Created for industry or farming, dams and reservoirs have turned into unexpectedly beautiful landscapes
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial development has taken its toll on communities and landscapes. Polluted air, water and soil, the destruction of nature and a decimated biodiversity are all its consequences. However, in some cases industrial development has created beautiful and even stunning landscapes. Most often this is the case with artificial bodies of water, resulting from the construction of dams. From the Hoover to the Aswan to the dams on the Yangtze, the ingenuity of their creation and their sheer size fascinates and makes you forget about the damage their construction caused to the environment – abandoned villages and towns, submerged archaeological heritage, the detrimental effects on nature and traditional ways of life.
In Bulgaria, for historical reasons, the creation of massive dams and open cast mines took place mainly in the second half of the 20th century, under Communism. Back then, rural Bulgaria was pushing itself to become a genuine industrial power with large factories and an even larger agricultural system. To achieve this, it needed dams and all sorts of water-based infrastructure (a canal from Sofia to the Black Sea with Plovdiv emerging as a major maritime port was also on the drawing board, but it failed to materialise). Building what it did involved bulldozing landscapes, villages and archaeological sites.
After the collapse of Communism, along with its planned economy and dreams of industrial might, most of these bodies of water remained in use. New ones also appeared, this time evolving spontaneously in the abandoned pits of open cast mines.
The result are some truly beautiful places that have become a favourite haunt of tourists and photographers.
Do not fall victim to the beauty of the turquoise waters of this lake that lies hidden behind a large dyke between Padina and Trastikovo villages in northeastern Bulgaria. Its "heavenly" water is the deadly waste of the chemical plant at Devnya, Europe's largest producer of calcined soda. This material is used in a number of other industries, from glass manufacture to heavy industry. The plant is now owned by the Solvay Group but was built in the 1950s-1970s, under Communism. The lake itself was dug in 1974 and spreads over 430 acres.
Best spot to see it: Entry through the barbed wire is banned, but you can marvel at the lake's blue, blue waters from the small chapel on a hill near Padina village.
Dospat Dam, built in 1967, created one of Bulgaria's largest reservoirs and is the start of the grand Dospat-Vacha cascade. This megastructure was created to provide a water supply to the fields in the fertile Thracian Plain and to produce much needed electricity.
Dospat Dam lake stretches in a 3-kilometre wide, 19-kilometre long strip of water that follows the erstwhile course of the Dospatska River. For centuries, the valley was famed for its grain production and skilled farmers. Two villages, Orlino and Barduche, were destroyed in the construction of the dam, while a third, Krushata, had to be partially abandoned. At least, the end result is picturesque.
Best spot to see it: From the scenic road between Sarnitsa and Dospat.
Medet Copper Mine
In 1964, the Communist government decided to concentrate on the large copper deposits of the Asarel-Medet basin near Panagyurishte. As the deposits were close to the surface, an open cast mine appeared on the slopes of the mountain.
From years of digging, the pit became deeper and wider, and by the 1980s it grew into Europe's largest surface copper mine.
After Communism collapsed, production stopped. The abandoned pit filled with water that dissolved all the metals that were trapped in the surrounding rocks.
The result is a startlingly blue lake that is beautiful, but dead.
The best spot to see it: From the road between Zlatitsa and Panagyurishte there is a sign for the entrance to the mine. Entry is forbidden, but you can see it from the road.
The last of the string of reservoirs in the Dospat-Vacha cascade has the highest dam wall in Bulgaria, rising to 144.5m. Sadly, walking along the top is forbidden, as Vacha Dam is guarded as a "site of strategic importance." This is also why you can only marvel from afar at the gigantic concrete monument dedicated to a local unit of Communist guerrilla fighters at the other end.
The scenery around compensates for this. The 10-kilometre stretch of Vacha Dam lake offers stunning vistas around every bend. You can enjoy them from the small hotels and restaurants on the bank and, if you want to get closer, opt for the pontoon islands that dot the calm surface of the reservoir. On some of these there are holiday houses for rent.
Best spot to see it: Theoretically, from Mount St Iliya. But if you do not fancy a climb, just drive slowly along the meandering road between Devin and Krichim and take a break at some of the turnouts.
In the 1950s-1960s, the lower course of the Arda river, which flows west to east through the Rhodope, was tamed by three huge dams: Kardzhali, Studen Kladenets and Ivaylovgrad. The newly created Arda cascade was meant not only to produce water and electricity for the towns and villages of the Rhodope, but the walls of the dams were also packed with explosives. In the event of an attack from neighbouring NATO-member Turkey, the Bulgarian military commanded, these would be activated, flooding the borderline city of Edirne.
You will hardly be aware of this when you stand beside these huge bodies of water that stretch between the lush Rhodope hills. Due to the Arda's meandering course, the higher waters of the dammed lakes have created a series of picturesque horseshoe bends.
Arguably the most famous of these is at the beginning of the Kardzhali Dam, near Star Chitak village. Deep and extending through almost 360-degrees, it looks like a part of the American Southwest transported to Bulgaria.
Best spot to see it: The road between Star Chitak and Ribartsi villages. If you are on the northern side of the dam, try the road that passes by Dazhdovnitsa and goes on to the famed Womb Cave near Kardzhali.
This small dam on the Struma, near Pernik, was built in the 1970s for an unfortunate reason. After carrying away the waste of Pernik's heavy industry, the Struma became so polluted that the Greek government complained to the Bulgarians, who constructed a small reservoir on the river after Pernik. There, the heavy particles in the river could settle down to the bed of the lake and the cleaner Struma would continue its flow southwards.
There was already a village, Pchelintsi, on this spot, but it was promptly evacuated and submerged. Today, the bottom of Pchelina Reservoir is covered with a thick layer of industrial debris. The only thing that survived from the village was the St John the Baptist of the Summer Chapel.
Despite its connection to Pernik's heavy industry (which was almost completely annihilated after Communism's collapse) Pchelina Reservoir has become a popular recreational ground.
The best spot to see it: From St John the Baptist of the Summer Chapel, which is perched on top of a cliff overlooking the reservoir. It is popular place with amateur photographers, who sometimes have to queue to take a picture of the small building against the sunset.
King Asen Non-Ferrous Metals Mine
All abandoned open pits have a dark aura, as they represent a community deprived of jobs, along with extensive damage to the environment.
King Asen is no exception. Located near Pazardzhik, it was developed under Communism. When it was eventually exhausted and abandoned, the empty pit slowly turned into a lake. Its strange blue colour is one of the reasons why locals claim that the quarry "contains the whole Periodic Table of Elements." After heavy rain, the quarry sometimes floods, polluting the River Luda Yana that provides the water supply for the neighbouring villages.
The best spot to see it: Follow the abandoned track that turns off the road between Tsar Asen and Levski villages.
When the Zhrebchevo Dam was being constructed, in the 1960s, the residents of three villages had to abandon their homes and resettle elsewhere: Zhrebchevo itself, plus Zapalnya and Dolno Panicherevo. Today, people flock to the reservoir to see the ghostly remains of Zapalnya's submerged church.
Abandoned and roofless, the remains of St Ivan of Rila have become a poignant memorial to the victims of industrialisation. Nearby are some scattered tombstones from the village cemetery.
The best spot to see it: Take the dirt road that starts by the Lukoil Petrol station on the road between Kazanlak and Sliven.
In 1948, young Communist Bulgaria embarked on the construction of a large dam near Kazanlak, but then the archaeologists who were surveying the area of the future reservoir made a surprising discovery. They stumbled upon the remains of a whole Thracian city whose existence had been unknown.
The city of Seuthopolis was built after 315 BC, on the command of King Seuthes III, the ruler of the Odryssian Kingdom. At the time, he was at the height of his power and had enough money and ambition to follow the fashion set by the Macedonian kings Philip II and Alexander the Great – to found a city and bestow on it his name.
The Thracian king built Seuthopolis, and made it the capital of his kingdom. The new city resembled any other in the Hellenistic world: its paved streets ran straight, and there was a square for the citizens to meet, talk and conduct business. A portion of the city was reserved for the king and his family.
Seuthopolis did not survive long, and was abandoned by the middle of the 3rd Century BC. Then it was forgotten.
The archeological importance of the discovery was immense, but the Communist government wanted to industrialise the country as quickly as possible. Archaeologists were given a mere six years for excavations – the time it would take to construct the dam and reservoir – and they did all they could before the waters finally rushed over, drowning the only design-built Thracian city preserved in Bulgaria.
Seuthopolis remains on the bottom of the reservoir.
The best spot to see it: From the wall of the dam. On one side there is a pleasant park with some good restaurants, and on the other one a statue of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria's first Communist dictator, still stands. Originally, the reservoir was named after him.
The stunning blue waters of this artificial lake by Pravoslav village are not full of a deadly combination of chemicals and metals. There is even fish in it, and holidaymakers from the local villages go there for a swim.
The lake appeared after a large marble quarry was abandoned. The machinery used can still be seen on the bottom.
The best spot to see it: At the end of a dirt track that leads off the road between Pravoslav and Brezovo.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners