Derelict industrial town holds hidden gems
When you plan a trip in Bulgaria, Pernik is rarely on the list (except for one event, more on this below). An industrial behemoth of the Communist era that fell on hard times after the collapse of the planned economy post-1989, the city is known for its uninspiring urbanscape of factories in different states of dereliction. Its residents now often commute to nearby Sofia – less than 20 miles away, and have the dubious reputation of spending weekend nights in local clubs where fights are de rigueur. The comparison to Tolkien's Mordor has been made in popular culture and social media so frequently that is has long stopped being interesting or funny.
This explains why most people just pass by Pernik on their way to more attractive places, like Rila Monastery, Greece or North Macedonia. However, if you do leave the highway and head towards Pernik, you will discover a place that is, if not fascinating, then at least interesting to explore.
Pernik, for example, is one of the few old towns in Bulgaria which has not changed its name since its foundation. It has been Pernik since a fortress was built on the easily defended bends of the river Struma in the 9th century. The only hiatus was between 1949 and 1962, when the city's name was Dimitrovo, after Communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov, who was born in the nearby village of Kovachevtsi.
"Glory to the miners' labour" says a sign on the façade of the Mineworks Directorate, an emblematic Pernik site. In front of it is one of the few monuments to the victims of the Communist regime in Bulgaria. The directorate was privatised along with the Pernik mines after 1989. Its owner went bankrupt and in 2022 the National Revenue Agency put the building into receivership. Scandalised that the directorate could fall victim to some investor who would turn it into a flashy mall or demolish it altogether, Pernik citizens forced the city council to buy the building back. Eventually, the Bulgarian government lent the needed money. Until recently, the building was used for offices and there was a mining museum on the ground floor. Its interior and exterior have not been changed since its construction in 1932
The Pernik fort guarded the important trading and military road to the Aegean, and at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries it became a hotbed of Bulgarian resistance against the advancing Byzantine Empire. The local lord, Krakra, fought the invaders bravely and with all of his might, but in 1017 he saw that resistance was futile and surrendered to Emperor Basil II. His fortress remained an important outpost until the end of the Middle Ages, when it was abandoned. People, however, still lingered around the area.
In 1869, the fate of Pernik changed. Under Ottoman rule, significant deposits of coal were discovered in the environs and these were soon exploited. When Bulgaria regained its independence, in 1878, Pernik became one of the hubs of the new economy. The coal mines expanded, with Bulgarian and foreign investment, and a number of other industries sprang up, including glass factories and steel mills. The population of Pernik increased, rising from 1,413 to 12,296 between 1892 and 1926. Within a generation, Pernik became the industrial heart of still largely agrarian Bulgaria.
The face of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s forst Communist dictator, dominates over nameless Pernik miners in this relief in central Pernik. Dimitrov was instrumental for the organisation of the two big miners' strikes for better working conditions, in 1906 and 1919
It was only natural that this trend intensified when Bulgaria became a Communist state in the mid-1940s. Pernik became one of the favourites of the new regime, and not only because a number of top apparatchiks were born in the area. The city had all the prerequisites for an exemplary workers' community, and workers were the most fêted class in Socialist society. More factories were built, including those for heavy machinery and metallurgy, and the coal mines expanded even more.
The city swarmed with new inhabitants, spreading out across the valley. Today Pernik has 10 large and 33 smaller neighbourhoods, the names of some of which reflect why and how they came into being – like Prouchvane – or Survey, and Rudnichar – or Miner.
The Palace of Culture. The graffiti on the fountain's edge depict Pernik's symbol, two crossed hammers. The building was used as a backdrop in a 1970s East bloc movie about the deposition of late President Allende of Chile
Like all the industrial centres of Communist Bulgaria, Pernik suffered heavily during the post-1989 transitional period from a planned to a free market economy. Many factories were closed down and others scaled back production, leading to mass emigration. Pernik remains a sort of an industrial hub, specialising in heavy metallurgy, and has a major thermal power plant, but it is far from what it used to be in the past.
The face of Pernik is a mosaic of all the crucial periods in its history. The fortress where it all began is the city's main tourist attraction. Now known as Krakra, it is about 2 km from the city centre, on a plateau with fine views of the area. Until recently, a visit to the fortress made for a pleasant walk among greenery and the low walls of fortifications and medieval churches. A recent initiative, however, has robbed the place of all its rustic charm. Walls of plastic and metal now rise above the genuine ruins, "recreating" the long lost turrets of the fortress. As with so many fortresses these days, the "reconstruction" was made with EU funding, under the Regional Development Programme. It caused an outcry, but it is unlikely that the new structures will be demolished before the elements take over.
Monument to Georgi Dimitrov, who was born in nearby Kovachevitsa
The centre of Pernik is a mixture of buildings from the various stages of industrialisation. Among the rather drab and faceless apartment blocks and administrative buildings from the 1970s and the 1980s, the neo-Classical buildings of the Mineworks Directorate and the so-called Mining Church from the 1920s-1930s stand out, as does the Palace of Culture, from 1957 – a gem of Stalinist baroque style that has been used as film stage sets.
Pernik has its own history museum, whose exhibition includes artefacts from a Roman era sanctuary of Asclepius and Hygieia, but more interesting is the underground Mining Museum. Established in the 1980s. It went through a period of abandonment and ruin in the 1990s, and was reopened in the late 2000s.
An abandoned restaurant near Krakra Fortress
Curiously, the most popular cultural event in Pernik has nothing to do with heavy industry, but with traditional Bulgarian culture. It is the Surva mummers festival, the event mentioned at the beginning of this article. Held each year in January or February (the dates vary) since 1966, it brings together folklore groups from all over Bulgaria and Europe. On the coldest days of the year, when Pernik is even greyer than usual, the colourful masked men fill the central streets. Their bright costumes enliven the damp winter and the ringing of their bells echoes between the buildings, providing another reason to show that Pernik is not as unwelcoming as it is perceived by most Bulgarians.
The mummers that participate in the Surva festival take their costumes seriously. Many are dedicated to preserving the authenticity of the tradition that celebrates the rebirth of nature in late winter