"Today I went to see that sort of an island with the ruins, but it was closed. I read that it used to be a school for fishermen," a British friend says, incredulously.
She sips her white wine, which we are enjoying in the best of Sozopol's restaurants, on the rocky shore of the old town, and adds: "Being a fisherman is not something you are taught in school, it is a trade that generally runs in the family."
The place she is talking about is difficult to miss. In modern Sozopol, a resort of brash new overdevelopment and manicured traditional architecture, the deliciously ghostly ruins on St Kirik island, just by the harbour, stand out. The beauty of the original building is still visible, deteriorating under the elements.
The building on St Kirik was indeed a school for fishermen, and was established under extraordinary circumstances.
In the early 1920s, Sozopol, which had been founded by Greek colonists in the 7th century BC, changed beyond recognition. The city, like all the major settlements on the Black Sea coast, had been almost exclusively Greek since the Russo-Turkish wars of the early 19th century when thousands of Bulgarians, fearing repercussions from the Ottomans, fled with the Russian troops. With tensions running high between Bulgarians and Greeks in the early 20th century, the brutalities of the two Balkan wars and the Great War in 1912-1918 proved too dangerous for both countries. In 1924-1925, the two governments agreed to de-escalate their conflict over disputed lands with a mutual exchange of populations. In this way neither Bulgaria nor Greece could later become embroiled in property claims relating to their citizens. This political decision came at great human cost, as thousands of Greeks and Bulgarians had to leave their ancestral homes. Local communities and economies changed as well. The Greek fishermen of Sozopol and all around the Bulgarian Black Sea coast were replaced by former shepherds and farmers, who had no idea how to make a living from the sea.
This was how the idea for a special school to teach fishing in Sozopol came about in 1924. The school would be under the patronage of the Bulgarian king, and would teach boys from the Black Sea settlements free of charge, while introducing modern seafaring methods and technologies.
In 1925, the construction of a school on St Kirik island, a couple of acres of land, started. Laying the foundation stone was a huge public event, attended by a number of officials and King Boris III himself.
If you are wondering why the opening of a school for fishermen attracted such attention, you would be right. The crème de la crème of Bulgarian political life was assembled in Sozopol because the school was more than it appeared on the surface.
It was a covert operation by the Bulgarian government to navigate around one of the most humiliating stipulations of the Neuilly Treaty of 1919, imposed by the Entente on defeated Bulgaria. According to it, Bulgaria had to completely demilitarise, dissolve its Navy and Air Force, and forget about having modern weapons. Compulsory military service was to be abolished and the armed forces of the entire country were not to exceed 33,000 men, including the police.
Bulgaria complied, but secretly began a series of initiatives to ensure that it would not completely lose its military tradition. Thousands of gun barrels, for example, were used for the fence of the Military Academy in Sofia, with the idea that if an enemy attack occurred, they could be used as weapons again. The Labour Corps was established: while officially it was a compulsory period for Bulgarian youth to work for free on the construction of important infrastructure projects, the government used it as a cover for the basic military training that the boys underwent.
So it was with the Sozopol school. It provided not only a seafaring education, but also hosted the cadets of the officially discontinued Navy Academy in Varna. As early as 1920, the Navy school was removed from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence, and its navigation unit was officially renamed as a unit of fishermen.
In 1927, a quay was built, connecting St Kirik to the mainland. The school opened in 1930, but a couple of years later a media outcry that the Black Sea did not have enough fish to sustain a fishing industry forced the government to close it. In 1934, the Marine Engineering School (the former Navy Academy) moved into the complex on St Kirik island.
The Second World War was just behind the corner, and in 1940 the political climate was so different that the Navy Academy reopened in Varna. The building on St Kirik was abandoned.
After 1944, the Navy took over the island, turning it into a military base that was home to two naval divisions and a maintenance unit. More buildings were constructed, together with three underground depots. The island remained off-limits for civilians until 2007, when the Ministry of Defence closed the Navy base and transferred its property to the Ministry of Regional Development.
The idea of making the island into a tourist attraction is yet to become a reality and, although there is ongoing archaeological research on St Kirik, the place remains closed to the public. Meanwhile, lack of maintenance has taken its toll, turning the empty school into a melancholy ruin, bound to captivate the imagination of anyone who has eyes for its strange beauty.
High Beam 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.