37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Saturday 16 May 2020
At the end of the 19th century, King Carol of Romania commissioned what was designed as the ultimate defence system for his capital, Bucharest. A series of 18 forts were built into earth mounds, forming a ring around the city. They were connected one to the next by by road and rail, with subterranean access points inside the circle, and heavy artillery pointing out the other side towards would-be invaders. Unfortunately for King Carol, it was only really a matter of years before advancements in aerial bombardment rendered the so-called ‘Fortifications of Bucharest’ completely obsolete, and many of the 18 were abandoned in the following years.
All the way back in 2013 I wrote an article about Fort Number 10, located at Leordeni… and in my sign-off to that article, I promised that I’d be back some future day for a look at the other 17. Well, here’s an update.
Fort Number 10 Revisited
You can go back and read my older article about the forts, if you’re interested. There’s some good background information on the history of the forts in there. Though it’s quite striking, for me at least, to see the change in my photography from one visit to the next. Case in point:
Reading through that older post now, I also realise I left out one of the more memorable details of my previous visit. Leordeni Fort is a popular spot for airsoft nowadays, and the brickwork tunnels are littered with thousands of tiny yellow pellets from a decade of shoot-outs. We walked right into the middle of one. I was chatting to my Romanian friend and guide, in one of the open galleries along the inside wall of the fort. Suddenly he screamed, and fell to the ground clutching his head. I had a moment’s panic thinking we were under real fire, but of course it was just a plastic pellet. From somewhere outside, the shooter called a sheepish apology, realising we weren’t on the other team, and poor Petre’s temple soon swelled up into an angry blue bruise.
Anyway I’ve been back to Fort 10 at Leordeni again since, and here are a few recent photographs – a little appetiser before we get to Fort 12 below.
Fort Number 12
Bucharest’s Fort Number 12 is in even worse shape than Fort 10. It’s built to roughly the same design: a smooth bank on the outer side of the ring, dotted with pillboxes; large openings along the top of the ridge where heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns were positioned; and on the inner side, facing Bucharest, a steep-sloped road cutting down into the hillside to provide access to the bunkers below. Here, though, that road was flooded.
I should probably also mention, we visited in December. It was bitterly cold, with snow on the ground and the brick walls of the fort – where we could reach them – were icy to touch. In some places, the flooded access road was iced over, though it didn’t look even nearly safe enough to attempt walking on. Instead we headed along the ridge, through the undergrowth, checking the former gun positions for somewhere we might be able to gain access to the complex.
The rope ladder left in place by a previous visitor was none-too-appealing. It seemed to be made from old sticks and baler twine and I was very dubious about trusting it. Still, we were intent on getting inside – we’d come a long way already, in foul conditions, and I didn’t want to go home without some fresh tunnel photos! As luck would have it though, eventually the ridge brought us to another opening, and this one was massive: a giant brick crater open to the sky, each floor stepping out wider to create a series of ledges we could feasibly scramble down into the fort. In summer, this would have been an easy climb.
This felt like a bad idea, right from the beginning. Firstly there was nothing to hold on to, as I lowered myself backwards over the edge, my feet trying to feel out the next safe platform. I had to cling onto grass and branches for leverage. My padded gloves had no traction on the icy bricks though, so I ended up taking them off and going at it barehanded. By the time I was repeating the procedure on the next step down, my hands were already beginning to go numb from the cold. We made it though – both of us reached the floor without incident, we celebrated, and as we followed the old staircase down deeper into the ground, I tried not to think about the inevitable climb back up.
The fort itself might even have been identical in layout to the one I’d seen before. Arching stone tunnels curved through the cold earth in both directions, opening on a series of spaces that would likely have been store rooms, ammo depots or else been stacked high with bunk beds. After perhaps as much as a century of disuse, there was nothing left inside the walls – just a few bones in one corner, where some wild thing had once made its home. It really was a testament to the engineers that this structure still looked so sound, left here untouched beneath the ground as the country above had been destroyed and rebuilt, from one form to another, changing almost beyond recognition. A hundred-year-old silence lay thick all about.
Many of the passages culminated in dead-ends. Some sections were flooded, and another corridor we found had caved in. We stumbled across several spaces that were open above, places where great metal guns had sat, raised up on platforms to peer over the hill, while men in uniforms would have scurried and sweated beneath, passing up rounds of ammunition to load into the machines. None of them looked very climbable though. They were either choked with sharp brambles, or else built with inward overhangs that made them impossible to scale. We had just about resigned ourselves to climbing back out the way we came in… when finally, we looked down one passage we’d missed before, and found a perfectly serviceable ground floor exit onto dry ground. Apparently all the effort we’d gone through getting inside had been unnecessary: we could simply have walked in through the back door.
But where would the fun have been in that?
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