Bulgaria features some of the best examples you’ll ever see of brutalist, post-modernist and socialist-realist architecture. These days, a lot of it has become so symbolically attached to the former regime that the modern government would rather leave it to decay. Some of these monuments have already disappeared completely – for others, time is running out.
On this intense 7-day tour we will cover more than 1,500km. Crossing two mountain ranges and travelling all the way to the Black Sea coast – as we visit some of the most fantastic architectural wonders built during Bulgaria’s socialist period.
Read on to find a full itinerary for this unique tour of the country’s brutal, bizarre & otherworldly monuments.
We’ll meet in the Bulgarian capital on Monday, and take a walk through the city centre. There’ll be stops at various historical sites – Roman ruins, Ottoman baths, cathedrals – as well as a whole host of socialist-era monuments. We’ll see the Monument to the Soviet Army, the heavily decayed Monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgaria, we’ll take a look inside the National Palace of Culture and admire the socialist-classical plaza known as the Largo.
Later, we’ll have a banquet dinner at Sofia’s first (and only) communism-themed restaurant.
TUESDAY: Koprivshtitsa – Beklemeto – Troyan
After breakfast we’ll meet our driver, then visit the sculpture garden at the Museum of Socialist Art. From there we drive to the Banner of Peace to ring the ornamental bells gifted by former allies such as the USSR and North Korea.
In the afternoon we’ll leave Sofia behind, heading east into the foothills of the Balkans. We’ll see the Monument to Georgi Benkovski at Koprivshtitsa, and then ascend the mountain – to find the Arc of Liberty, a massive monument situated at an altitude of 1,520m in the Beklemeto Pass. We’ll spend the night nearby, in the historic town of Troyan.
WEDNESDAY: Veliko Turnovo
Perched precariously on the side of a steep river valley, Bulgaria’s ancient capital is easily one of the most beautiful cities anywhere in the Balkans.
We’ll stop at a couple of interesting roadside monuments on the way from Troyan, and then spend the rest of the day in Veliko Turnovo. Here we can explore the Old Quarter, visit the fortress and see the striking Monument to the Asen Dynasty. There will be some free time in the afternoon, and then we’ll meet up again in the evening to sample some traditional local cuisine.
THURSDAY: Shumen – Varna
In the morning we’ll drive to Shumen, and visit the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State. Prepare to be blown away by the sheer size and intensity of this unique, cubist memorial complex, which sits on a mountain plateau overlooking the city.
From there we drive to Varna, Bulgaria’s ‘Summer Capital’ on the Black Sea coast – where we’ll visit the wonderfully weird Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. After that we’ll check into our hotel, then head to the beach for cocktails followed by dinner at a Turkish restaurant.
Breakfast comes with a sea view – a buffet served on the fourteenth floor of our hotel. After that we’ll have some free time. You could explore the city, its Roman baths, visit the museum and see the oldest gold jewellery in the world… or, simply unwind on the beach.
Later on we’ll hit the road, following the coast south to get to Burgas. We’ll visit a MiG graveyard, then take a walk through the sleepy, cobbled streets: from the Monument to the Soviet Army in the city centre, down to the waterfront, and the socialist-era Pantheon in the Sea Gardens.
SATURDAY: Stara Zagora – Buzludzha – Plovdiv
Saturday is our busiest day, so we’ll get an early start – and head first to the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, on its lonely hilltop near the city of Yambol. After that we’ll visit the Memorial Complex to the Defenders of Stara Zagora, which commemorates the Russian and Bulgarian soldiers who fought here during one of the bloodiest battles of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War.
Nearby, we’ll stop for lunch at a traditional mehanadecorated in old propaganda posters… before heading up the mountain for the main attraction.
For many people, Buzludzha will be the highlight of the tour. The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party sits at the top of the mountain, abandoned since the 1990s and now one of the world’s most famous modern ruins. At a height of 1,432m, the views are just incredible… but the monument’s interior is more impressive still. We’ll spend the whole afternoon exploring, before heading back to the bus and driving south to Plovdiv.
Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe – with a history dating back 5,000 years or more. We’ll find our hotel, have dinner, then enjoy an evening stroll through the colourful streets and Roman ruins of the lively Old Town area.
SUNDAY: Perushtitsa – Batak – Sofia
Our final day will be spent touring historic sites around the Rhodope Mountains – stopping first to visit the Fraternal Barrow monument on our way out of Plovdiv.
At Perushtitsa we’ll see the Monument to the Three Generations, a beautiful stone crypt overlooking the plains. After that we visit Batak – the site of a terrible massacre in 1876. We’ll walk up to the monument overlooking the town, as well as visiting the church that contains the preserved bones of massacre victims. Finally, we head back to Sofia: for one last group dinner and farewell drinks.
MONDAY: Optional Rock Climbing Add-On
Day 8 of the tour is entirely optional – and some people will already have gone their own way by this point. But for those still standing, there’ll be an invitation to head out somewhere beautiful for an afternoon of rock climbing. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to wind down from an intensive week of history and architecture.
This day-trip is being run by local experts. Equipment will be provided, all you’ll need are stretchy clothes and a decent pair of sports shoes. The price and other details will be confirmed once I know how many are interested.
One site which definitely warrants inclusion into our Abandoned Places list is the otherworldly Communist Party Headquarters on Mount Buzludzha, Bulgaria.
Easily one of the most bizarre abandoned buildings in the world, this giant concrete saucer is just one of a long list of forgotten communist monuments that are scattered across Bulgaria:
Like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie…
The Buzludzha monument – or to give the building its official name, the ‘House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party’ – was envisaged as a symbolic meeting place for the communist regime. Resembling something straight out of a 1950s sci-fi flick, the colossal concrete saucer perches at an altitude of 1441 metres above sea level – on one of the most inhospitable peaks of the Balkan Mountains.
It was here that foreign dignitaries would meet with local communist leaders, beneath the tiled mosaic faces of Engels, Marx and Lenin. During its heyday Buzludzha was a centre for political rallies and award ceremonies, set in a remote location linked to one of the great turning points in Bulgarian history; just 18km from the peak of Mount Buzludzha, the Shipka Pass saw perhaps the bloodiest battle of the Russo-Turkish War.
An iconic symbol, intended to mark Bulgaria out amongst the rest of the communist world… The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party was completed in 1981, for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Shipka Pass. The project cost in excess of 16 million Bulgarian Levs – that’s something in the region of 10 million US dollars, before you take inflation into account.
The funds for the project came in the form of voluntary donations from the Bulgarian people, and thousands of volunteer labourers worked on the site. While the communists were perhaps too liberal with their use of the word ‘volunteer’, there was nevertheless a lot of pride attached to the monument on Mount Buzludzha:
The tower of Buzludzha reaches a total height of 107m; the red Soviet star adorning its side measuring three times the diameter of the star emblazoned onto the tower of Moscow’s Kremlin. An eternal flame set into the front courtyard served as a tribute to fallen comrades, while great concrete letters were hung around the main entrance to spell out rousing verses:
“ON YOUR FEET, DESPISED COMRADES!
ON YOUR FEET YOU SLAVES OF LABOUR!
DOWNTRODDEN AND HUMILIATED,
STAND UP AGAINST THE ENEMY!”
The words come from ‘The Internationale’: a revolutionary song from the nineteenth century, which gained great popularity amongst socialist, communist and leftist groups. Here though, the verses have been recorded in an old dialect of Bulgarian. As such, it seems to summon up a sense of the nation’s proud and independent past.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the central meeting chamber
A large auditorium was surrounded by tiered benches, its walls decked with intricate mosaic murals. It is said that over 60 artists were recruited for the task, detailing the likenesses of Engels, Marx and Lenin in addition to the leaders of Bulgarian communism; Georgi Dimitrov and Todor Zhivkov, as well as the socialist philosopher Dimitar Blagoev:
High above them all, the vaulted ceiling is set in with a hammer and sickle motif in red, green and gold. Around it, the words: “Proletariats of Every Country Join Together”:
The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party was no doubt a wonder in its day. Bulgaria’s socialist republic came to an end in 1990 however, just shortly before the final collapse of the USSR in 1991. After this point, the decay set in fast.
The extreme location of the monument places it in the path of ravaging winds, harsh storms and bitter winters. The outer windows were the first to go, followed by large sections of the metal-tiled roof.:
Bulgaria is one of the newest countries to join the European Union; this sparsely populated nation being perhaps best known for its Black Sea beaches, strong liquor and rose fields. However, for some visitors Bulgaria also offers a unique window onto a time gone by.
Turn the clock back to the late nineteenth century:
Bulgaria had been under Ottoman occupation for almost five centuries, and following the liberation of Bucharest to the north, an army of Russian and Romanian forces swept down into the country’s northern plains.
Bulgaria is divided in two, from west to east, by the Balkan Mountains. In 1877, a troop of 2,500 Russian soldiers and roughly 5,000 Bulgarian volunteers stormed a Turkish garrison at Shipka Pass… before successfully holding it against a 38,000-strong Ottoman army approaching from the south. It was the beginning of Bulgaria’s long-lasting fealty towards her Russian cousins.
Bulgaria reclaimed its independence in 1891, reverting to the Tsardom it recognized prior to the Ottoman invasion. However, socialist revolutionaries began meeting in secret on Mount Buzludzha. Following in the footsteps of post-revolutionary France, Dimitar Blagoev and other social philosophers began laying the foundations for the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party… a precursor to the later Bulgarian Communist Party.
Bulgaria was locked in the thrall of communism from 1946 until 1990, during which time orders came from Moscow and many school children began each day with a recital of the Russian anthem. This era also saw the construction of a number of vast, concrete monoliths, as the new regime sought to plant its stamp onto the very fabric of the land.
More than 150 communist monuments appeared across Bulgaria during these years, overlooking mountain lakes, or rising in the hearts of cities; they stand in forests and in cemeteries, in parks or by the coast. Rich in symbolism, these structures are designed to represent ancient heroes, or to glorify the icons of Soviet ideology… one feature they all seem to share however, is their stark, brutalist style.
Nowadays, many of Bulgaria’s communist ghosts have finally been put to rest. Of all the remains of this dead regime however, few present quite such a striking image as the Mount Buzludzha monument…
Forget Your Past…
Sometime after 1991, the words ‘FORGET YOUR PAST’ were scrawled in red paint above the main entrance to the Buzludzha monument. This iconic graffiti appears in many photos of the site, the sentiment serving to summarize the feelings of many Bulgarian people. Nowadays most young Bulgarians would simply rather forget their nation’s communist past, drawing a line beneath the mistakes made by another generation.
Not every Bulgarian is so keen to see their history erased, however.
Even now, plans are being made to restore the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party to its former glory. On one of my numerous visits to the site, I got talking to a couple of developers who were surveying the building.
“Of course [the post-communist state] let it fall apart,” one of them told me. “Its decay marks a victory over their predecessors.”
The striking red slogan was painted over in 2012, while deep inside the bowels of Buzludzha another graffiti tag has appeared by way of correction. “Don’t forget your past,” it recommends.
During the course of the week we’ll be driving all over the country and stopping off in a total of 15 different towns and cities. Comfort is a priority – so we’ll have our own private bus for the journey, a modern, air-conditioned vehicle with a professional driver.
All 7 nights of accommodation, Monday to Sunday, are included in the price. Some nights we’ll get to enjoy traditional, rustic settings, while other hotels are architectural attractions in their own right – including one hotel designed by the architect responsible for the Buzludzha monument.
The price of the tour includes a daily breakfast, either at the hotel or on the road – as well as a proper meal every evening. Over the week we’ll try a range of different local specialities, with vegetarian and vegan options available on request.
All entry fees related to the tour are included in the cost. In addition to a dedicated driver there’ll be two guides on hand throughout: myself and a Bulgarian colleague, who between us will be able to bombard you with historical anecdotes, answer your questions, provide translations and generally show you a good time.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
What makes this tour so special?
This tour is like nothing else on the market. It’ll take you to places that don’t feature in guidebooks, and in some cases, places that even the locals have never heard of. The week-long itinerary represents the result of years of dedicated research, and countless weekend road trips around Bulgaria.
Right now I’m just putting the finishing touches to my own book about Bulgaria’s ideological architecture – a project for which I’ve researched these monuments in meticulous depth. I’ve studied blueprints, original press releases and newspaper clippings. I’ve interviewed Bulgarian historians, academics, and even some of the original architects. I can tell you things about these monuments that never made it into the history books; and I can show you how their symbolism served as an ever-mutating propaganda tool of the Bulgarian Communist Party. I know these monuments like the back of my hand, and it’ll be my pleasure to share their secrets with you.
Will I be sharing a room with someone?
Yes – for the standard price you’ll be sharing a twin room with someone else. Naturally, I’ll try to pair you with someone you get on with… or if you’re travelling with a friend or partner already, then that’s even easier.
Alternatively, if you’d like a room to yourself just let me know. There’ll be an additional €120 charge for having your own single room throughout the tour.
Will I have a chance to take photos?
I’ve been on a few of those tours in the past where groups are rushed from one place to another so fast that there’s barely time to set up a tripod. This isn’t going to be like that, though. If you follow this site then you’ll already know that I’m passionate about photography – and there’s no way I would bring you to places this photogenic, without ensuring you’ve got plenty of time to capture the experience.
Why September / October?
In my opinion, this is the perfect time to be travelling in Bulgaria. It’s still warm, but without the full heat of a Bulgarian summer. We’ll be travelling outside the peak tourist season, but the days are still long enough to fit plenty in. Typically we should be able to expect an average temperature of around 22°C (72°F) in September, and 17°C (63°F) in October.
Can I go off exploring on my own?
Sure. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from heading out on your own some days, if you want to. I can gladly recommend walking routes, shops, markets, museums, parks and various other places of interest. I’ve already factored some down-time into the itinerary, and I’m not going to be offended if you feel like you need a little more.
Just please, keep an eye on the schedule – I’d hate to keep the bus waiting because one of our crew’s gone missing.
But I’ve heard that Bulgaria is dangerous…
Anyone who has been to Bulgaria will already know how crazy this sounds – but nevertheless, I’ve met people who haven’t been, and do actually have concerns like this.
Having travelled extensively in this part of the world, I can assure you this is the safest, friendliest corner of Europe that you could ever hope to explore. By the end of the tour, I’m confident you’ll feel as comfortable here as I do.
Am I going to get tired of looking at concrete?
The truth is, there’s so much more to this tour than just the monuments themselves. These objects were typically built in really interesting places: on top of mountains, overlooking the coast, in city centres or right out in the middle of nowhere. As a result, our surroundings will constantly be changing.
Meanwhile, these tours seem to attract a reliably decent bunch of people. We trek over mountain peaks together, we drink cocktails on the beach, we explore tunnels, get lost in forests and generally have a good time. This year we’re adding an optional rock climbing day to the mix as well.
A prior obsession with bizarre architecture will be a bonus – but it certainly isn’t mandatory.
What happens if I need to cancel my place? Can I get a refund?
I don’t want your money if you’re not coming with us… but at the same time, the moment you commit to this tour I’m going to start planning things around you. It’ll cost me money to receive your payment, and so 10% of the tour cost is non-refundable in order to cover these handling fees.
If you want to cancel your place more than a month before the tour starts, then just tell me – and I’ll send you back the full price minus handling fees right away. The closer we get to the tour though, the harder it’ll be for me to fill your place on the bus. For this reason, if you cancel less than a month before the tour starts then I’ll need to hang onto 50% of the amount as security against empty seats. I’ll try hard to fill your place, and if I manage I’ll refund you the full price minus handling fee.
In the highly unlikely event that it’s me who cancels, then you’ll get everything back – I’ll refund you the whole lot, including any charges incurred during the transfer.
Traditional Bulgarian cuisine
17-seat private bus with air-conditioning