37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Saturday 14 May 2016
Around four years ago, I went through a brief period of obsession. I had been hearing stories about a secret network of tunnels, hidden beneath the port of Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast… and naturally, I wanted in.
Some of those stories sounded pretty far-fetched (a psionics weapons lab, for instance, seven floors deep beneath the city), but I couldn’t shake the belief that these rumours were based on something. Not long before that I’d had the chance to explore the local Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, where I’d found my way inside a series of bomb shelters built under the memorial plaza; I had seen proof already that the former regime liked tunnels. There was a precedent for these urban myths.
It only added to my burning curiosity when, a few weeks later, I stumbled across a sealed entrance near the waterfront chalked up with the not-so-subtle label, ‘Varna’s Top Secret Tunnels.’
If you’ve read the samples I’ve shared from Eternal Glory – my ongoing project about the communist-era monuments of Bulgaria – then you’ll know already that I eventually did find my way into that rumoured tunnel network. Before that happened though, there was a while when I was roaming parks at night and shining my torch down every crack in the pavement.
It was on one such night that I happened to stumble across an open shaft, hidden behind bushes at the edge of the Varna Sea Garden. The location was roughly halfway between the monument and its bomb shelters, and the nearby docks – had the increasingly-paranoid former regime built an escape route from their underground shelter, I theorised, it would have needed to pass this way. I shone my torch down the hole, but all I could make out was a ladder descending into the darkness.
In a recent private post (my story about the abandoned military theatre) I reiterated the point that for every successful exploration post I upload to this site, there are a whole bunch of other occasions when I end up with nothing but muddy shoes and a sense of disappointment. I’ll warn you now: this account is going to fall into the latter camp.
I didn’t fancy tackling those tunnels alone – who knew what I would find down there? – so I called up a local friend for some company. He wasn’t keen at first… but I took him to a nearby beach bar, plied him with whisky, and a few hours later when I finally mentioned the tunnels again I found him somewhat more persuadable.
As we soon discovered though, the ladder led not into a series of emergency bunkers but rather to a drain. It was freshwater, by the smell of it, but stagnant nonetheless. Storm drains, kitchen sinks, bath water and the like – a step up from sewage, but still rank enough to assail the nostrils with a surprisingly unpleasant force as we stepped from the final rung of the ladder into a small, rushing stream at the bottom.
The tunnels echoed with a crescendo of crashing water, more sound than this little trickle could possibly produce. As I waited for my friend to descend the ladder after me, I shone my torch about for the source of the noise: soon discovering that I was stood at the top of a waterfall. No more than a few steps away from me, the drain poured its contents over the edge of a sudden drop and down towards the Black Sea far below. It would be a long way to fall – and I suddenly started paying a lot more attention to keeping my balance on the slippery, slimy concrete underfoot.
In countries where drain exploration is a big subculture thing (Australia, Russia and the UK, for example) it’s usually tradition that the first explorer gets to name the drain. Naturally, these underground conduits have their official names already – Bristol’s Dreadnought Drain is the Malago Stormwater Intercept, Melbourne’s ANZAC Drain is the Hawksburn Creek – but such codenames serve as a fitting rechristening as these once-purely-functional spaces are re-appropriated for purposes of leisure.
In keeping with the tradition, I decided to call this Black Sea drain ‘Primorski’… a Bulgarian word that translates to something like ‘Maritime.’
Although I needn’t have bothered, really, as I can’t see people lining up to come and explore this place in future. Truth be told, as far as drain exploration goes this one was just a bit rubbish.
The two of us, we assumed a hunchbacked, soggy-footed stance as we made our way upstream; slooshing through the oncoming current and ducking beneath the webs of startled spiders. In my head, I was telling myself that even top secret tunnels needed drainage. I was picturing underground bases, abandoned bomb shelters, intersecting with storm drains – after all, what were the chances that two co-spatial subterranean structures didn’t at some point connect?
My imagination assured me that we were about to sneak into Varna’s Top Secret Tunnels by way of a watery back door. Alas, to cut a (very) long story short… we didn’t.
This tunnel was what those drain aficionados sometimes refer to as a ‘shrinker.’ With each small side passage we passed, the main tunnel got smaller. It got to the point where we were bent double, squeezing through an increasingly tight space and beginning to feel the effects of limited oxygen. To make matters more miserable still, we’d taken a few falls each (try keeping your balance on wet, mossy concrete at a 90-degree angle) and were both soaked to the skin in drainjuice.
About an hour into the tunnel, we called it. It took us another hour to get out. Later, as we piled into a taxi, dirty water running out of our clothes and straight into the leather seats, my friend turned to me and said: “That’s the last time I’m ever drinking whisky with you.”
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