We made a 180 degree turn on our first impresion. Bulgaria gave us the high point of the European leg of our journey, both literally and figuratively, when we visited Buzludzha. Yesterday we left by bus for Istanbul, but with a promise to come back here and explore the country more, maybe when Plovdiv is cultural capital of Europe in 2019?
We spent a full day in Plovdiv, after 10 days of non-stop cycling. The smell of linden blossom was everywhere, we relaxed at some nice cafes with new friends after we put all of our smelly gear through the laundry. Plovdiv is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and it’s impossible to miss the Roman theatre or the stadium in the middle of town. A lovely end to our Europe trip.
Before we got to Plovdiv however we visited a place that holds an important place in Bugarian history and in my top 10 of all time favourite buildings. After we said goodbye to our friend the Danube we headed South towards the Balkan mountains. We spent a night in Lovec and headed for Gabrovo. We had booked room here so we would be well rested for next days climb up the 1250m Shipka pass and onwards to the 1441m Buzludzha; our first mountain pass, our first real climb. The room happened to be in a communist apartment block, one of the many concrete towerblocks we see everywhere. The room was falling apart but the view was priceless: from the 19th floor we had a clear view of the climb we were going to do the next day. We could see Buzludzh perched on top of the mountain range, like a flying saucer looming up out of the clouds. Unreal.
In the morning we set off, stopping off for second breakfast and a stroll around an ethnographic museum with historical houses, mills and working handcraft business. We had picked a small road up the mountain which was shorter (read: steeper) than the main road, but with practially zero traffic. The road quickly turns to rough gravel and we contemplate turning around to try the ‘official’ pass with traffic. The road ends up deciding for us: a river has washed away a section and we have to turn around. 700m climbed for nothing.. We head back to Gabrovo for our second attempt to cross the Shipka pass, this time taking the main road. The climb is relatively easy. It is gradual and beautiful, we are surrounded by beech forest and the traffic is altogether doable, as heavy trucks are not allowed over the pass. Still, we are climbing with heavy luggage and glad when we reach the top of the Shipka pass.
From here we take a small road that more or less follows the ridge of the mountains East towards Buzludzha. There is no more traffic, just trees and clouds and potholes. It is around 6pm when we make the final bend and there it is, one of the most interesting buildings in the world, guarded by a huge monument of two giant metal fists holding a flame. Buzludzha.
We leave our bikes and luggage with a French family in a campervan at the foot of the last 100m climb to the building and make our way up before the light goes away. There are heavy clouds on the Gabrovo side of the mountains but we are lucky, there is enough light and no rain and the clouds stay on the North side until we have put up our tent.
Buzludzha is an abandoned headquarters, conference center and a monument to Bulgaria’s communist party, designed by Guéorguy Stoilov and opened in 1981. It commemorates the founding of the Socialst Party and the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1877. Hadj Dimitar, the mountaintop where Buzludzha is located, once was the meeting place of the revolutionaries who planned the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and an important battle was fought here. The communist party cleverly linked the liberation and emerence of Bulgaria as a modern state to the communist party and ideology by claiming this place for their monument and meeting place. Since the fall of communism however the building has been abandoned, even though there is still a yearly gathering of the communist party nearby. It is slowly falling apart, and in doing so it makes for a beautiful ruin in a spectacular surroundings. It is a poignant place to contemplate the recent history of Bulgaria, the Balkans, the Eastern Bloc and the current state of affairs. Having climbed all the way up here with our bicycles makes the visit extra special, we have really earned our presence here. There are some other visitors who have arrived by car, but they leave before it gets dark.
We stay for the night even though heavy rain is predicted for the following morning. We put up our tent on the grassy roof of a hillside bunker at the foot of Buzludzha. The bunker reminds us of the terrible fear of the Cold War, when nuclear war was a very real and constant threat. The bunkers interior was once clad in marble, we suspect this was the emergency shelter for the communist hotshots who gathered here. From the bunker rooftop we look down onto the plain at the foot of the Balkan mountains, and behind us looms Buzludzha, now surrounded by clouds and only a vague, dark shape when the night falls. Despite the stark exterior it feels like a benign presence looking out for us and we sleep very well that night. Although this could also be because we had some apple schnapps and rose wine with our lovely French campervan neighbours.
Officially it is prohibited to go into the building, because it is desintegrating and could be dangerous. There is a small entrance hatch so of course we go in to explore. I have dreamt about this moment for a long time, but in reality seeing the interior was even more impressive than I ever could have imagined. For one there are the mosaics. Faces of Lenin and Marx in the central meeting hall, of happy workers, of the sun, the world, the red star, a hand holding a pen in the outer ring. Because it is decaying at such a rapid speed it feels like looking at the artwork of a long lost civilization, but the dreams and ideals expressed here so vividly only ended about 25 years ago, to be replaced by capitalism. This makes us sad, but at the same time it is very touching to see how socialism was once a real option. Buzludzha was built by and for the people, with the help of a lot of volunteers, and their hopes and joy are expressed in the mosaics. Another detail I could not have imagined was the sound and feel of the building. It must have rained, because there are sounds of falling drops and water everywhere. There are large gaps in the roof and the marble floor of the central meeting hall is covered in mud and water. Dripping water, crunching tiles underfoot, wind blowing. Again, the feeling of discovery, of looking at something we lost a long long time ago.
The French family invites us into their campervan after we climb down. They discovered Buzludzha by sheer coincidence, and would have missed it if the mist hadn’t lifted when they passed by. Their two girls love the building, so they came back to spend some more time with it. We have an evening of great convivialite, sharing our own dreams and ideals with Buzludzha as a giant touchstone in the background.