PostCommunism

PREFAB SOCIETY

With the mountains for a backdrop and amid large green spaces, uniform apartment blocks line up like Legos. Along the dual carriageway, 7km from the centre of Sofia, the underground comes above ground: Mladost Station.

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COLD WAR REMAINS AT PADARSKO, BULGARIA

If you ever find yourself in the Thracian Plain northeast of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city that holds many enticements to both expats and casual visitors alike, you will probably be bored. You will be doing the 20-mile drive over farming flatlands with little to distract the traveller's attention than the occasional roadside vendor selling tomatoes and peppers, or sometimes a mini traffic jam caused by a tractor going too slow. Then, quite surprisingly for a Bulgarian flatland where you are usually able to see for miles around, you will enter a thick grove.

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1,340 YEARS OF BULGARIA

When was Bulgaria founded? If you ask Google, be prepared for a travel through a rabbit hole of increasingly bizarre theories that use fanciful "evidence" to "disprove" the "ruling hypothesis" that Bulgaria came into being in 681. The most extravagant ones claim that Bulgarians are the oldest nation in the world, of course.

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BULGARIAN HORROR

As you drive up the progressively deteriorating road through the Balkan mountains the scenery changes. From the flats of the Lower Balkan fields northwards you enter an increasingly menacing landscape of steep hills and rocks, with what is known as the Trans-Balkan Railway line (cutting the Balkan mountain range from Stara Zagora in the south to Gorna Oryahovitsa in the north) meandering alongside a tiny river. Then, about 10 miles north of Dabovo, you take a steep road that was once asphalt.

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SEARCHING FOR BLOKE

Splendid saints, bosomy beauties in "traditional" costumes, saccharine angels: in the past decade, large scale wall paintings on concrete apartment blocks, business and public buildings in Sofia have flourished. The unveiling of the largest ones, particularly when Boyko Borisov's Sofia Municipality is involved, attracts media attention and results in an avalanche of posts, photos and shares.

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10 OUT OF 100

One of the most enduring tourism movements that several generations of inquisitive Bulgarian travellers have fond memories of is called 100 National Tourism Sites. It started all the way back in 1966 and, with significant modifications, continues to this day. Essentially, travellers are encouraged to visit selected attractions throughout Bulgaria and have their membership booklets stamped. In the past, whoever got 50 stamps was awarded a bronze badge.

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ON COMMUNISM, ANTI-COMMUNISM AND WHAT COMES AFTER

Among his many interests Communism – and what supersedes it – has had a special place on his rostrum. In his telltale style of combing the mundane with the philosophical, even allegorical, Lozanov begins this conversation, in his office at the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency located at Sofia's main thoroughfare that used to be called Lenin, by pondering over when exactly Bulgarian Communism ended.

There are two answers to this question. One is historical: Communism ended when former Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was toppled on 10 November 1989.

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WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

The assessment of Lyudmila Zhivkova, Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov's daughter, is more contentious than is customary for the public figures of Communism. What she did to Bulgarian culture in the 1970s continues to leave its imprint on public and social life, and even on the standpoints from which the nation views itself.

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WHAT TO DO WITH BULGARIA'S FLYING SAUCER?

During the past 20 years Bulgaria has gained notoriety with an unusual tourist attraction. No, it is not the Kazanlak roses, not the mushrooming "medieval" fortresses being erected from scratch with EU money. It is a former Communist "house-monument," perched on a mountain within the Balkan range, that is inevitably in the top three of the various Strange Tourist Attractions sites on the Internet.

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URBEX BG, PART 2

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy. Dozens of factories, cooperative farms, mines, monuments and infrastructure projects have now become a treasure trove for the urban explorer. 

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URBEX BG: ABANDONED RUINS INCREASINGLY ATTRACT URBAN EXPLORERS

Yet the sombre aura of desolation and utter despair exuded by modern ruins can be evocative. They simultaneously frighten, disgust and enchant. When walking around spaces that were abandoned mere decades before, we begin to reflect on the people – almost our contemporaries – who used to live and work there, and who then left, leaving behind a soiled rag here, a rusty bed or a desecrated image of a once powerful party leader there. Who were these people? What did they experience there? Such places remind us of the fragility of our own civilisation.

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STARA PLANINA'S FLYING SAUCER

Recently, Bulgaria has become a staple in the Internet lists compiling the oddest abandoned places in the world with a building whose creators hardly imagined, not even in their darkest nightmares, the way it stands now: the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party at Buzludzha.

The complex of an assembly hall and an huge tower of exposed concrete was built on Stara Planina's Mount Buzludzha in 1981. It was meant to be a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the predecessor of the BKP, which had been founded at that mount.

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DIMITROVGRAD BEYOND CHALGA

If you have spent more than a couple of days in Bulgaria you should already be familiar with Chalga. This tacky music dominates the mass Bulgarian taste. It blares from your taxi's radio, permeates house parties and low-key restaurants, stuns popular disco clubs and resounds from the open windows of flashy cars driven by chiselled guys or silicone-enhanced fake blondes. Chalga also inevitably pops up several times while you are skipping through your local TV channels.

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WAS JULIA KRISTEVA A COMMUNIST 'AGENT'?

Bulgaria has had an uneasy transition from Communism to democracy as a result of which it continues to experience painful pangs related to its recent past. Unlike other nations in the former Warsaw Pact  Bulgaria never made a proper de-Communisation effort. Top Communist-era officials and thousands of apparatchiks continued, and some still continue, to hold public offices.

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MYSTERY PEAK

A long, long time ago, a group of Egyptian high priests landed on what is now Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast. They headed inland, across the Strandzha mountains, until they reached a pyramid-shaped peak. They buried something there and then they disappeared.

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BULGARIA'S PARTIZANI MONUMENTS

Made of stone or bronze, these monuments adorn squares and streets, peek over the trees by roads, and form whole, often overgrown compounds.

Some of these monuments are maintained, others have been abandoned and crumbling. Some are in the realistic style known as Stalinist Baroque, popular across the East bloc in the 1940s and the 1950s. Others bear the hallmarks of the peculiar combination of modernism, cubism and sheer extravagance, typical for Bulgarian sculpture in the 1970s and the 1980s.

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FROM UTOPIA TO DYSTOPIA

Like Dimitrovgrad, Smolyan appeared under Communism as a result of the amalgamation of several villages. But while Dimitrovgrad is an example of Stalinist urbanism, Smolyan is perhaps the epitome of city planning under Mature Socialism.

In 1960 the National Assembly decreed three old villages along the Cherna River in the Rhodope to be combined into a town called Smolyan. It was also proclaimed the centre of the region.

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ETARA

When Lazar Donchev, the founder and first manager of the architectural and ethnographic museum complex at Etara died in 1976, his private study became one of the exhibits. His records and personal diary were left on the old desk, contributing to the mythical aura of the man who created from scratch Bulgaria's only open air museum, on the banks of the river Sivek, eight kilometres from Gabrovo.

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CREATORS OF THE BULGARIAN STATE

Japanese tourists often cannot believe their eyes when they alight from their buses and head towards the Creators of the Bulgarian State Monument in Shumen. For them, the statues of the rulers of the First Bulgarian Kingdom look as if they have come straight out of an anime classic like Voltron or Beast King GoLion.

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BYGONE NESEBAR

Zillions of stalls selling kitschy souvenirs, beach towels, jeans and conveyor-belt-produced marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and 200-year old houses.

Many tourists are actually wondering what they are doing in Nesebar.

The obvious answer is they are visiting what is probably Bulgaria's best known and most visited UNESCO World Heritage site.

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