LOOK WHO'S BUILDING

by Petar Popdimitrov; photography by BTA

Some construction entrepreneurs in Bulgaria act with nothing but stupidity, greed and impunity

Outrage at Yaylata

One of the last remaining unspoilt stretches of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast was vandalised by an entrepreneur building a "hut." The story of the destruction of Yaylata, north of Kavarna, is brutal and at times surreal, but it exemplifies the complete disregard for nature, rules and common sense some Bulgarian construction entrepreneurs have espoused.

In November, in the interregnum between the first and second round of the local elections, Dobrinka Yalnazova, the ex officio mayor of Kamen Bryag, reported that several heavy trucks were pouring concrete at Yaylata, a protected archaeological area and a national park. It is one of Bulgaria's most famous natural landmarks, a declared area of special scientific interest that offers spectacular coastal walks and sea views. Arguably, Yaylata is Bulgaria's equivalent of the White Cliffs of Dover.

It took three days for the builders to pour many tons of concrete into what appears to be the foundations of a 500 sq m rectangular building a dozen metres from the sea shore. As many as 40 people, working mainly by night and in heavy rain, using searchlights and heavy construction equipment, did what Darina Mircheva, the manager of the local museum, would dub irreparable damage to "many layers of historical significance dating back hundreds and thousands of years."

Importantly, no one had known of any planned work in the area. Yalnazova called various officials in Kavarna and Varna, but not even Tsonko Tsonkov, the charismatic mayor of Kavarna who's made a name for himself for bringing Western rock stars to play in the summer months, had heard of any planned construction.

After several days the National Institute for Cultural Monuments, the state agency responsible for issuing construction permits for listed sites, produced a statement that the construction work at Yaylata was illegal.

At this time, the "investors," two brothers from General Toshevo, a village on the Romanian border, struck back. Ivan Pavlov, one of the brothers, claimed ownership of the land. He said he possessed a title deed issued a year before the area was listed, and threatened legal action to assert his ownership rights.

If recent history of Bulgarian construction activities along the Black Sea coast is anything to go by, the Yaylata swinery may get bogged down in officialdom and court battles that could last for years. In the meantime, officials say, the concrete foundations of what locals rumour is destined to be a restaurant will have to be demolished in a complicated operation involving TNT, similar to the 1999 demolition of the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov in Sofia.

The 75-acre Yaylata reserve is the natural habitat for at least a dozen endangered animal and floral species. It includes a 101-piece cave city dating back to 5000 BC as well as various other monuments, for example a mediaeval fortress, that span several millennia.

At the same time news releases in Sofia revealed plans to "convert" Grand Hotel Bulgaria, one of Sofia's most emblematic buildings, into a shopping mall. The modern Grand Hotel Bulgaria was erected in the 1930s, on the site of an older building, also a hotel. By the time the Communists came to power in 1944 it had become Sofia's most famed hotel. John Reed stayed there in 1915, and so did Irish journalist James Bourchier, who died in it in 1920. C. L. Sulzberger of the New York Times and Robert St John of the Associated Press would come at the beginning of the Second World War, and Australian journalist and alleged KGB agent Wilfred Burchett married there in 1949.

Grand Hotel Bulgaria. Yugoslav King Alexander Karageorgevic visited in 1934

Grand Hotel Bulgaria. Yugoslav King Alexander Karageorgevic visited in 1934

To Sofia, Grand Hotel Bulgaria, with its marquee and name inscribed in girders on the steep, gabled roof, was what Pera Palas and the Athenee were to Istanbul and Bucharest. Grand Hotel Bulgaria inspired Angelika Schrobsdorff's eponymous novel, later made into a German TV production.

Under Communism Grand Hotel Bulgaria fell into decay. Its damp, dark-brown dining room with red dados was frequented mainly by down-at-heel businessmen from Turkey and India. In the 1950s the hotel's entrance was moved to Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, where it is now.

In the 1990s the Grand Hotel Bulgaria was bought by Iliya Pavlov, Bulgaria's then richest entrepreneur and head of the MG Corporation, whom many viewed as the epitome of Bulgaria's mutri-sation. Pavlov was assassinated in 2003 and his empire quickly disintegrated. The Grand Hotel Bulgaria was obtained by BT Development Services.

Allegedly an offspring of the MG Corporation, it plans to invest 80 million leva to convert Grand Hotel Bulgaria into a "polyfunctional commercial complex" to include a shopping centre, office space, a number of luxury residential properties and an underground car park.

The adjacent Bulgaria Concert Hall, Sofia's only dedicated classical music venue and the only music hall in Bulgaria with a functioning organ, will also be affected.

In a strongly-worded statement the Bulgarian Union of Architects condemned the plans to thoroughly alter what is a listed building of national significance. The investors claimed that they will preserve the historical facade and will not alter the overall urban appearance of the block. However, that was not enough to convince an increasing number of Bulgarians who are becoming frustrated by what they call "unbridled construction frenzy." A petition circulating the Internet and signed so far by thousands calls for an immediate halt to any planned work on Grand Hotel Bulgaria that will change its existing state.

What brings together Yaylata in the remote reaches of the northern Black Sea coast and Grand Hotel Bulgaria in the centre of Sofia? Put it plainly: hurry up if you want to see them live.

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