37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Saturday 7 March 2020
The thing I like best about Bulgaria, I think, is how it manages to keep surprising me. None of the best stuff is marked on maps. I have noted elsewhere how the Lonely Planet travel guide squeezes both Bulgaria and Romania (two of the longest settled, most culturally dense countries of Europe) into one single guide book, but in terms of getting to know the country, this actually proves as much a blessing as a curse; there is just so little written in English about Bulgaria’s backroad attractions, that it becomes an incredibly easy place to get lost and have an adventure.
Of course, when I talk about Bulgaria’s “best stuff” I do so in a heavily subjective way. For me, that term includes all kinds of strange, enchanting, gloomy, broken or bittersweet sights. If you’re reading this though, I’m going to go ahead and assume that your tastes aren’t all that different to my own.
Some time ago I had a particularly eventful road trip around Bulgaria with a friend who was visiting from Canada. We hired a car in the capital, Sofia, before driving a loop through the nearby provinces – skipping every listed tourist attraction in favour of the kind of small town curiosities that, often, people living more than a few blocks away might never even have heard of.
The following gallery features a selection of some visual highlights from that trip. A few of these places might even end up inspiring blog posts of their own some day…
I actually already wrote about this place – an abandoned surface to air missile base, slowly decaying to ruin in the countryside and watched over by one rather inattentive guard. This reinforced bunker was buried beneath earth and turf, forming one of a number of camouflaged shelters that lay scattered across the abandoned base.
Near Sofia, one of the former homes of communist leader Todor Zhivkov currently stands abandoned. The complex was owned for a while by a golf club, but plans to convert it fell through – and now, unguarded, this sprawling private residence has been left open to the elements.
Another from Zhivkov’s Modernist mansion. The building is quite incredible, and this is somewhere I’ll absolutely write more about in time. (As it happens, I was back for my third visit only a couple of weeks ago, so by now I have a substantial collection of images to share.)
Pernik is a city south of Sofia, whose growth followed the fortunes of the mining industry. Throughout the town there are monuments and reliefs dedicated to local miners, such as this one, tucked away on the side of one of the city’s administrative buildings.
Elsewhere in Pernik, a section of the old mine has been developed into a museum. It’s barely signposted, doesn’t have a website, and we had to ask around to find anyone with keys who could let us in. The upper passages were developed in time into the brickwork tunnels – complete with trolley tracks – that you see pictured here. At the far end of the museum, these sections abruptly give way to rock faces. It’s probably the least effort I’ve ever seen put into a ‘museum,’ and I love it.
You know what? I can’t even remember where this is. I don’t know what it is, either. We took a wrong turning on the road somewhere east of the capital, and ended up circling a reservoir fitted with half-finished concrete structures like these, which I imagine, at some point played a role in monitoring water levels? Your guess is as good as (or quite possibly better than) mine.
One morning we set out to photograph a hydroelectric dam at dawn. That plan worked out… alright, I guess. There was thick mist on the water, and none of my photos were as sharp as I’d hoped they might be. In the end, this was my favourite image I captured all day – a monument of a mother and child, commemorating the victims of fascism, taken just before dawn as we stopped for coffees in a small town called Krichim.
Not far away, just off the highway junction outside Yoakim Gruevo, this 1970s kiosk caught my eye. There’s something about this shape that I absolutely adore… and the combination of pastel blue, with lacy floral blinds, just sets it off perfectly.
Back in Sofia, I took this photo – the main block of the city’s University of Architecture, Geodesy and Civil Engineering. Aptly, it’s one of the most aggressively striking works of Modernist architecture in the capital.
And I leave you with this treasure. Located in a Sofia suburb, just east from the sprawling park called Borisova Gradina, this wonderful lump of concrete is a monument dedicated to WWII-era tank drivers. I mean, just look at that thing. Incredible.
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