Achtung! Buzludzha is not in Berlin!!
Bulgaria’s mountaintop marvel
Some things are worth going a little out of your way for. Buzludzha is definitely one of them.
My heart beat with excitement on my first glimpse of it atop the mountain. Excitement turned to trepidation and foreboding as it drew near. When I gazed up at the imposing structure looming over me, it was sheer awe.
As luck would have it, Buzludzha – the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, to give it its full name – was clear. The clouds were below me, stuffed between the valleys’ mountainsides like protective cotton wool, just the peaks poking through to bask in sunlight. The odd bank of cloud whooshed by in the wind but otherwise the Bulgarian weather gods were smiling down on me.
Messages written in giant Cyrillic letters on either side of the main entrance greet the visitor on arrival. I don’t know what they say, but presumably they are communist slogans proclaiming the greatness of Bulgaria, communism, Bulgarians or communists. Buzludzha was a tribute and headquarters to Bulgaria’s communists, so this is an educated guess. In any case, I took pictures. I hope to get the slogans translated.
Buzludzha is way up at 1,441 meters, making it damned hard to reach. How many of the 6,000 laborers involved in its seven-year construction must have died?
Designed by Guéorguy Stoilov, the monument was built at a cost of 14.186 million Bulgarian leva (€7 million) and unveiled on August 23, 1981 to commemorate the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party (BSDP) in the area 90 years before.
Forget your past? No. Buzludzha also celebrated the joint Russian-Bulgarian forces’ important victories over the Ottoman Army in four battles for the nearby Shipka Pass in 1877-78, and its unveiling coincided with the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire by Khan Asparuh in 681. That lasted until 1018, slightly longer than Buzludzha did before the end of communism spelled the end.
The front entrance was all sealed shut, but naturally I had to get in. I had to get in! It didn’t take long. There’s a pile of rocks stacked around the corner to the right of the entrance, with a small opening above. I climbed up, threw my rucksack in, sat up on the left and eased myself in backwards taking care not to bang my head. I was in!
Someone has evidently been taking care of it recently. Sure, the lobby is fucked, and covered in rubble, but the crumbling steps were clear and easy enough to ascend to the main auditorium.
My first glimpse of it as I ascended the stairs sent my heart pounding again. Not that it wasn’t pounding already. I was in Buzludzha!
But the auditorium is incredible, awe-inspiring, just mad. A shiny white marble floor was much cleaner than I’d expected, with a massive hammer and sickle set in a red circle in the middle of the roof looking down on it.
The seats for what must once have been thousands of delegates were all gone, but most of the colorful murals on the surrounding walls remain, depicting various scenes featuring the construction of a socialist society.
Engels, Marx and Lenin are there of course, across from three other Bulgarian figureheads given pride of place on the other side.
The one on the left was probably Todor Zhivkov, Bulgarian president from 1954 to 1989. Some disgruntled native must have chipped his likeness off the wall once the communists were no longer in charge.
Relatively unscathed beside him is Dimitar Blagoev, who initiated the BSDP and was the main protagonist in founding Bulgarian socialism, while Georgi Dimitrov, who led the country from 1946 to 1949, is to the right.
I took pictures as quickly as I could, mindful of the fact a piece of the roof may fall on my head at any moment. Quite a few pieces had already fallen, judging by the numerous gaps letting the sunlight and passing clouds through.
The noise was almighty. Creaking, rattling, banging, wailing, slamming – all kinds of freaky sounds due to the passing wind. I suppose it’s only natural atop a mountain, but still, spine-tingling.
I was all alone and the spine tends to tingle more as a result in places like these. I made my way back down to the lobby, took more photos, and when I turned around I saw a shadow cross my path. AAAAAAGH! I nearly jumped out of my skin. Then I realized it was my own shadow. As I said, my spine was on high alert.
Downstairs it was blacker than Thatcher’s heart, or whoever her communist equivalent would have been – Stalin, I suppose. It was dark, damned dark. I could only explore with the aid of a torch, through rubble-strewn rooms with leaky pipes and rusted insides.
The toilets were still tiled but cleared of their utensils, but by now my attention had switched elsewhere – to the tower.
I made my way under the auditorium, over dodgy floors, mindful of gaps till I came to a metal door prised open at the bottom. I crawled through and there were the rusted steps I’d been expecting.
I don’t know how many levels beside the lift shaft I went up. Maybe ten. In the dark, with my torched clenched between my teeth, trying desperately not to drop it or indeed myself into in the darkness below.
Bulgarian graffiti adorned some of the walls, written in big angry indecipherable (Cyrillic) letters, red as if written in blood. There was still clanging and banging going on, sometimes weird creaking, so the spine was tingling as before.
On I went. Then the steps ended. There was only a rusty ladder onward. The lift was there. Obviously out of order. I tried looking down, couldn’t see the bottom. Maybe there wasn’t a bottom. Maybe it went all the way to communist hell.
But I was going up. I had to the reach the top! The ladder was through a gap too small for me and my rucksack. One of us had to stay. It was decided the rucksack would wait. I went on.
The ladder wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. I’ve been down and up worse. Finally, I could see a bit of light up ahead and without too much more delay I was inside the red stars that adorn the top of the tower. They were pretty smashed too. I’m not sure shortsighted birds are to blame.
The ladder went on and so I went up, onto the roof! Woohooo! Suddenly the spine stopped tingling. I’d made it!
Then I noticed a car approaching from afar. They drove right up, stopped outside Buzludzha. Bollocks. Who were these guys? Well, I wasn’t in a hurry, I knew it would take them a while to reach me.
I made my way back down, carefully. Rather than bump into the new arrivals – they might have been trouble – I descended into the deep dark bowels of Buzludzha. There was quite a lot of water, rubble and crumble.
Apparently the place is infested with zombies and they like to play what they call “Blood Games.” I didn’t see any zombies. I found myself in some sort of computer room and there I found a shrine to two French urbexers murdered here on October 5, 2012.
There was a crude wooden cross resting against the wall, holding a note remembering Achille Pinet, 23, and Marrok Brideau, 29 and their murder date. A former bunch of flowers decayed beside it, along with something in gift-paper. On a shelf above – a bible, the remains of a candle and a book of condolences, signed by the occasional visitor, mostly from English-speaking countries.
It’s a hoax – no French fellas were murdered here, though I needed to check with Ivan back at the hotel to be sure. It was the first he’d heard of it, and you can be sure in a quiet rural village in Bulgaria that everyone knows everything going on, never mind the murders. (I looked up the names when I got home, found it was all part of a book called MEAT – Memoirs of a Psychopath. The names and date were the same.)
Still, it was time I moved on. My hotel was 12km away (20km by road) and I had to get back before dark. Being lost in a Bulgarian forest in the middle of the night is not my idea of fun. They have wolves and bears – man-eating bears apparently and I’m sure the wolves aren’t too fussy either.
After picnicking beside the giant fists holding the torches and casting one last look at Buzludzha – it was shrouded in cloud as I left – I set off through the forest.
I won’t go into the mild terror of hiking through a never-ending Bulgarian thick forest in the middle of nowhere at twilight, tripping over roots hidden by fallen leaves, knowing it takes three hours to walk home, not even sure which way is home – eerie silence broken only by strange sounds, sudden movements, and punctuated at times by a distinctly canine smell. I was sure I was on the wrong track until I made it to Shipka.
The next day, I went back to Buzludzha again. I just had to go back.
LOCATION AND ACCESS (HOW TO FIND GUIDE)
What: Buzludzha, Buzludja, Бузлуджа (pronounced BUZ-lood-iya). Former Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters fallen on hard times since, well, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communism. Succeeding Bulgarian head honchos were happy enough to let their predecessors’ shining glory fell into disrepair – they couldn’t resist the political brownie points to be gained. All the valuable copper was stolen from the roof in an operation that could only have been made possible with political collusion.
In 2011 it was handed back to the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the communists’ successor party, though they seem to lack either the wherewithal or the means to preserve it – perhaps they have neither. Ivan, my gracious host for my visit, reckoned it would cost 20 million leva (€10 million) to restore it. He seemed to think it was a lot, but it’s not when you consider the cost of bank bailouts and Berlin’s new airport (€4.6 billion and counting).
The socialists still meet here every year on the first Sunday in August.
Darmon Richter has some more on the history of the monument in his excellent blogpost here: http://www.thebohemianblog.com/2012/04/urban-exploration-communist-party.html
Where: In the middle of nowhere Bulgaria, in the Central Stara Planina or Balkan mountain range, north of Kazanlak (Казанлъ̀к in Bulgarian), about 12km from the village of Shipka (Шипка), which is the closest community-civilisation to the monument.
Here’s a map showing its location.
How to get there: From Berlin, both Air Berlin and Air Bulgaria fly to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, from Tegel. They’re both around the same price, but Air Bulgaria gives you a sandwich, bottle of water, drink (wine, coke etc.) and tea/coffee included! It’s a 2½-hour flight.
If you’re not travelling from Berlin, other airlines fly to Sofia of course. Try Momondo for flights or this website is also good.
From Sofia get the bus to Kazanlak (Казанлъ̀к) run by the Union Ivkoni bus company. They go from a secondary terminal to the left of the main terminal building. Watch out for the rude cow at the information desk in the main terminal building if you find yourself there. The bus will take around three hours and the ticket’s 16 leva (€8).
From Kazanlak the No. 6 bus goes every half-hour to Shipka (Шипка). That takes about 20 minutes and the ticket’s 1.80 leva (90c).
Once you’re booked into the hotel (see Where to stay below), you can contact the very affable Alex (+359-89-249-4381) to arrange a lift up to Buzludzha for 20 leva (€10). It’ll save you a 12km uphill hike and is well worth it in my opinion. I gave him more. If you’re nice, he may even wait for you and give you a lift back! He’s got two dogs who he’ll take along for the ride. They’re just as friendly as he is.
Getting in: The front entrance is locked as mentioned before, but go around the corner to your right, climb over the little mound of rocks and in through the hole. Mind your head.
Where to stay (Debut!): The Shipka IT Hotel is the perfect base. Tosha and Ivan looked after me like I was a long-lost son, and Ivan was able to put me in touch with Alex above. They took great pleasure in warning me about the “man-eating bear” roaming the forest outside, and found it hilarious when I told them of being scared of my own shadow. They have a restaurant too, where you can sample Bulgarian cuisine and enjoy its fine wine. You may need to book ahead. Email email@example.com, telephone/fax +359-4324-2112 or see www.shipkaithotel.com.
When to go: Go in daylight so you don’t get killed. And go early in the day so you’ve plenty of time to get back. I went last week and was incredibly lucky with the weather, but bear in mind that it can get very wild in winter, while snowfall can make it a treacherous proposition. The snow started the day after I left…
Difficulty rating: 9/10, primarily due to the hassle of getting here. It actually wasn’t as dangerous inside as I imagined it would be, and it’s easy enough to get in. Still, of course, extreme care must be taken. As always, carelessness can lead to accidents.
Who to bring: Someone who’s fit. There are around 300 steps to the top of the tower. Carrying passengers is not an option.
What to bring: Camera, torch, good boots, warm clothing, bottle of water and/or vodka, sandwiches, chocolate or some other sustenance to keep you going. If you do end up hiking through the forest, grab a good-sized stick to ward off any wolves and man-eating bears you might come across. It probably won’t help but it might make you feel a bit better about your prospects.
Dangers: Rubble and debris litter Buzludzha, particularly away from the main auditorium. Watch out for debris falling from the roof – this was my main concern. You don’t want a slab of concrete landing on your head. There’s abundant asbestos too – try not to breathe in too much of it.
Time, weather, souvenir hunters and scavengers are taking their toll on Buzludzha. It should be a UNESCO heritage site and protected accordingly, but it’s likely to suffer further damage as Bulgaria’s leaders are disinclined to restore an icon of the country’s communist past.
Photos are dedicated to Paul Sullivan of Slow Travel Berlin for his photographic advice before the trip. They’re certainly a big improvement on what they would have been without him.
Thanks also to Mark Rodden and Dáire Murray for their invaluable editorial assistance.
UPDATE: Wednesday, May 31, 2023 – There have been major efforts made in the last few years to preserve the Buzludzha monument, which was named one of the seven most endangered heritage sites in Europe by Europa Nostra in 2018. Conservation work began on-site in 2020 and has continued since. There will be a three-day music festival at the site in August 2023. Make of that what you will.
Back in Berlin…
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Berlin’s “lion on the loose” has holed up at the abandoned Zambian embassy. She’s seeking asylum from the CDU. AB got an exclusive interview.