Frankfurt Hahn airport is the grim epitome of Budget. The information boards are changed by hand, the lighting is dim, the walls are thin and greying and apathy leeches from the staff. This was no more evident than in the two women who sat at my check-in counter. A cross between Patsy from AbFab and the Hitler Youth, they kept themselves busy by rolling their eyes at customers and making derogatory comments in reply to queries.
Although those two delightful women were not on board the flight, my ears were instead blessed with the sound of hysterical children. They were that special breed of child who can cause deafness in a snake wearing earplugs from 30,000 feet. They comprised about 50% of the aeroplane’s occupants. When the plane made a safe, yet bumpy touchdown on the runway in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, a loud cheer and clapping erupted from the passengers, glad that the piercing cries experienced throughout the flight hadn’t interfered with the aeroplane’s navigation system.
From the airport, the drive to Sofia is somewhat depressing. Rows of identical mouldy cement communist-era apartment blocks sit dejectedly in the strong afternoon sun. The traffic is thick with cars, busses and trucks and the roads have more holes than a face that has suffered bad acne. Later, a Bulgarian joked to me that Bulgarians drive wobbly when they are sober to avoid the holes in the road, but when drunk, they drive straight.
The following day I travelled to the small village of Ivan Vazovo, just north of Plovdiv. I was picked up from the bottom of the village by my host in an enormous old campervan. After hoiking myself inside, I sat on a ripped-up chair as we bounced over the dusty streets to his home. The plan was to stay with his family for a week.
It isn’t everyday that a foreigner gets to live in a remote Bulgarian village. For my host, following his sister’s unexpected death, he travelled from England to Bulgaria to go paragliding, met a Russian woman living here and settled down with her. For me, I signed up to a website called HelpX where one can stay in a location for free in return for doing some work on their property. This may be in a hostel, an English teaching school or in my case, a permaculture farm.
Life in Ivan Vazovo is slow. It has its own isolated timetable that beats to the tune of the hot sun, the siesta and rakia (a home made, lethal spirit made from grapes or plums). Life with my host family was even slower as their timetable beats to the tune of rakia, smoking joints and planning what to do in their garden. Nevertheless, I spent a fair amount of time weeding, watering, and going on walks with their 3 year old, where we delighted in picking ripe mulberries and plums and were constantly invited into people’s homes for juice, biscuits and yoghurt (Did you know that Lactobacillus Bulgaricus was identified by a Bulgarian doctor in 1905?!). A local dog often accompanied us on these walks, acting as a protective fluffy guardian.
The area around the village is packed full of natural wonders. In the nearby towns of Bania and Hissarya are mineral hot springs, said to be excellent for health. In the small town of Sopot, crystal clear, clean water flows in torrents from natural springs. The water is so good that people travel especially to the area to fill up their supplies for an entire month. A few years ago, Nestle tried to buy the rights to the spring for the production of infant formula. Thankfully the Mayor overruled this attempt and the springs remain fresh, glorious and evil-empire free, for now.
From the farm, I hitchhiked to Veliko Tarnovo (V.T.), Bulgaria’s old capital, which is complete with a fort, radical political street art and the perception that the buildings are dripping down the hill. Most of my 4 drivers on the 3-hour journey to V.T. spoke excellent English, with one couple even giving me a running commentary of the views from the window, including a large UFO-structure perched on a mountain. The final couple were unable to find my hostel and ended up calling them and demanding that the receptionist come and find me in the main square before they would leave. Hitching is known to be extremely safe in Bulgaria, a bit of a left over from communism when very few people had cars but still needed to get around.
The surrounding region is packed with fascinating day trip opportunities and I was able to visit a few of them including the Dryanovo Monastery with nearby cave complex and Etara, an open air ethnographic museum just out of Gabrovo where you can see old-style houses and shops. Industries such as silver smithing and leather working are demonstrated in this village, as are other, more unique trades, which utilise waterwheels for their production. These included woodcarving, sawing, wool dying and spinning. It was incredible to see these amazingly old but effective technologies in action.
And then the opportunity arose for the most exciting visit of all. A chance to get down and dirty with the alien folk living atop the mountain in the flying saucer I had seen from the car window a few days prior.
The Buzludzha Monument is one of those buildings with a past as bizarre as its facade. Opened in 1981 by the communist regime, it commemorates the events of 1891 when socialists met secretly in the area and founded the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, later to be the Bulgarian Communist Party. It was also designed to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the foundation of the first Bulgarian Empire in 681 AD. The building took 7 years to complete, cost the equivalent of $10 million USD, mostly funded through “donations”.
It was only open for 8 years prior to the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989. Since then it has laid abandoned, a relic of a past that modern Bulgaria is keen to forget and the modern day Communist Party cannot afford to upkeep.
Exploring Buzludzha was incredible. When we arrived, the rain had just ceased and a thick fog enveloped the building, to the point where we never actually saw it, just a grey shape looming out of the clouds. The strong wind carried a fragrant scent of herbs and blossom. Indeed, the area is well known to many Bulgarians and they often come here to gather wild herbs for their cooking.
Standing at the entrance to the dripping building, avoiding large piles of steaming horse manure, we faced giant Cyrillic cement letters hung on either side of the doorway, compelling us “comrades… slaves of labour” to “stand up against the enemy”.
The modern-day entry to the building is no longer through the large, oppressive looking doors, but rather, through a broken window around the corner. Inside the building it was dark, musty and damp. A lot of it has been damaged through a mixture of vandalism, abandonment and exposure to the elements.
Following the fall of communism, people looted the building, including the huge, 30 ton copper roof. Tattered pieces of red velvet cling to the ceiling and speckle the floor like old confetti. White marble covers the walls and contrasts strongly with the decaying grey cement and rusty supports. In the main hall upstairs is an enormous mosaic constructed by 60 “volunteer” artists over a period of 18 months, which depicts heroes of communism. It is slowly falling apart and brightly coloured tiles litter the floor. Marx’s beard is rather unkempt.
Attached to the UFO structure is a 107m tower emblazoned with a huge red star- three times the size of the star adorning the Kremlin in Moscow. On clear days this provides stunning views to Greece and Romania. On this visit we chose to imagine those views whilst looking at the thick, white, oppressive cloud billowing around and into the building, slowly engulfing a history of secrets.