasion.

By the time we arrived, storm clouds were gathering... just five minutes later the skies opened up and the monsoon hit us.

I discovered during this trip that I’m actually a huge fan of Thailand’s monsoons. The rain usually falls for between 10 minutes to an hour each day, and it comes down warm and hard. It’s a feeling not dissimilar to a modern power-shower. Almost invariably the storm is followed by bright, hot sunshine, drying clothes in a matter of minutes.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

And so we explored Wat Phra Mahathat at our leisure – oblivious to the raging storm, and the other visitors who were busy sprinting for the cover of trees.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Wat Phra Mahathat is the abundance of broken Buddhas on display. The Burmese were thorough in their destructive efforts, and the many sacred figures were smashed into countless smaller pieces. In the aftermath of the invasion the monks attempted to repair the damage – hunting through piles of broken faces, severed hands and dismembered stone torsos for parts that matched.

Dark Tourism | Temples of Ayutthaya, Thailand

The results leave much to be desired; but Wat Phra Mahathat’s row upon row of Frankenstein Buddhas nevertheless speak volumes about the dedication and perseverance of these monks. It’s hard not to find oneself in awe of such labours... but at the same time, these mutilated bodies present an all-too-vivid metaphor for the true horrors of the massacre that befell here.

One last, lingering image is to be found in a shaded corner of the temple grounds. Here the decapitated stone head of a Buddha has fallen amongst the roots of a tree – and over the course of several hundred years, has become absorbed into the wooden tangle.

Now the Buddha peers out from the tree itself, watching with a knowing smile as nature begins to reclaim the ghosts of ancient Siam.


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*While Ganesha is a figure traditionally associated with the Hindu pantheon, many such gods have been adopted into the practice of Thai Buddhism over the years.

**In the years since the Burmese invasion, some parts of the golden Buddha image have been restored; they are now on display at Bangkok’s Wat Pho.

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Monday, 14 January 2013

Urbex FAIL: The Forbidden Undercity, China

Official figures suggest that as many as 8 million visitors flock to Beijing's Forbidden City each year. The majority of these visitors are unaware of another city right beneath their feet, however; and unlike the thriving tourist hotspot above, this one is truly forbidden. The vast, disused complex known as the Beijing Underground City was designed to accommodate 6 million people in case of nuclear attack, and public entry is strictly prohibited.

How could I resist?


Beijing Underground City

The Beijing Underground City, or Dixia Cheng, dates back to a plan first laid in 1969. During the time of the Sino-Soviet conflict, Chairman Mao was looking for ways to defend China against a potential Soviet attack. One of the solutions was a complex of bomb shelters. Dug 10 metres beneath the ground, the shelters featured a series of concrete doors, water-proof hatches and ventilation systems, able to protect against everything from floods to radioactive fallout.

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City

Work began in earnest in the early 1970s. The tunnels were dug out mostly by hand, and as many as 300,000 of the city's inhabitants were involved in the project.

Covering a total area in excess of 85 square km, the complex had space and facilities for 40% of Beijing's population. In the event of an attack, the remaining 60% would be able to flee through tunnels leading into the Western Hills.* By the time of its completion the Chinese government intended to be able to provide permanent subterranean shelter for all 6 million inhabitants of Beijing.

The photo on the right comes from China.org, where it featured in an article dated April 2005. Located on the quiet outskirts of the Qianmen district, this shop front led to a portion of the tunnels approved for tourists. Opened in the year 2000, tour groups would be taken down into the subterranean passages and shown examples of soldiers' quarters, store rooms, infirmaries and meeting halls.

Unfortunately though, this visible portion of the Undercity was closed in February 2008 for renovation... and hasn't yet been reopened.

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City, Forbidden Undercity, China

I was exploring Beijing with a friend, and we decided to try and find our way down to the Underground City; neither of us had been in the country long at this point, and it sounded like a perfect introduction to urban exploration in China. The former public entrance seemed a good place to start, and so we headed to the address along West Damochang Street, Qianmen.

The long street led us further and further from the bustling metro station at Qianmen, following a rough map I had drawn up from my research. It was soon clear that we were beyond the usual tourist zones; old men playing mah jong in the street would look up as we passed, eyeing us with suspicion. Almost half an hour down this narrow alley, we finally found the address.

Other than the number '62' scrawled on a nearby wall, there was little to tell us what the building had once been. The heavy wooden doors facing onto the street were locked shut, and so we sauntered around to the courtyard at the side of the property, to see if we could find an alternative point of entry.

Here an old man sat in a broken plastic chair propped against the wall, smoking a clay pipe as he watched us with interest. We were peeking through a barred window at a staircase descending into darkness, when the man spoke.

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City, Forbidden Undercity, China

"Close," he said.

I had been preparing for this moment... and so I whipped out my phrasebook, and asked him, "当打开?"

While Chinese pictograms are actually much easier to learn and recognise than one might imagine, their pronunciation is not always kind on Western tongues. I fumbled the noises out, and the old man looked at me blankly.

"Close," he said again, this time accompanying the word with a gesture of arms crossed vigorously in front of his chest. As if to further illustrate the point, he waved towards a pile of rubbish in the corner of the courtyard. There behind black bags of household waste, the old museum sign was leant up against the wall.

"Close," he repeated, a note of triumph creeping into his voice. We tried offering him money for a look inside, showing him a wad of cash equal to a week's salary by basic Chinese standards. The man only chuckled in dismissal, and repeated his one English word.


Qianmen Markets

There are believed to be perhaps 90 entrances to the Dixia Cheng Undercity still in existence, although many have been put to other uses since. In Wangfujing an air raid shelter now serves as a youth hostel; the tunnels at Chongwen and Xuanwu have been converted to deep, cavernous theatres. Some of the other entrances lie hidden beneath factories and warehouses, markets, restaurants and schools.

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City, Forbidden Undercity, China

The next address on my list was at Dazhalan Jie, Qianmen. This busy commercial district not far south of Tiananmen Square was a chaotic mess of shoppers and tourists, rickshaws and con artists.

Picking our way through noisy markets, and turning down offers of art shows and traditional tea ceremonies, we made our way to the address. It took us to an indoor supermarket, a cavernous hanger filled with stalls of books, clothes and perfume.

Walking the circumference of the market stalls, it didn't seem as though we had found the right place - until we spotted a flight of unlit steps in a corner near the entrance, leading down to a lower level. We discretely made our way towards the basement stairs, browsing through stalls until we were close enough to make out a sign which read: "Air defence basement".

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City, Forbidden Undercity, China

Waiting for a crowd of shoppers to pass between us and the kiosk, we made a dash for it.

The stairs took us down into something between an office and an antique shop. Two Chinese women were sat working at desks amidst cabinets full of aged documents - many of which had price tags attached. We tried (and failed) to blend in and look natural.

We explored both basement rooms before settling on a large, metal-plated door set into a wall and heavily chained. Both clerks had been watching us attentively all this time, so we asked them about it.

I couldn't tell you exactly what they said to us, but the general meaning was clear enough. Reaching for a wallet made the women angry and uncomfortable, and so we apologised and left.


The Carpet Factory

The first two addresses had got us nowhere, but I still had one more to try. We would need to leave the Qianmen district this time, heading towards nearby Chongwen. I had read reports about a carpet factory on Xingfu Dajie, which often used to feature as the final stop on a tour of the Undercity.

We hailed a rickshaw near Qianmen Metro, and gave the driver the address. He agreed a price of 20 Yuan upfront - it was steep by Chinese standards, but at just £1 each for the two of us we didn't mind. At some point during the journey the price doubled however, and when we arrived on the street the driver told us the figure had been a quote per person. We knew we were being conned, but as the argument had attracted the attention of a handful of other rickshaws parked nearby, we decided to cut our losses and leave.

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City, Forbidden Undercity, China

The address seemed to take us to a theatre this time. The show was about to start, and so we milled in with the crowd wandering towards the foyer. On either side of the entrance, steep flights of stairs led down to a lower level - but these were sealed behind chained glass doors.

Instead we made our way around the outside of the theatre, squeezing past a crowd of men in tight lycra and makeup who stood smoking cigarettes outside the stage door.

Our search proved fruitless, but as we were leaving we spotted the factory sign outside a neighbouring plot. The site had been bulldozed. Nothing remained of the factory, other than the tiles and wallpaper which still clung to the outer walls. Searching the rubble for some kind of tunnel entrance I found a broken wooden door covering a manhole, weighed down with rocks and stones; on inspection though, the only thing it hid was a shallow sewer.


Mission Failed

Our attempts to enter the Beijing Underground City ended in failure, but you can see a selection of photos from inside Dixia Cheng here.

Urbex FAIL, Urban Exploration | Beijing Underground City, Forbidden Undercity, China

I learned later that the citizens of Beijing are strictly forbidden from inviting outsiders into the tunnels; although documentary footage available on the Internet shows some portions of the complex being used to store factory goods, or rear chickens. In other spots the dark, humid conditions - and a constant temperature of 27 degrees Celsius - create the perfect environment for the cultivation of mushrooms.

Entrances to the Underground City were placed close to residential areas, schools and workplaces, and even now the shelters are regularly checked and maintained by city officials. Unless you have a local contact willing to take a risk for you however, it seems the only way you're going to get in is by breaking into random houses to inspect the cellar; fist-fighting unarmed women in a department store basement; or by offering a large incentive to someone very important.


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*Some reports say the tunnels go further, even as far as the port at Tianjin.



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Saturday, 12 January 2013

Urban Exploration: Leordeni Fort № 10, Romania

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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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 1878, 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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | Bucharest Stronghold, Romania

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.


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*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.

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