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. Seventy-five stamps brought you a silver badge, and with all 100 stamps you could become the proud bearer of a golden badge courtesy of the Bulgarian Tourism Union, or BTS.
The BTS, one of this country's oldest public organisations, was founded at Cherni Vrah on Mount Vitosha, in 1895. One of its founding fathers was Aleko Konstantinov, the writer who went down in history as the author of some of Bulgaria's best satirical pieces, including the immortal Bay Ganyo. Konstantinov, who in 1897 was assassinated by a stray bullet, was an avid traveller, and as such penned some of the earliest Bulgarian travelogues.
Through the years the BTS expanded. Many new members went on individual or organised travels and treks throughout the country. These included, but were not limited to, landmarks such as Rila Monastery and the Central Balkan Mountain Range. The BTS was also in charge of running the increasing number of mountain chalets, many of which exist to this day.
When the Communists took the power in 1944 they were quick to realise that Bulgarians, who were banned from travelling abroad, would be all too enthusiastic to travel through their own Behind-the-Iron-Curtain country. The BTS flourished under Communism with many new chalets and huts being constructed, with mountain paths getting marked and with Bulgarian school children being taken on fortnightly treks though the mountains, the so-called Excursion Holidays, a Communist-era version of the US scouting movement.
Following the collapse of Communism, the BTS quickly degenerated into a ghost of its former self. Many mountain chalets were abandoned, others were plundered. Membership plummeted as Bulgaria's young people could no longer afford to go on holidays, nor were they interested in visiting the locations on the 100 National Tourism Sites list.
With the improved economy in the 2000s and the new interest in environmentalism, the BTS regained some of its popularity. Some chalets were modernised and some of the older mountain tracks were reinvigorated. Notwithstanding the almost complete destruction of Bulgaria's relatively extensive and well-maintained elevated passenger ropeways, some new infrastructure was put in place.
Significantly, the list of 100 National Tourism Sites was revised. In fact, looking at what the Communist-era Bulgarian tourism authorities considered attractive for travellers and how they represented it is like reading a book, an encyclopaedia, of how public thinking has or has not changed during Bulgaria's uneasy and still continuing transition from Communism to democracy.
In addition to the standard highlights such as Mount Musala in the Rila and Mount Vihren in the Pirin, like Bachkovo Monastery and the traditional village of Zheravna near Sliven, like Plovdiv's Old Town and Vidin's medieval fortress, in its Communist-era heyday the BTS encouraged travellers to go to places like… the oil processing plant near Burgas, to a village near Yambol where the first Soviet-manufactured tractor was sent to, and to pay homage to a plethora of sites related to the pro-Communist resistance movement during the Second World War. These included monuments, ossuaries and battle locations. In most cases the stories told about them were heavily doctored by the propagandists of the day and were supposed to consolidate the Bulgarians' belief in the Soviet system.
Many of these sites have either been abandoned or completely destroyed. Yet visiting them – and knowing what you are seeing – will tell you a lot more about life in Communist Bulgaria than what the now supposedly democratic media activists will. Significantly, they will be a trip both in space and in time, a rare opportunity to experience firsthand the remnants of a world that goes on vanishing, hopefully for good.
Buntovna Mountain Chalet and the Barricades Open Air Memorial Compound
The name of this mountain chalet means "Rebellious" – perhaps not very appropriate for a place people are supposed to go on holidays to. The chalet has been renovated and is still operational but what really makes its mark is the Barricades Open Air Memorial Compound, advertised as the first of its kind in the People's Republic of Bulgaria. Other chalets in the area included Partizanin and Red Guards.
The compound included over 20 monuments, many of them water springs, devoted in the characteristic Communist fashion of the day to "three generations" of freedom fighters.
One of the most impressive in its almost surreal forms and dimensions depicts the rock-chiselled faces of local Partizans who died in battle with the Bulgarian police.
The bizarre Buzludzha Communist Party Memorial House, aptly nicknamed The Flying Saucer, has inevitably topped the Internet lists of odd and out-of-the-way urban exploration locations in the world. Though abandoned since 1990 and in a state of severe dilapidation, the Buzludzha construction continues to attract visitors from near and far who usually stare in quiet stupefaction at what should have stood eternally on a mountain top symbolising the regime that erected it in the first place.
The Buzludzha Memorial House was inaugurated in 1981 to mark the 90th anniversary of a meeting of 19th century proto-Socialists, led by Dimitar Blagoev, who were represented as being the direct predecessors of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Its construction had started in 1974, and the funding – an astronomical sum by the standards of the day – was secured by "voluntary" contributions by taxpaying Bulgarians who had to donate one lev each for the Buzludzha monument.
Buzludzha defies verbal description, but here are some hard facts about it. Its central hall is 14.5 m high and has a diameter of 60 m. Over 1,000 sq m of mosaics depict numerous scenes of what the propagandists of the day represented as seminal events in the history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. A huge mosaic effigy of Todor Zhivkov, the Communist leader in 1956-1989, hovered from one of the walls.
Previously, access to the bowels of the monument was possible. However, in recent years the regional governor of Stara Zagora, under whose jurisdiction Buzludzha is, has sealed all entryways into the building citing safety concerns. A uniformed policeman stands on guard 24/7 to prevent anyone from attempting to enter. Still, intrepid explorers from anywhere between the United States and Australia find ingenuous way to penetrate Buzludzha and take a selfie indoors.
While a series of Bulgarian governments have ignored Buzludzha the US-based Getty Foundation announced, earlier in 2019, that it would fund a conservation project to protect what it viewed as a significant 20th century building under threat.
Georgi Dimitrov's House in Kovachevtsi
Kovachevtsi, a non-decrepit village in western Bulgaria, would have stood just a perennial chance of being put on any tourist map had it not been for the fact that Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), Bulgaria's first Communist dictator and a stooge of Stalin, was born there. Dimitrov was a colourful figure and it is impossible to describe him in just a few sentences. Born in a poor Protestant family and rising quickly through the ranks of the Communist Party he was favoured by Stalin and at one point became the head of the Comintern, the Soviet-sponsored organisation to export Bolshevik revolution abroad.
His heyday internationally came in 1933 when he was arrested by the Nazi police in Berlin, accused of having set fire to the Reichstag. Dimitrov defended himself in what went down in history as the Leipzig Trial against none lesser than Hermann Goehring, the chief prosecutor, and was subsequently acquitted. In 1944 he returned from the USSR, a Soviet citizen, and installed himself as Bulgaria's first Communist president. The small house he was born in in Kovachevtsi became a site of pilgrimage immediately after his death in 1949.
Red plush and woodcarvings: each element of the so-called ritual hall of Georgi Dimitrov's memorial house suggests authority and solemnity
In fact, what you now see in Kovachevtsi is a new version of the original house which was destroyed by a flood before the Second World War.
There is not much to see in the modest village house, which is still maintained by the local council. What does strike, however, is the huge statue of Georgi Dimitrov in the village square, one of a handful of still standing monuments of Communist-era leaders in Eastern Europe.
Behind the monument is a large building, erected in 1953-1957, which has all the telltale signs of Stalinist architecture and decoration. Replete with a meeting hall, it has several rooms where the story of Georgi Dimitrov is told the way it was under Communism. Dimitrov, the "Leipzig Hero," is a larger-than-life proletarian fighter against fascism and capitalism, the "chief" of the Bulgarian nation. Not a word about Dimitrov's subservience to the Soviet Union nor about his plans to set up a Balkan confederation with himself and Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito at the helm.
The memorial house features a large reproduction of the 1933 collage by John Heartfield entitled The Judge and the Defendant, showing Georgi Dimitrov at the Leipzig Trial
Most of the artefacts on display in Kovachevtsi, which include some personal belongings of Dimitrov such as his pipe, were brought here in the 1990s from the now non-existent Museum of Revolutionary Movement in Sofia. Another site of pilgrimage for Bulgarian school children on organised visits to the capital, it used to stand opposite the Italian Embassy on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. It was knocked down in the early 2000s and the space is now an office building and a luxury hotel.
Kovachevtsi is one of those places which continues quite unabashedly to revere its son. A portrait of Georgi Dimitrov adorns the local coat-of-arms. And a recent renovation project breathed new life into what had become a rather dilapidated village square in front of the memorial house and the statue, possibly the only instance where EU cash has been used to celebrate a Stalinist dictator.
Mitko Palauzov, Gabrovo
Mitko Palauzov was venerated as Bulgaria's youngest Partizan, or pro-Communist guerrilla fighter. Instead of going to school, he joined the resistance with the encouragement of his parents. He was given to bear arms as an 11-year-old.
Accounts about what he actually did vary. The eulogists of Communism claim he was a bright boy who fearlessly handled his hand pistol. When he was not doing that, he enthusiastically recited poems by Hristo Smirnenski, a poet who described the plight of Bulgaria's poor. It is also alleged that Mitko Palauzov was ordered to stand guard outside while his parents held secret meetings with like-minded Communists indoors. Тhere is no explanation how adult and armed revolutionaries entrusted their security to a boy provided the government police had become increasingly ferocious.
Mitko Palauzov and his mother were killed in a police action at the beginning of 1944 when he was 14. His father survived.
After the Communist coup of September 1944 Mitko was haloed as a brave young Communist setting an example of self-sacrifice to be followed. Schools in Bulgaria were named after him. His home was turned into a museum. His father, who had started a new family, was made to meet with visiting members of Bulgaria's Communist youth organisations and tell and retell on a daily basis the gory details of the last hours of his son.
The house-museum is obviously no longer. Notwithstanding protests by parents who would not want their children to be exposed to images of armed teenagers, a statue of Mitko Palauzov holding a gun in his hand still stands in front of a school in Gabrovo.
Guerrilla Monument in Slishovtsi
Partizan and Red Army monuments continue to dot Bulgaria. In fact, there is hardly a village in modern Bulgaria that does not have at least one monument erected under Communism and designed to promote the Second World War resistance tales. Significantly, something concerning the monuments lined up at Bulgaria's western border with what used to be Yugoslavia makes them different in style and execution. They are bigger and more grandiose than their run-of-the-mill counterparts in the hinterland.
The monument at Slishovtsi is one such example. Positioned west of Tran just a couple of miles from the Yugoslav border, it was erected in 1957 when pro-Soviet Bulgaria had already fallen out with Yugoslavia's Tito. The monument depicted a huge Partizan standing on top of an ossuary where the bones of those fallen in the resistance were allegedly collected.
Slishovtsi was on the 100 National Tourism Sites list until the 1990s. The monument itself has been abandoned but it still stands crumbling by the road to the current border with Serbia.
Maritsa East Mining and Thermal Power Plant Enterprise
Yes, you've read that right. A coal-fed power plant south of Nova Zagora was on the 100 National Tourism Sites list all the way up to the 1990s. The power plant in question was advertised as being the "fruition of Socialist partnership between the USSR, the GDR and Czechoslovakia." None of these countries have existed as such since the early 1990s, but the chimneys of the power plant, now owned by an US company, still pump out smoke, a major pollutant in the region. Few tourists visit.
The Bells in Sofia
Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942-1981), the daughter of Bulgaria's Communist leader Todor Zhivkov, was also his culture minister. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall she continues to divide public opinion. Some think of her as a "red princess" who spearheaded nationalism in art and culture. Others focus on her penchant for esoteric Hindu philosophy and her relationship with Vanga, the blind clairvoyant whose predictions still get quoted in the Bulgarian media. However, there is a significant number of older Bulgarians, especially intellectuals who were pampered by the regime, who consider Zhivkova to have been a highly intelligent reformist who created a golden age for Bulgarian art and culture.
One of the major accomplishments of Lyudmila Zhivkova was the Banner of Peace World Children's Assembly, held in Sofia from 1979 to 1988. The 1979 assembly collected thousands of children belonging to 79 nations in Sofia for a huge festival to celebrate "unity, creativity and beauty."
One of the landmarks of the festival was the erection of a monument on the outskirts of Sofia which represented dozens of bells donated by the participating countries.
The monument still exists. Obviously, it is no longer as well maintained as it was under Communism, when it was on the 100 National Tourism Sites list. Interestingly, visitors to The Bells, as it is now referred to, can now see many bells donated by countries that no longer exist. These include the USSR, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Kampuchea and so on. They can also see bells donated by countries that have never existed, for example Palestine.
The Black Sea resort hardly needs any introduction to the parents of British teenagers who are not very happy to let their kids go on a wild party of cheap booze and easy sex. However, Sunny Beach has not always been like that. When it was constructed, in the late 1950s and 1960s, it was designed to be a modestly luxurious place for maritime holidays attracting both wealthier East bloc tourists and the odd West German, Frenchman or Briton who wanted to have some fun outside Greece and Italy. Sunny Beach was also the location where The Golden Orpheus, the East bloc's premier pop music festival, was held annually.
Nothing remains of the original Sunny Beach now. In the 2000s all of the old hotels, the openair theatre, the bars and the beachside restaurants were knocked down to make way for new constructions that attempt to build a Las Vegas with post-Communist new money. Casinos are de rigueur, the booze flows at cutdown prices and Burgas Airport gasps for air when the charter flights start arriving in summertime.
Sunny Beach in the 1980s
First Tractor in Veselinovo, Near Yambol
No. 100 of the list of 100 National Tourism Sites in the people's Republic of Bulgaria was an "exemplary" collectivised farm which travellers could choose ad libitum.
One of the recommended farms was the one at Veselinovo, near Yambol, notorious with a Communist-era eccentricity. It was the home of the first… tractor in Bulgaria, imported from the Soviet Union in 1940 and colloquially known as the Stalin.
It still stands by the road today, an eyesore of a rusting piece of farming hardware that was supposed to bring in the sort of new life that in 1989 was suddenly terminated for good.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage 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