37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Monday 15 June 2020
Located 40 kilometres southwest of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, Pernik suffers a similar fate to many other commuter-belt settlements the world over: it is often overlooked. In winter, tourists drive straight through Pernik to reach the popular ski resorts at Bansko, and Borovets, further south. Few of them stop here and so they’ll only see Pernik in profile, from the road: some grey blocks, the old brick towers of factories, an extended urban sprawl on the capital’s outskirts. Bulgarians sometimes joke that Pernik is the ugliest city in the country.
But in terms of culture, for a small city (some 80,000 residents), Pernik punches above its weight. Since 1966 Pernik has hosted the Surva Festival of Masquerade Games, a now-annual gathering of performers of Bulgaria’s ancient mid-winter rituals, which are believed to have originated from Thracian traditions, thousands of years ago. But also of particular interest are the sites associated with Pernik’s own mining traditions.
Pernik was inhabited in some form or another since the Thracians built a fortress here in the 4th century BC. But the establishment of a coal mining settlement in 1929 laid the groundwork for the modern city of Pernik. Under communism the city saw rapid industrialisation, being declared a provincial administrative centre in 1958. Located close to both the capital, and the border with what was then Yugoslavia, Pernik grew into a major centre for industry and manufacturing both for domestic advancement and international trade. Even the city’s two football teams were named to reflect its industrial significance – PFC Minyor Pernik (the ‘Miners’) and FC Metalurg Pernik (the ‘Metallurgists’).
The industrial activity in Pernik has slowed significantly since the highly regimented labour-mania of Bulgaria’s early communist years. It remains an industrial centre for Bulgaria to this day, but its steel complexes and heavy machinery plants now mostly run at reduced capacity, while numerous former mines have since dried up. Near the city centre, the ‘Starite Rudnitsi’ (‘Old Mines’) complex, which had been mined for coal as early as 1891, was closed for good in 1966.
It is said the idea for the museum came about when some Bulgarian miners visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine Museum in Poland, and decided that Bulgaria ought to have something similar. And so in 1986, Pernik’s Old Mines were reopened as a museum celebrating the city’s mining heritage.
The Pernik Underground Mining Museum is a delightfully odd place to visit. Despite being recognised as a national monument of culture since 1989, and in 2013 being added as one of the 100 National Tourist Sites of Bulgaria, still most tourists never hear about this museum and the place feels under-managed. The official website claims to run tours of the tunnels every hour, but in my experience, the place looked shuttered-up and disused, and we had to go around asking at other museums in town to find someone with the keys to let us in. After that it was a treat to find that what the museum lacked in promotion, it more than compensated for in presentation.
The museum consists of a simple tunnel network, 630 metres in length, its deepest point 50 metres below the surface. Throughout the tunnels are scattered exhibits – many original – illustrating the historic processes of coal mining: from old horse-drawn carts, to newer tracks and motorised transports that were implemented in the mid-twentieth century. The colourful lighting is kitsch and dramatic, but perhaps my favourite detail was learning about the various mining superstitions.
Near the entrance to the mine, in a small garden scattered with Modernist sculptures and enclosed between sheer concrete walls, sits the stony stump of a fossilised tree, said to be five million years old. The miners called it their ‘Lucky Tree,’ says the museum guide, and they would rub it for luck on their way into the tunnels. Deeper inside, garden gnomes have been incorporated into displays to represent the ‘underground spirits’ that some miners used to invoke for good fortune; while a more formal Orthodox Christian shrine is decorated with a banner that reads ‘God Help Us.’ I found it ironic to think how, on the surface, the state was rapidly building a new industrialised nation, post-superstition, and free from religion; but underneath, digging the fuels that powered these engines of change, the hands that turned the wheels were praying for daily protection from every supernatural entity they knew.
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