Saturday, 23 February 2013

Urban Exploration: ANZAC Drain, Australia

The city of Melbourne is perhaps best known for its green parks and beaches, colourful street culture and glittering modern architecture. For many people around the world however, this bustling metropolis is famed for offering another, somewhat more niche attraction: the Melbourne drains.

Like many of the big Australian cities, Melbourne is built on top of an intricate system of storm drains designed to redirect or contain the flow of natural streams. The result is a breathtaking series of tunnels and corridors, stairwells, waterfalls and vast subterranean chambers.

I was intent on discovering this hidden world for myself... and what better place to start, than with a visit to the headquarters of the world's largest and most notorious community of urban explorers?


The Cave Clan

Founded in 1986 by a trio of Melbourne teenagers, the Cave Clan has since grown to become the world's largest organisation of urban explorers - who have charted storm drains right across Australia, in addition to natural caves, mines, old fortresses and a wealth of abandoned buildings. While members of the Clan come from all walks of life, the organisation is famously secretive.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

'The Clannies' Award Ceremony in the Chamber, by PTC on deviantart.com

I first tried to contact the Cave Clan several months ago, through their official website, but had no response. Next I attempted to sign up for an account on the Cave Clan forum, but my request failed - membership being granted by invitation only. On arriving in Australia I sent another email to the Clan's Melbourne chapter, but still to no avail.

By this stage, I was left with only one option... doing it the hard way, and finding these drains for myself. I didn't waste any time. Eager to understand more about the Cave Clan and their subterranean world, I started by seeking out their main meeting place: 'The Chamber'.


ANZAC Drain

The Cave Clan have a tradition, whereby whosoever discovers a 'new' drain has the right to name it.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

The ANZAC Drain (or the 'Prahran Main Drain' as it is known by Melbourne Water) was so named because it was discovered by the Clan on ANZAC Day; the 25th April celebration which recognises the wartime efforts of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

This drain flows out into the Yarra River, where it forms a wide tunnel opening in the shadow of a historic road bridge. Access is easy, as you step over the drainage grill and pass between two pillars - which are strangely reminiscent of ancient Egyptian architecture.

From here a large, red brick tunnel disappears back beneath the river bank. It should be noted however, that entering drains is highly illegal here; with the official fine cited at $20,000.*

The drain was built to contain a creek known as the 'Hawk's Burn' - so named by the early owners of the Hawksburn Estate, who incorporated the Scottish word 'burn', meaning a stream. The Hawksburn rises in Malvern and flows out towards the Yarra River, its even gradient guiding a course for the stretch of rail track which later followed along its bank.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

For many years the Hawksburn was an attractive local feature, and formed a focal point for the streets which sprung up on either side.

Starting in the 1870s however, the burn was gradually forced underground. As the area became increasingly urbanised, the stream proved to be problematic. It was prone to backing up and flooding, and much of the surrounding land was swampy as a result, and difficult to develop.

The decision was made in 1910 to thoroughly drain the area between Malvern and South Yarra; within five years the Main Drain was complete, and the Hawksburn disappeared from sight entirely.**

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

After the first 200m or so of red brick tunnel, reinforced concrete appears as the drain passes beneath a main road; here the tunnel rumbles from the sound of heavy traffic above. When the concrete isn't ringing with the echoes of engines, the still of the underground is punctuated by the regular chirping of crickets and constant dripping water. The walls are thick with spiderwebs, while cockroaches scuttle underfoot.

The names of clan members graffitied onto the passage walls give this place a sense of deep significance, and sets the tone as one approaches the hallowed meeting place. There were a few names I recognised... but many more that I didn't.

A little further along, a painted sign reads: "TO THE CHAMBER. 38 METRES. CC."


The Chamber

We had spotted the Chamber up ahead long before we knew what we were looking at. Natural light filters in from above, reflecting off the stream which follows a recessed path along the central gully. On either side of the brook, large, elevated platforms provide spacious seating areas.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia




















The Cave Clan officially distances itself from the act of graffiti tagging; which could seem somewhat incongruent, considering the brightly painted walls of the Chamber. However, a strong differentiation is made between decorating bland concrete, and the respect that the Clan hold for the more traditional, brick sections of these drains.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

The walls are festooned with images - ranging from personal tags and signatures (including those left by visitors from other chapters of the Cave Clan), through to full scale murals. The standard of artistry ranges as broadly as the subject material - with a few of the pieces standing out from the rest as works of considerable artistic merit.

Painted above the lintel at the Chamber's yawning entrance, a sign reads: "CAVE CLAN WELCOMES YOU TO THE CHAMBER".

The Chamber here in the ANZAC Drain serves as the venue for the Cave Clan's annual awards ceremony: 'The Clannies'. Held sometime each autumn at the end of the draining season (that's spring, to anyone north of the equator), the Clannies celebrate the best and the worst of each year's underground adventures.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

There are awards presented for the "Best First Year Explorer", "Best Drain", and the dubiously titled, "Goes Furthest Up Drains". The final award of the night is the "Gold Clannie" - a gold-painted bowling pin, awarded to the Clan member deemed to have put in the best performance of the year.

A large wall painting announces the "Clanies [sic]", while a panel above introduces the (unwitting) sponsors of the event: Commonwealth Bank, Centrelink, Victoria Police, Melbourne Water and Victoria Bitter. A wall in the far corner of the Chamber has been painted with a grid-format guestbook, to be signed by visitors; a common practice at Cave Clan sites.

While this dank and drippy subterranean space may have appeared somewhat dismal by torchlight, it doesn't take much imagination to see how it comes to life for these special occasions.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

A bag in one corner is filled with unused tealight candles, and the countless wax residues that mark shelves and lintels around the vault attest to a completely different atmosphere to that which I experienced. I've even heard stories of projectors being dragged down to this drain, to screen films on the walls of the Chamber.

From time to time the eerie silence was broken by the sound of footsteps from above. The Chamber's only source of natural light filters through a set of outdoor steps, located somewhere in a public thoroughfare; occasionally a pedestrian would pass up or down the stairs, entirely oblivious to the yawning cavern directly beneath their feet. I found it to be an effective metaphor for the Cave Clan itself - a secret subset of society, hidden in plain sight.

Beneath this voyeuristic viewport, the ANZAC Drain continues towards the source of the Hawksburn. A shallow passage disappears beneath the lights, where the central gully spills out from an enclosed tunnel. I walked a little way in to take a look.

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

Stooping beneath the low concrete ceiling, the stale-smelling water was soon washing up around my knees. The passage splits into two narrow pipes, their ends disappearing in darkness.

Judging by the thick cobwebs and relative lack of graffiti, it was clear that Clan members rarely travel further along the ANZAC Drain than the main chamber. These roach infested tunnels could only get smaller and less interesting from here, and so I decided against venturing any further.

As we finally made to leave the Chamber, I spotted a memorial high on one wall. Dedicated to the Big Drain Posse, here were painted a series of tombstones naming deceased members of the Clan. While many of the names were strangers to me, there were a few that caught my eye... such as founder of the Sydney Clan, Michael "Predator" Carlton (1971-2004) and Canadian urban exploration guru, Jeff "Ninjalicious" Chapman (1973-2005).

Urbex Urban Exploration Cave Clan Chamber ANZAC Drain Melbourne Australia

While the ANZAC Drain serves as the Cave Clan's preferred meeting place, it is only one very small part of their domain. Beneath Melbourne alone, there are more than 150 storm drains and tunnels - and many of them considerably harder to access than the Chamber. It's easy to see then, how such a city could spawn what was later to become the largest organised group of urban explorers in the world.


More Urban Exploration...


*This figure is taken from Predator's Approach to Draining, an excellent guide written by the founding member of Cave Clan's Sydney chapter.

**The information here comes from Gary Presland's The Place For A Village: How Nature Has Shaped The City Of Melbourne. Reference books such as this are an invaluable guide to discovering and understanding subterranean water systems.



READ MORE →

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Urban Exploration: Larundel Mental Asylum, Australia

On the outskirts of Melbourne, the former Larundel Mental Asylum casts a sombre shadow over the surrounding housing developments. Only a few buildings remain out of a complex which once housed hundreds of high-security patients; and with a whole repertoire of supernatural reports attached to the site, these last, gloomy wards are a popular destination for both urban explorers and paranormal investigators alike.


Larundel Mental Asylum

The last remains of the Larundel Mental Asylum currently await demolition, amidst plans for a new plot of residential developments. It was once a thriving facility however, and at its peak was able to accomodate as many as 750 patients.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia




















The initial foundations for the Larundel Hospital were laid in 1938, but the outbreak of WWII placed all plans on hold. Over the next five years the half-finished site would be put to a number of different uses; it served as a hospital for the RAAF and US military, as well as providing a training depot for WAAF operations. During the post-war years of 1946-48, the buildings were used as temporary emergency housing.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

It wasn't until 15 years after construction began, that Larundel Asylum began admitting its first psychiatric patients in 1953.

This particular site was closely tied with other contemporary facilities in the city of Melbourne; namely the Mont Park Asylum, and the Plenty Valley Repatriation Psychiatric Hospital.* During its heyday, Larundel dealt with patients suffering from acute psychiatric, psychotic and schizophrenic disorders.

As pharmaceutical treatments began to replace traditional, institutional care for psychiatric patients in the late 1990s, the Larundel Mental Asylum was one of the many Victoria mental hospitals to be closed down.

In the 15 years since closure, 550 new dwellings have sprung up in the former grounds of the asylum. A cluster of the old wards still remain, however - clinging onto memories as their final demise draws inevitably closer.


Into the Asylum

I visited this site along with a fellow travelling photographer, who I had met online. Getting inside the Larundel Asylum was easy enough - the site lies just off a main road, tucked into the corner of a residential estate. We made our way first towards the main building. From a distance, every ground floor door and window appeared to have been sealed with metal plating. Soon enough however, we spotted a bent corner on the barrier over a side door to the asylum. Waiting for a passing car to disappear out of sight, we made a dash for it, scrambling through the gap and into the stale space beyond.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

The small chamber was bare, other than a flight of stairs leading up to a higher level. The first thing to strike me was the amount of traffic this site apparently received; there were beer bottles and plastic bags strewn across the floor, while every concievable surface had been tagged in graffiti scrawls. The effect was like the aftermath of an explosion in a paint factory.

Reaching the first floor we passed through a series of dilapidated rooms, before finding ourselves in a long corridor that seemed to connect the length of the building. The asylum had seriously deteriorated over its years of disuse, and parts of the ceiling hung low enough to brush against the soiled carpets.

Watching my step carefully, I took a turn-off to investigate a long balcony that extended across the back of the building. From here it was possible to gaze out across the other buildings which constituted the site of the former hospital, and the parkland beyond them. Here are there, I was able to spot gangs of youths and the occasional dog walker - I didn't linger here though, in case they in turn had seen me.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

Back in the maze of first floor corridors, I came across a wooden cabinet laying in the middle of the passage, and trailing a long electrical cable; beneath it hid the petrified body of a large bat.

The main building of the Larundel Mental Asylum was constructed around a central courtyard, with a raised walkway running from one side to the other. The courtyard itself was heavily overgrown, its undergrowth rustling occasionally with the movement of birds, mammals or perhaps even marsupials.

I met with my fellow explorer again on the far side of the building - we had taken different routes as we scouted around the corridors which flanked the central courtyard. Here on the corner several passages fed into one large hall. An entire section of graffitied wall had fallen away, allowing a cascade of bright sunshine into the room. The juxtaposition of green treetops against these dim, musty corridors made for a striking contrast.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

For the most part, the Larundel Asylum had been entirely stripped of its furnishings: nothing remained to even hint at its former use as a psychiatric facility. A few room contained upturned bookcases or wardrobes, whilst another held the rusted remains of a boiler.

Then we found the bathroom.

Most of the graffiti around the site did little to benefit the atmosphere - the asylum serving rather as a blank canvas for would-be artists to let off steam. Here though, the painted images and words created a startling effect. High above the earth-filled bathtub, the words "Help me" were daubed in red paint; to one side, what appeared to be a figure in a straightjacket was wrapped in the embrace of some kind of demon. Even the mess of tags and scribbles that filled the other walls seemed to add to the general malaise of chaos and insanity.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

"Jump in me," invited a laundry chute on the next corridor. I declined, after peering inside the vent and shining a torch towards the basement level two floors beneath.

We headed down to the ground floor next by way of a large double stair. This opened onto a concrete path, cutting from one side of the courtyard to the other. Careful to avoid the dense undergrowth and its mystery inhabitants, we made back towards our initial point of entry; this time to make the same circuit at ground level.

In the corner of the building we found a large foyer area, where a capsized vending machine had been beaten apart to expose its cargo of decade-old soft drinks. One door led off to a side chamber, open to the sky, an entrancing mural of two lifelike eyes painted onto its far wall.

From here a corridor led off to the right, following the circumference of the building in a counter-clockwise manner. Various cells in this section featured just a narrow observation window at the top of the door; with a slot at the bottom large enough to pass through a tray of food.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

The decay here was the worst we had yet seen. A fire had left walls and ceilings blackened, while molten light fittings hung from the ceilings like the dirty fruit of some dark, blasphemous tree.

In some parts of the corridor, the fire had burnt through the carpet and the wooden floorboards beneath; exposing blackened beams and basements.

I took a look through one of the larger holes. Tempted as I was to climb down and investigate, there seemed to be no easy way back out... besides, the empty space beneath the asylum was no more than bland brick walls and pillars.

By the time we made it back out of the main asylum building, it was already dark. We crossed the road by streetlight, and headed towards the next.


Exploring the Compound

In the increasing darkness, it was almost hard to tell which buildings were part of the asylum - and which constituted the surrounding residences. It's strange to see a sprawling abandoned site in such harmony with its surroundings. Joggers and dog walkers follow the paths formerly reserved for inmates, while the buildings themselves have become play areas for daredevil youths from the estate.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

Our second building stood next to a smart suburban bungalow, and so we had to be discrete as we slipped in through the open door at the side.

Something stirred as we passed under the lintel. A lithe, furry creature lept from a first floor windowsill, disappearing inside the building. Its eyes caught the light as it moved, and in any other place I would have said it was a small cat. Here though, it could just as easily have been a possum.

We soon discovered that this second, smaller building was not as exciting as the first. The vandalism was more severe here, and the first floor hall we soon found ourselves in was almost completely obscured beneath broken fragments of its own ceiling. A large stairwell descended on the opposite side, where a floor-to-ceiling art deco window opened onto the purple sky beyond. While the top of the window remained intact, every pane of glass within reach of the stairs had been smashed; their remains jutted out from the frame like broken teeth in a square mouth.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

The third building proved more interesting. We had to pass a wilted perimeter fence to reach this long, one-storey structure - although the asylum was so easily accessible, that by now it was hard to tell whether we were entering or leaving the restricted area.

Here we split up, and took different routes through the building. The entrance to the main foyer was covered with a thick wire mesh; scouting along the veranda though, I soon found access through the broken wooden panels of a back door.

This building seemed to have served as an administrative centre for Larundel Mental Asylum. A series of office-sized rooms were clustered around the first hallway, in one of which I discovered a rusted old safe. After this came a large hall divided into wooden boothes. These had originally been screened with a row of curtains, but now the pole itself lay trailing cloth on the dusty carpet.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

It was here that I found my first venomous spider, building its web across the gap between two wooden pillars.

The Australian black house spider (Badumna insignis) isn't considered particularly dangerous... but it's a giant compared to the majority of spiders back home in England. Supposedly its bite is liable to be "excruciatingly painful and cause local swelling," while possible symptoms include "nausea, vomiting, sweating and giddiness". I decided to give it a wide berth.

I ran into my accomplice in the room next door, where a lone chair stood sentry over the junction between two corridors. We returned around the other side of the building, past a boiler room and out into the night. Stepping over the trailing security fence we headed back to the main road, and waited for a tram to the city.


The Ghosts of Larundel Asylum

At the time of my visit to the Larundel Mental Asylum, I was naïve to many of the stories attached to it. It was only when I later researched the history of the site, that I began stumbling across mentions of the asylum at Bundoora, scattered across a range of websites dedicated to ghosts and paranormal investigation.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

In the fifteen years or so since the asylum closed its doors, it seems that many visitors have reported strange phenomena inside this increasingly dilapidated building. The most common accounts refer to loud crashes and banging sounds coming through the walls, as well as strange smells and even the sound of children or babies crying.

The Larundel Asylum certainly is a noisy place. Situated on the edge of a park, the buildings are often hit by strong gusts of wind. The metal sheets riveted over every ground floor window and door have a habit of rattling and groaning - often with unsettling results.

There were numerous moments during my exploration of the asylum, that I almost became convinced we were not alone in the building. The voices and occasional laughter from passing pedestrians have a habit of getting caught inside the walls, their echoes bouncing down the still corridors. My concerns, however, were primarily related to site security or police; the possibility of a supernatural presence didn't even cross my mind.

Much of the graffiti around the asylum seems to be aimed at perpetuating this sense of paranormal unease. Phrases like, "save yourselves" or "I can hear them through the walls" appear everywhere, usually painted in neat, joined-up handwriting.

The Bohemian Blog | Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Mental Asylum, Bundoora, Melbourne, Australia

The most prevailing myth linked to Melbourne's Larundel Asylum however, tells the story of a young girl who died on the third floor. This girl used to play with a music box, so the story goes, and apparently now you can sometimes hear it playing in the asylum at night. I even found a Youtube video which seems to have captured the thin strains of distant music within the Larundel Mental Asylum.

I always appreciate a good story, and would be the first in line for an up-close experience of the supernatural kind... but I feel my own sentiments can be summed up with a quote from Ninjalicious - taken from his seminal book, Access All Areas:

"I'm not suggesting that you actively refuse to believe in anything supernatural, merely that you take an agnostic approach and don't believe it til you see it. There's no real down side to doing this, since ghosts, unlike gods, aren't known for punishing people for their lack of faith."


More Urban Exploration...


*I investigated both of these sites, but sadly they are no more; the remains of the Mont Park Asylum have been turned into student housing for La Trobe University, while the Plenty Valley Repatriation Psychiatric Hospital is now an art gallery.



READ MORE →

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Editorial: February

Here's your monthly dose of link recommendations... along with news on forthcoming reports and current (mis)adventures.


Link Roundup

This month I've gathered another selection of things that have tickled my fancy of late; including the fascinating Cypriot ghost town at Varosha, a ruined Pepsi bottling plant and a Tuscan insane asylum! Enjoy.

The Creepiest Places on Earth
Cracked.com

Tuscany's Asylum for the Criminally Insane
Environmental Graffiti

Abandoned Pepsi Factory in Cambodia
Visboo

Mediterranean Ghost Town, Cyprus
Sometimes Interesting

Bombed-Out Church Re-imagined as Peaceful Urban Garden
Urban Ghosts

Urban Ghosts | Bombed-Out Church Re-imagined as Peaceful Urban Garden
























This Month

Right now I'm in Melbourne, Australia. It's my first visit to this continent, and the journey here was an adventure in itself... commencing with a nine-hour coach journey to Istanbul, and 'complications' at the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

The Bohemian Blog | Istanbul, Turkey

After an intense weekend immersion in Turkish culture (backgammon, tea, hookah, Islamic holy sites, tea, museums, music, cemeteries and tea), I managed to traverse three continents in 24 hours - finally arriving in Melbourne via a stopover at Singapore.

Travelling from a Bulgarian Winter straight into Australian summertime resulted in a temperature jump of almost 50 degrees, which only served to further confound my state of desynchronosis. As it turns out though, Melbourne is awesome - and arriving just in time for Australia Day, I was greeted with a heavy week of tennis, festivals and barbecues.

So far I've already managed to check out a number of interesting sites around the area - including an abandoned brewery, a brick factory, Old Melbourne Gaol and some massive storm drains. Tomorrow I plan to retrace the mysterious disappearances that formed the basis of a cult 1960s novel, as I head into the Outback for a Picnic at Hanging Rock.

You can expect reports on all of these soon...


Weird World

Regular visitors to The Bohemian Blog might already have spotted the appearance of a new subpage entitled Weird World.

Weird World | The Stone Forest, Bulgaria

This is basically a repository for all those posts which didn't quite fit under the heading of Urban Exploration, weren't exactly dark enough to be filed as Dark Tourism, and yet still screamed out as being worthy of a mention on this site.

So far this list includes Bulgaria's stone forest (pictured here), the ancient Korean city of Kaesong and Kazakhstan's Illuminati capital.

Watch this space, as I've got a few real gems that I'll be adding to this page over the coming months.


One Hundred Thousand Hits!

Just a few weeks after celebrating its first birthday, The Bohemian Blog also hit the big 100,000 visitors mark. Having created the blog on a whim and then (initially) updated it only sporadically at best, this is clearly quite an exciting statistic.

So, thanks for reading! Keep sharing, liking, tweeting... and I guess the next big target is the 1,000,000 mark.


Urban Exploration | Urbex | Larundel Asylum for Girls, Bundoora, Melbourne

Coming Up Next

I'm going to kick off now with the first of my reports from Down Under. It's also my first taster of urban exploration in Australia, and a particularly atmospheric one at that - a visit to the Larundel Mental Asylum located on the outskirts of Melbourne.












READ MORE →

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Urban Exploration: The Furniture Hall, Bulgaria

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

Black rubbish bags had been split apart, their contents methodically sorted into piles. We found a mountain of old shoes, rows of empty pastic 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 - these are usually 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 Soviet 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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев












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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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 the revered 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.

Urban Exploration | Sava Ganchev Furniture Hall, Varna, Bulgaria | Мебелна Палата лазур, Сава Ганчев

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.


More Urban Exploration...


READ MORE →