DOORS WIDE SHUT

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

10 places in Bulgaria you are not allowed to visit

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Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance. Some of these are closed to the general public because of preservation issues. Others have been neglected for years and have become unsafe, while yet others belong to the military.

Here is a list of some of the most fascinating forbidden sites in Bulgaria.

Memorial to Anton Ivanov partisan unit 

Where: Vacha Reservoir, the Rhodope

Closed for: Security concerns

A white pinnacle against the background of steep Rhodope mountains reflected in the still waters of a gigantic dam: seen from the road that runs by the Vacha reservoir, the memorial to the Anton Ivanov Second World War anti-Nazi unit invites you to see it from close up. You are not allowed to, as the guard at the barrier will inform you. The reservoir is a site of national importance and is off limits. 

When the monument was built under Communism, the general public could visit. It was an important part of the regime's art propaganda. The Anton Ivanov unit was formed in 1943 and became Bulgaria's largest Communist guerilla group fighting against the Bulgarian pro-Nazi government. By early 1944, the government forces succeeded in defeating them.

When the Vacha Dam was constructed, in 1968-1975, it was called Members of the Anton Ivanov Partisan Unit.

You can still view the monument, if you take a boat or find your way from the villages west of the dam. 

Belene Political Prison and Nuclear Power Plant 

Where: At the River Danube

Closed for: Security reasons

Belene is a small town, yet it has two places that are of interest to the public. None of them can be visited. 

On the Isle of Persin lie the remains of the nation's most notorious Communist-era political prison. Its first inmates were former politicians, intellectuals and ordinary people who opposed the regime for various reasons. The camp opened in 1949 and was closed in 1953. It was to reopen twice – in 1956-1959, and in 1985 to take in men and women protesting against the forcible Bulgarisation campaign of the country's Turkish minority. The harsh conditions meant that about 10 percent of Belene prisoners did not survive.

The nondescript remains of the political prison share Persin with an actual, and still functioning, prison. This is why the isle is usually off limits to visitors. Apart from securing clearance by special appointment, the only option to visit what remains of the Belene political prison is during the annual commemoration of the victims of Communism organised by the Island of Belene Foundation.

A ban on visiting the Belene Nuclear Power Plant for security reasons would be understandable, if there was a nuclear power plant there. Well, there isn't. The site, a couple of kilometres out of Belene, has been designated for construction since the early 1980s. Nothing of substance has been built there so far, if you do not count the large earth hole which, in the 2010s, then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov infamously referred to as a "frogs' pond." The project was put on hold in 1990, and restarted in the 2000s after a propaganda campaign convinced the general public that nuclear power was the future of economic independence and prosperity. In 2002, the government decided to revive the Belene project but actual construction work did not start. In 2023, parliament decided to sell to Ukraine the equipment that the Bulgarian state had already purchased from Russia.

Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party

Where: Buzludzha peak, the Stara Planina

Closed for: Safety

Sitting atop a 1,441-metre mountain amid the Stara Planina, the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party at Buzludzha is arguably Bulgaria's most recognisable image abroad. For years, it has been an item on international lists of the most impressive abandoned sites on the planet, and many come to Bulgaria to see it and, if possible, to get inside.

Unfortunately, what everyone finds now at the weathered peak is a crumbling structure with tightly shut doors. For a couple of decades people could sneak inside through hidden entrances, but in the 2020s they were all blocked.

Buzludzha remains out of reach.

The structure was built in 1981 to mark the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the predecessor of the BKP, the Bulgarian Socialist Democratic Party.

It could be seen from miles away and easily conveyed the main message: the BKP's roots are deep, the party is here to stay.

Buzludzha's dimensions are overwhelming. The round conference hall had a diameter of 42 metres and was 14.5 metres high. A 70-metre-tall tower rose next to it. It was decorated with a 12-metre-tall red star.

After the collapse of the regime in 1989 Buzludzha was abandoned and quickly started to fall apart. In a couple of years the monument that was supposed to embody the triumph of Communism in Bulgaria turned into a ghostly ruin.

In the 2010s-2020s the building was partially conserved with funding from the Getty Foundation, but the plans for opening it to the public in the spring of 2023 failed to materialise.

Kremikovtsi Steel Plant

Where: Near Sofia

Closed for: Private property, no trespassing

"Bulgaria's road towards Communism goes through Kremikovtsi," read the slogan at the gates of the metallurgy giant near Sofia. Back in its heyday, it was one of Communist Bulgaria's greatest industrial complexes, employed 16,000 people and spread over 24 sq.km.

After the Communist regime collapsed, Bulgarians learned that the plant was built over a mediocre ore deposit and mainly processed material imported from the Soviet Union. In practice, the state subsidised it throughout its operational life. 

In the 1990s, Bulgaria's shaky economy could no longer fund Kremikovtsi. The company was privatised, but a series of new owners were unable or unwilling to modernise it. In 2010, Kremikovtsi was declared insolvent and closed forever.

Its plants, chimneys and other industrial facilities started to disintegrate, creating a dystopian landscape that might have attracted thousands of tourists, curious Bulgarians and movie crews specialising in post-apocalyptic stories. The compound, however, is off limits. The only thing that you can visit is the former ore pit, which has now become a lake.

Blue Lake

Where: Near Devnya

Closed for: Poison

Do not fall victim to the beauty of the turquoise waters of this lake which lies hidden behind a large dyke between the 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.

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.

Aleksandrovo Tomb

Where: near Haskovo

Closed for: Preservation issues

The opulently painted tomb near the village of Aleksandrovo is one of the greatest discoveries in recent Bulgarian archaeology. The vivid frescoes of men chasing deer and wild boars are a rare example of ancient painting, and convey valuable information about the life and beliefs of the Thracians, from their clothes to their deities.

Sadly, you cannot see this intriguing tomb and its astonishing murals. The condition of the frescoes is so fragile that the tomb was sealed soon after the archaeological survey was completed. 

The general public can visit a replica built with funding from the Japanese government.

Ancient Seuthopolis

Where: Near Kazanlak

Closed for: It is at the bottom of a reservoir

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.

The city of Seuthopolis was built after 315 BC at the command of Seuthes III, the ruler of the Odrysian Kingdom. It sported a grid paved streets, a square for its citizens and mansions for the elite, and a royal residence. Seuthopolis was abandoned in the middle of the 3rd century BC. Then it was forgotten.

The archeological importance of its 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 closed over, drowning the only design-built Thracian city preserved in Bulgaria.

Seuthopolis remains at the bottom of the reservoir.

Magura Cave Art

Where: Near Belogradchik

Closed for: Preservation issues

Bulgaria's only example of cave art is mesmerising and mysterious, but when joining the guided tour of Magura Cave you will see it only on a large photograph. The section of the cave where the precious drawings are has been closed since 2017 after vandals damaged some images.

The prehistoric drawings at the Magura depict people, animals, birds and geometric shapes that still puzzle scholars. Some of the scenes have been interpreted as hunts, others as religious rituals, and possibly as a form of early calendar. How early is hard to say: the Internet attributes some of the drawings to Neolithic and even Palaeolithic people but, according to historians, they can be dated much later, from the 1st millennium BC.

Valchanov Bridge

Where: Near Malko Tarnovo

Closed for: It spans over an international border

Valchan Voyvoda was a legendary rebel who, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, would plunder every Ottoman tax convoy he saw. In the Strandzha you will find the only material remnant related to to him, if the man ever existed: the eponymous bridge spanning the River Rezovska near Malko Tarnovo. 

According to legend, the famous brigand donated the money for its construction and even joined in the construction work, apparently in disguise. The structure that spans the Rezovska today was erected later: it was built in 1908 by an Italian architect after the original collapsed. Five years later the river became the borderline between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Traffic over the bridge dwindled significantly and stopped completely after the Communist takeover in 1944 and the subsequent Cold War. 

Today, just half of the bridge is still standing, on the Turkish side. The rest was blown up by the Bulgarians in a bid to stop an imagined Turkish invasion and to prevent people from escaping Communist Bulgaria.

To visit Valchanov Bridge, you need to go beyond the new barbed wire fence, erected by the Bulgarian government in the 2010s. However, you can only observe the preserved part of the structure from afar: crossing the river would mean the violation of a state border.

Black Sea Lighthouses

Where: From Shabla in the north to Ahtopol in the south

Closed for: Military

Eight lighthouses dot the roughest parts of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast and harbours. Some of them are beautiful or in stunning locations, but none can be visited, because they belong to Bulgaria's military infrastructure.

The best examples are the ones at Shabla, Kaliakra and Emine.

Shabla's lighthouse (pictured) is the oldest in Bulgaria, a distinctive red-and-white striped structure built in the 1850s by a French company while the Bulgarian lands were still under the Ottomans. The seal of the incumbent sultan, Abdülmecid I, is still on its walls, and a star and crescent adorn the lighthouse top.

The lighthouse at Kaliakra combines dramatic location and rich history. It is on a 70-metre high narrow cape that stretches deep into the sea and has been inhabited since at least Antiquity. The remains of a medieval fortress, which was the seat of an independent Bulgarian statelet in the 14th-15th centuries, rise around it, encasing the lighthouse. The first lighthouse here was built in the 1850s-1860s, but a devastating earthquake demolished the original structure. The one that you can see today, from a safe distance, was built in 1901.

The stunningly situated lighthouse at Cape Emine was built in 1880, by the same French company that constructed the one at Shabla. This one is painted a dull white, yet it stands out on a vertiginous 60-metre-high cliff, the last outcrop of the Stara Planina mountain range, before it plunges into the Black Sea. Reaching the cape is a challenge – the byway from the Burgas-Varna road is so rough and potholed that you would be better to brave it in a tank rather than an ordinary car.

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