37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Monday 14 November 2016
November is upon us, and it’s probably time for an editorial. So here’s what’s been going on behind the scenes, these past few months: including three completed tours and the preparations for another three; plus the unveiling of a rather exciting new project.
This Autumn, I’ve been rushed off my feet with tours. Here’s a quick recap:
The first was in Ukraine, for five days of brutalist architecture and horseradish vodka, culminating in a two-day trip to Chernobyl. The whole thing was arranged as a last-minute experiment – I was heading to Ukraine anyway, arriving in August to catch up with my friend Yomadic. All we really did was invite our readers to come and join us – then the tour more or less wrote itself from there.
It was a huge success, and with a very international attendance – we had guests from China, Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. Mostly things went right, but even when they went wrong it was good fun: our tour bus broke down inside the most secure region of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; someone vomited as a stern Ukrainian soldier scanned them for radiation, sparking immediate panic; and our local guide took it upon himself to ply us with vodka at all times of day and night, claiming it was an effective cure against contamination.
Safe to say, these Ukraine tours are going to be a regular thing from now on.
After that I flew from Kiev to Sofia, and straight into my next tour: my regular safari of communist monuments in the cities, villages and mountains of Bulgaria. I made two complete circuits of the country in the space of one month, meeting another 16 tour guests along the way and travelling over 3000 km (1800 miles) in total.
We had a fantastic group on both trips, a really nice bunch of people – including a few of my Patreon supporters, who I was delighted to finally meet in person.
I always find it interesting to see how each one of these tours varies from the one before. It’s one of the things I like about Bulgaria, that things are never predictable. On the September tour, we had another calamity with the bus… when our driver tried taking us up a steep side street, then lost his grip. We rolled back hard to the main road, and on impact our bus’s tow hook embedded itself impressively deep into the tarmac.
Luckily, we’d already arrived at our destination, a family-run Armenian restaurant. We spent the rest of the afternoon being served endless rounds of dumplings and smoked cheese – or sitting on the pavement with our beers, watching as a crowd of local men gathered about the bus and took turns at testing their (increasingly creative) ideas for getting it unstuck; like hopeful knights queuing up to pull the sword from the stone.
We didn’t see inside Buzludzha in September, though. The House-Monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party on Buzludzha Peak – a.k.a. ‘The Flying Saucer’ – has been under heightened security since the summer, with the new appointment of a professional security detail. They had installed cameras, motion detectors, and welded metal panels over all the usual entrances.
Our October group was in luck, though. Having prepared them all for the worst, I got there to find the security system disabled: one camera pulled off the wall, the next twisted round to look the other way. Someone had been before us, torn off one of the new metal panels (likely, using a car and chain) then proceeded to snip the wires to the motion detectors. It was a truly unexpected treat.
By the end of all three tours, I was eager to return to the familiar comfort of my own bed (who am I kidding? I mean, ‘my own desk’). Instead though, I did a quick tour of England (from London, to Lancaster then Glastonbury): attending conferences, PhD meetings, and managing to catch up with just a few friends before finally flying home a couple of weeks ago.
I’m planning to spend the next couple of months simply writing, putting out some new articles and working on a few other projects too (see Rasputina, below). After that though, January marks the beginning of a whole new season of tours.
I am going to be running another tour with Yomadic in January, back to Kiev and Chernobyl… only this time the ghost towns and brutalism will all be covered in snow. That should be super-photogenic, though I imagine there’ll be challenges involved in running a tour at mostly minus 20°C (that’s minus 4°F). I’ll let you know how it goes…
After that one I’ll embark on an experimental new tour route, that I’m running in partnership with Atlas Obscura. To be honest, I’m a little nervous. At least with my own tours, I have an idea what to expect – I’ve really enjoyed getting to spend time with the people who read my site lately, and the platform seems to attract a consistently likeable demographic. But Atlas Obscura have a readership of something mad like 18 million visitors a month; meaning I have absolutely no way of knowing what these people will be like. It feels like going from a members-only club to dealing with the general public.
Still, I think the itinerary I’ve written for them will really carry itself. It’s more general, more Lonely Planet than my trademark communist-monument-tours, and I’ve planned to tackle a different period of Bulgarian history every day. We’ll look at contemporary street culture in Sofia, medieval history in Veliko Turnovo, the socialist symbolism of Buzludzha (obviously), and the ancient pagan rituals on display at the annual Surva Festival (check out the article I wrote about this festival, it’s crazy). Whatever other challenges the week brings, we certainly won’t get bored.
And then, it’s time to unveil my next big tour project… [drumroll]
A ‘Spomeniks Tour,’ visiting the wonderfully weird monuments of former Yugoslavia.
Next April, this tour will take us through Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, stopping off at 16 of the largest, most extravagant specimens. There’ll be the usual distractions along the way, too – brutalist hotels, communist-era tunnels, abandoned buildings and so on. Due to the distance we’ve got to cover though, I can’t see this working in anything less than 12 days; it’s a lot to organise, so I’m only offering the one trip at the moment as a test run before I commit to doing more.
I will be posting more information about this one soon… and as ever, my Patreon supporters qualify for a discount on these Yugoslav tours so if you’re interested, drop me a line.
It’s finally time to announce another project that I’ve been building towards for a while.
Maybe I mentioned this before, a long time ago, then never seemed to follow up on it; but for most of this year I’ve been meeting with an illustrator, scribbling out scripts, and gradually laying the foundations for a huge graphic novel project.
The narrative follows Varvara Rasputina, daughter of the notorious Russian mystic. It’ll be a revenge story (á la Kill Bill) with a protagonist travelling across the Soviet Union in 1921, hunting the five men responsible for her father’s murder five years earlier. I love the potential here for blending true historical characters and events with elements of fiction. Every character in the story actually existed, but many of them disappear from history books after the Russian revolution… which has left me completely free to speculate what happened to them next.
What makes this really special though, is the artwork. I’ve managed to coerce a superb co-creator onboard for the project, the talented Bulgarian illustrator Diana Naneva – and I’m massively excited about how the whole thing is starting to look.
My plan is to announce the project publicly early next month – in time for the 100-year anniversary of Rasputin’s murder – and then launch a Kickstarter project to fund it. It’s going to be a massive effort, and I’ll be sharing updates with you through Patreon as the whole thing starts to come together some more.
Coming Up Next…
I hope you’ve all been enjoying my recent posts. The Balkans have been fun to write about – sometimes tragic, too, but always fascinating – and with that last post about Slovenia I’ve now covered 8 of the 9 Balkan countries I visited this year. The only one missing is Albania, so look out for that appearing on the front page someday soon.
In my last editorial I ran a vote. I didn’t get many responses (which is fine, I just take non-responses as a vote in favour of the status-quo), and those replies were split evenly between two options: an article about rural Transnistria, and an article about Freemasonry in Cuba.
They’re both subjects I’m keen to write about, so I’ll do my best to get them both out this month. I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner, but (as detailed above) the last few months have just been hectic. My life these days seems to be divided neatly between exhausting bursts of intense travel, and profoundly antisocial periods of non-stop writing. We’re just coming into one of the latter phases now, so you can expect a decent volume of reading material to appear here over the next few months.
And that’s about it for now, I think. Feel free to send me a message if you ever have questions or feedback… or even just to say Hello. In the meantime I’m going back to work on my next article: it’s about Chernobyl, but with a major twist you’ll either love or hate. You’ll see.
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