Thursday 21 May
I’ve been looking forward to today for a long time. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for abandoned or lonely places. There is nothing more romantic for me than the seaside in winter. Forgotten remnants of days gone by. Standing where something or someone stood. Crumbling buildings, ghostly apertures and lonely vistas punctuate the environment, while nature takes back what was once vibrant with activity. It’s thrilling.
And so today I am a child on Christmas morning. We’re visiting the abandoned communist party building on Mount Buzludzha, Bulgaria. I’ve known about this place for a number of years and along with Chernobyl and Prypiat, I’ve always wanted to pay it a visit. It’s a photographers dream come true, as much like Chernobyl and other such sites, the pictures take themselves. It was an absolute joy to behold.
The structure was completed in 1981, but left to ruin in under a decade, due to the collapse of the USSR and the fall of communism. Built to house party rallies and greet foreign dignitaries, it was a symbol of power and influence that should have stood the test of time, and intimidated the West for years to come. The only force that remains now is nature.
Always a fan of Soviet iconography, sculpture and art, add it together with an abandoned building and you’ve got this travelers wet dream. As much as my smokers lungs could handle, I launched myself up the steep climb as fast as my little legs could muster. Which wasn’t fast at all and it nearly killed me. Reaching the top, you’re greeted with this imposing behemoth of a structure, which has been likened by many to that of a UFO. Indeed it’s nickname in these parts is “the flying saucer,” and it bares more than a passing resemblance to one Starship Enterprise.
The tower stands at 107 meters tall, with the red star of communism the same size as that of its counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow. The structure itself sits at 1441 metres above sea level, and the glass from the windows would have been the first to go, so the whole building is left open to the elements. You wouldn’t want to hang around in winter.
Gaining entry is something of a squeaky bum time. The site passed into the care of the Socialist Party of Bulgaria, and they have made repeated attempts at keeping people out. Where there’s a will there’s a way however, and you’ll never keep a tenacious urban explorer or photographer from getting into anywhere they want to get into. Round the side of the main entrance some enterprising chap has fashioned a small crawl hole. Just beyond the lip there is a drop to the floor below, so stepping up and through isn’t a pleasant experience. Actually getting out for me was even worse, as there is a moment when you’re lowering your arse over the blackness below. I suddenly remembered how timid I can actually be. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
But of course it is. Your first glimpse of the stunning upper chamber will live long in the memory. It is rumoured that over 60 artists collaborated to create what was once astounding mosaics and sculptures. Now its grand pomp and circumstance has been reduced to a crumbling mess by the elements, thieves, graffiti and salvagers. The roof is caving in, marble steps have been ripped up to be re-used elsewhere, coloured glass from the art litters the floor. To view a before and after picture is both incredibly sad and powerful at the same time. Never one to vandalise such a site, for it should be left for others to enjoy, I make sure I only take a small souvenir that has fallen from the wall. I slip a small, shiny yellow mosaic glass piece into my pocket.
There’s a strong movement to get the site restored to its former glory, but at a cost of over 10 million US, you can understand why it isn’t financially viable. Some counter that the tourist dollars would more than make up for it, and they’ve got a point. In it’s current state, it’s still pulling in a large number of visitors every year. Above the door the slogan “forget your past” stayed for many years, before someone preceded it with “never”. But perhaps that is exactly where this place should remain. A crumbling memorial memory to a dark chapter of Bulgarian history.
I hope you enjoy the photographs as much as I did in taking them.