BULGARIA'S VERSION OF CANNERY ROW IS IN CHENGENE SKELE

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Nondescript fishermen's settlement gains notoriety as 'alternative' Black Sea makeout spot

fishermen settlement bulgaria sunset

Any chance visitor who has detoured midway from the Burgas-Sozopol highway, on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast, will end up in an odd location. As you drive up the bad road to the infamous maritime oil terminal, now the property of Russian giant LUKoil, you will inevitably take in an assortment of buildings – some of them makeshift, others with a more stable construction, but none appearing as if designed by a professional architect. Then you are in for the first big hit, a road sign announcing "Everything away from sea is provincial," according to Ernest Hemingway. A little further up the road a stone relief will reveal... US writer John Steinbeck, the 1962 Nobel Prize winner, who penned such masterpieces as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men.

steinbeck memorial bulgaria

Probably the only place outside Salinas, California, where you can see a monument to John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

Rub your eyes. You are not in Salinas, California, but in Chengene Skele, 10 miles south of Burgas. And yes, the street you just stepped on is called Cannery Row! And yes, generations of Bulgarians grew up with Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday, often identifying themselves with the characters and trying to emulate their way of "peaceful wine drinking" and not being in a hurry for anything.

To understand how John Steinbeck ended in Bulgaria you need a bit of local history.

Chengene Skele is a Bulgarianised Turkish name which in translation means "Gypsy Harbour." The name is self-explanatory: at the turn of the 20th century the area was used as a fishermen's settlement, and many of the small-time fish catchers were local Gypsies. They would go out to sea in the early hours of the morning and by 10 o'clock they would already be drinking their wine: the working day had ended for them.

abandoned boat bulgaria

A river boat permanently docked at Chengene Skele was used as a training ground for divers. It has now been abandoned for years

Through the 20th century Chengene Skele had an uneasy relationship with the authorities of Burgas. In the 1970s, as the Port of Burgas expanded, the fishermen were ordered to move their boats elsewhere. Chengene Skele was a convenient location. However, the official promises of the City Council it would undertake to supply water and electricity to Chengene Skele never materialised. The locals simply had to take matters in their own hands.

Later, Chengene Skele was threatened with extinction because, understandably, none of its residents conformed to any urban planning, rubbish processing and so on. Most of the shacks erected there had no building permits. While some fishermen did live their fulltime year round, others just used the huts only occasionally, when they went out with their dinghies.

fishermen settlement bulgaria

Fishermen's Settlement likes Hemingway: "Everything that's far away from sea is provincial."

Things started to change in the 2010s when some EU funds were channelled into Chengene Skele to improve infrastructure. In recent years the fishermen's settlement has gained a somewhat cult status as visitors not only from Burgas but from elsewhere stop by to try the local fish soup and the catch of the day – never in short supply. In addition to Black Sea scad, goby, and seasonally bonito and turbot the local eatery always has mussels, shrimps and roe – at very affordable prices. Both Steinbeck and Hemingway would have loved it.

But be warned. If you visit in any time outside the cold months you will have to negotiate your way with the swarms of mosquitoes which locals claim can reach the size of sparrows. Unless you take all reasonable precautions you risk being eaten alive before you ever get yourselves to the fish soup. 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.