On a crisp spring morning, the distant hum of traffic on the Trakiya Highway can barely be heard in the narrow Trayanovi Vrata Pass, in the Sredna Gora mountains. Birds sing, the sky is blue, and early greenery covers the slopes. Until not that long ago, the romantic ruins of an ancient and medieval fortress used to stand there; a labyrinth of still-standing arches and walls, a piece of ancient Rome on Bulgaria soil.
The picturesque Trayanovi Vrata Fortress is no more. In the spring of 2015, a newly-built monstrosity of high walls, towers and arches made of new bricks has risen on the site of what used to be a stately old fortification. The romance is all gone, replaced with a 21st Century kitsch reconstruction, with new bricks gleaming in the spring sunshine, and the strong smell of fresh concrete.
According to the information board at the new car park, the Trayanovi Vrata Fortress was renovated at the cost of about 4.2 million leva, 3.4 million of which came from the EU's Regional Development Operational Programme.
The fortress is only one of dozens of historical, archaeological and natural sites across Bulgaria which, between 2007 and 2020, are being funded by this particular EU programme, with the aim of achieving a better and more "user-friendly" tourist infrastructure. By November 2014, about 225 million leva had been spent on the programme, divided among 71 contracts with the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and a plethora of local municipalities. About 34 of these projects are now finished, including the Trayanovi Vrata Fortress, which was officially opened to tourists in December 2014, together with two other "reconstructed" fortresses, at Kyustendil and Sliven.
Both the Ministry of Culture and the local municipalities are proud of their projects, and some of the sites are indeed examples of the successful marriage between improving infrastructure and the responsible care of the archaeological remains, as at the Roman Villa Armira near Ivaylovgrad, and the Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum near Veliko Tarnovo.
Many of the sites rebuilt with EU money, however, look more like the Trayanovi Vrata Fortress. Modern building technologies and even plastic window frames have been used in rebuilding ancient and medieval fortifications that now rise many metres above what had been preserved of the genuine ruins. The towers and walls of the Krakra Fortress at Pernik have been rebuilt in plastic, and the late Roman fortress at Belchin village, which barely stood above ground, is now complete with a high wall, main gate, towers and a church. It is now called Tsari Mali Grad, and claims to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The fortress on the Yaylata plateau is situated in a nature and archaeological reserve, but is now being rebuilt with modern materials and with the usage of heavy machinery, whose presence there is – theoretically – forbidden.
The trend has even caught up in Plovdiv. The future 2019 European Capital of Culture is a city with a generally careful approach to the restoration of its cultural heritage, but now it plans to rebuilt the fortifications on top of the Nebet Tepe hill, in the old neighbourhood. The site is a maze of fortifications constructed continuously from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, most of which are not very well preserved. The reconstruction project, however, aims to rebuild many of the walls, and includes a tower.
The results of this hectic "restoration" are not only ugly, but damage the genuine ruins, which have withstood centuries of abandonment. Even more astonishing, in doing this Bulgaria is obviously in breach of the terms of two international conventions on the protection of historical heritage, to which it is a signatory: the 1964 Venice Charter and the 1994 Nara Document. Both documents stipulate that reconstruction should stop were historical data ends and imagination begins.
In the case of Bulgarian fortresses, information about how they looked in the past is at best scarce. A single small and not very detailed drawing in a manuscript, for example, has been used as the source of how the entire fortifications of Plovdiv used to look. In the case of Tsari Mali Grad, as in most others, there was not even that to go on.
So why, then, are Bulgarians so keen on rebuilding their fortresses?
The answer, like so many things in the Balkans, is rooted deep in history – yet it can best be explained with current politicking.
The long and supposedly glorious past of the Bulgarian nation is one of the founding elements of modern Bulgarian national identity. Bulgarians are fed from cradle to grave with stories of their erstwhile grandeur when their fatherland spread to three seas and was one of the mightiest states in Europe. The trouble is that modern Bulgaria, with its deep economic and political crisis, is far from what it used to be in the Middle Ages. On top of that, modern Bulgarians have few physical reminders of those glorious times. Some of Bulgaria's fortresses were destroyed during the Ottoman invasion and others were left to disintegrate without maintenance, or the local people gradually dismantled them, using them as sources of cheap building materials.
When Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878, it was too busy building its own infrastructure and institutions in its attempt to create a modern European nation to bother with rebuilding old castles. In the 1930s, however, the mood shifted. Nationalism was on the rise, boosted by the general political climate in Europe, and the humiliation of the loss of lands and people in the Balkan wars and the Great War was still fresh in the Bulgaria psyche. Moreover, political turmoil had led to several coups, some bloodshed, and a general disappointment with democracy.
The country and its people needed something to be proud of and, as a measure to boost patriotism, a part of the Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo was rebuilt. The place was symbolic – Tsarevets had been the glorious capital of Bulgaria in the 12th-14th centuries. Yet, what we see in Veliko Tarnovo today reflects the imagination of modern architects rather than what the actual fortress looked like when the Ottomans conquered it.
Then came the Second World War. Bulgaria again joined the wrong side in the conflict, ending with the arrival of the Red Army, in September 1944, and a Communist coup. The first decades under Communism were times of hectic building – not of ruined castles, but of factories, roads and power plants. The state turned its eye to the reconstruction of historical sites once again in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when the planned economy was gasping for breath. Nationalism was once again evoked, to inspire the increasingly sceptical Bulgarians. The 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian state, in 1981, was the justification for a mighty wave of restorations of significant medieval sites. The walls of Tsarevets were almost completely rebuilt, and the old king's palace and the city's cathedral rose from scratch. The latter got even a roof, and was painted with modernistic, Socialist eulogising murals.
Other sites, like the old capitals of Pliska and Preslav, also had some of their significant buildings erected from scratch.
In 1989, Communism collapsed. Living standards dropped, hundreds of thousands Bulgarians emigrated, and unemployment hit the roof. As a result, national pride hit rock bottom.
In the 2000s, however, the economy began to improve. Still, Bulgarians were dissatisfied because they had been fed up with unfulfilled promises, nepotism and corruption. Nationalism, masquerading as patriotism, entered mainstream politics. Bulgarians began to travel more, and the number of foreign tourists visiting the country was on the rise. In this atmosphere, many Bulgarians realised that their country might have beautiful natural features and a rich history, but the physical remains of this history were actually humble and unimpressive, and often ill-maintained. It was clear that something ought to be done.
In the mid-2000s, the fortress wall of Sozopol and the Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo were restored. The specialists disagreed with the free rein of imagination employed in both restorations, but the public was happy. Bozhidar Dimitrov, the director of the National History Museum, supported the erection of the Sozopol fortification. Then President Georgi Parvanov, a historian by education, attended the reburial in the Holy 40 Martyrs of a mediaeval skeleton, supposedly that of King Kaloyan (1197-1207).
These two projects convinced the Bulgarian general public that where patriotism was concerned, anything was justified, including destroying your own archaeological heritage in order to make it look "better" and more "interesting" to both Bulgarian and foreign tourists.
The idea that restored ruins would bring more tourists to Bulgaria fell on eager ears: tourism makes up about 13.6 percent of the national GDP. Hordes of people from all over the world, flocking to gasp at turrets and climb fortress walls, like the ones that Bulgarians had seen abroad at places like Neuschwanstein, was an image too strong to resist.
The EU programme for regional development, which began in 2007 when Bulgaria joined, was seen as a godsend. It looked like a win-win situation: the archaeologists would get money for the obligatory research, the locals would get more tourists and construction jobs, and building firms would get commissions.
To make things even better, the programme was in its infancy when the 2008 world economic crisis hit Bulgaria. The construction industry was one of the sectors most affected, and for many companies rebuilding ancient ruins meant the easiest way to survive.
The government is eager to defend the way the money has been spent on these projects. Commenting on the lack of authenticity and very often pure kitsch of the new ruins, Vezhdi Rashidov, who has been culture minister in both GERB governments, explained: "A bit of stage design will boost tourism."
Bozhidar Dimitrov, the director of the National History Museum and a close associate of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, is all over the media justifying the construction of Micky Mouse ruins, twisting and turning basic logic. Bulgaria today can built whatever it wants, his train of thought goes, because in the 19th Century many European countries restored, using lots of imagination, their own medieval castles.
Many ordinary Bulgarians seem happy with their new ruins, but not everyone agrees.
When Bozhidar Dimitrov went to Plovdiv this spring for a public meeting regarding the restoration of the city's old fortifications, the audience booed him and did not allow him to speak. A number of prominent historians, archaeologists and intellectuals have also objected publicly to the restorations, and activists tried to physically stop the building on the Yaylata plateau.
For now, however, these voices of protest are too weak to change anything. The crisis is still ravaging Bulgaria, the voices of patriotism are becoming louder, and there are still several years to go before the end of this EU programme in 2020.