January 2015: As part of a larger Eastern Europe trip, my friend Frank and I visited Bulgaria on a 4-day trip. I organized the trip with the help of my Bulgarian friend from San Diego, Svetlana. We stayed at Svetlana’s parents’ house in Sofia and for her friend, Stanislov  drive us to the central mountains of the country to visit the abandoned and bizarre Soviet era building that is in the shape of a spaceship, Buzludzha. Along the way, we had some other interesting adventures.

About Buzludzha

Buzludzha is the location of a battle between Turkish and Bulgarian forces that occurred in the 1800s. Because of the symbolic victory of Bulgarian troops, the communist party choose in built a huge concrete spaceship looking building on a mountain top in the 1970s as a meeting place for communist government officials. When the Bulgarian communist govt collapsed in the late 1980’s, Buzludzha was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Over the years since, valuable metals inside have been removed by vandals and the building has become unstable-on the verge of collapse. The government had considered renovating Buzludzha but no definite plans have been announced. In the meantime, the main entrance is closed off, trespassing deemed illegal-although no guards or surveillance is present. Despite these measures, vandals have created other small openings into the building and entering at the time of my visit was still possible. The main goal of my trip to Bulgaria was to visit Buzludzha and to get inside.

Location of Buzludzha

Capitol of Bulgaria, Sofia

Day 1: Stanislov picked us up at the airport and we spent our first night in Svetlana’s parent’s house in Svetlana’s childhood room. We were treated to a big Bulgarian traditional meal and Svetlana’s family was extremely hospitable. Sofia surrounded by hills and with its old eastern orthodox churches, Roman ruins and streetside cafes was a pleasant surprise.

Sofia Homestay

Driving Across Bulgaria

Day 2: The drive to Buzludzha took a full day from Sofia through twisting mountain roads. Along the we visited an old monastery- Shipchenski monastery and some ancient Thracian tombs.  Frank and I snuck into the monastery basement to listen to the monks practicing a chorus of angelic chants.  The We drove to the village of Shipka, where stayed in a family run guesthouse for the night.

Shipchenski monastery (St Nikolay)

Shipchenski monastery (St Nikolay)

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak

Visiting a Gypsy Ghetto

Day 3: On the side of the road outside of Shipka, I saw a Gypsy or Roma man attempting to flag down passing vehicles for a ride. At first, we drove passed him. I asked Stanislov if we could pick him up but Stansislov like many other Europeans is distrusting of the Roma and very averse to the idea. I convinced Stanislov that it would be an interesting experience and he reluctantly agreed. The Roma man thanked us for stopping and jumped into the backseat next to Frank. He instantly had a smell of alcohol even know it was early in the morning. The man was friendly and explained he was on his way to his place of work in Kazanluk. Since we were on our way to see the Thracian tombs of Kazanluk, we decided to drop him off there. I knew that Roma tend to live in big communities under the Govern ship of a Roma King and so I asked the man if he know of a community like this in Kazanluk and that if he took us to one, I would pay him 20USD. He said he did and that he could take us to meet a king. I thought it was interesting that the man, who earlier claimed to be on his way to work suddenly seemed to have no interest in going to work and instead was free to take us to meet the king. Stanislov confessed that he was very worried about our safety and that there was a real risk of danger in visiting a Roma ghetto. Again, I convinced him that this would be an interesting and cultural experience.

Horse driven Roma Cart-common sight in parts of Bulgaria and Romania

I knew from my experience traveling in Europe that crime was prevalent among Roma populations and that we did indeed need to be careful, especially since we had our passport, money and all of our possessions in Stanislav’s car. The Roma hitchhiker brought us to a city block full of old and depressing communist era concrete block apartments, maybe dozens that appeared abandoned from the distance based on the level of neglect they suffered. The buildings were surrounded small wooden shacks, heaps of garbage and many of the windows were removed with random wires and clothes hanging from the balconies. Here, the hitchhiker said we would meet the Gypsy King.

Stanislov did not want to park his car near the Roma ghetto. He was concerned it would be broken into our even stolen by the time we returned and even the Roma hitchhiker recommended we park a few blocks away. So, we parked near a shop that seemed to be a little safer for the vehicle. From there we walked over to the gypsy community.

It became obvious very quickly that our hitchhiker friend didn’t seem to have any contacts in the community. He didn’t seem to have any ideas and so we just walked blindly into the community. As we came closer, we stopped to talk to some of the residents. Stansilov would always translate. One very large man with prison tattoos on his hands, holding a baby agreed to pose for a photo.

Roma Ghetto

Roma Ghetto

Roma man with prison tatoos on his hands holding a baby

It was a little uncomfortable walking into the community without a viable contact in the freezing rain, so we were about to turn around when a curious resident approached us to greet us. The man was friendly but gave off a vibe of being high on some kind of drug. He asked what we were doing, and I have Stanislov to explain to him that we were working for a newspaper in America, and we were writing about the poor living conditions of the Roma people to help convince the Bulgarian government to dedicate more money to improving their living standards. This was a spontaneous idea, but I figured it was a likely excuse to get us into the ghetto where we would maybe meet the king. The man lit up with excitement and was very pleased with our purpose and he decided he was going to take us around and show us the difficulties of living in the community himself for our newspaper.

The Roma man who became our un-official guide

The Roma man explained he would take us to the king but first he was going to show us his home inside the apartment building. We soon started to attract a crown and a group of about 20 Roma kids and adults started to walk with us all laughing and becoming very interested in our presence.

Small shops in the Roma Community

Small store selling food in the Roma community

Keeping an eye on our back, we always tried to maintain an exit path in case we encountered any hostile actors. The man brought us into a dingy apartment building with sewage and garbage piling up on the first floor. He pointed at it and asked us to document it for our newspaper.

Sewage and garbage piling up on the first floor stairwell

Rigged electrical cables tapping re-routing electricity from the main electrical grid. 

The apartment buildings were built during communist times and were abandoned. The Roma, who live on the fringes of society throughout Europe, started to move into them and claimed them for themselves. A giant Roma community started to spring up in the area. The Roma are essentially squatters in an abandoned apartment complex, and they receive no government services. As a result, there is no garbage pick-up, sewage treatment or running water. The garbage and sewage collect around the buildings and the Roma fend for themselves earning meager wages via recycling junk metal, begging, conducting manual work and other random jobs and yes some do engage in criminal activities. The Roma community, despite being impoverished, has small shops selling everything from food to electronics and it has turned into a bustling community alive with families and children. The electricity is spliced and re-routed from the main electrical powerlines. Many of the apartments are windowless and satellite dishes-many stolen- are strewn haphazardly along the building’s exterior. It was impressive to observe the dedication of the Roma to survive and to do by taking advantage of all resources both legal and illegal.

One of many abandoned cars strewn across the DMZ

Our Roma friend took us into his apartment to meet his family. It appeared as if multiple families besides his were also living in the damp and dingy apartment. The apartment was the epitome of squalor. There was no sanitation of any kind and little kids with snotty noses were eating food off of the filthy ground. Our host wanted us to document the water leak in his ceiling for our newspaper and he explained to the others that we were trying to improve their living conditions. I felt bad for making up the story, but I felt like this cover gave our visit some legitimacy which helped provide us a little more safety.

Family living in cramped quarters

Roma Child eating some food we brought with us. 

The wood heating stove next to the sleeping pads on the floor where multiple families slept

While we were inside the man’s apartment, we started to realize that our escape path was no longer available. Now there were more people interested in our presence and most of them were adolescent kids sniffing glue from paper bags and they were starting to become aggressive with us.  I realized that taking my SLR camera would be risky, but I was prepared to give it up, if necessary, especially if someone pulled a weapon on us. The possibility of this happening was starting to seem possible. Some of the adolescents were snickering and eying us with a kind of angry envy with a drug induced gaze that made me feel very un-comfortable. Plus, now we were clearly outnumbered. Stanislov approached me to tell me we needed to leave and leave quickly because he overheard some of the adolescents talking about stabbing and robbing us. Given the chaos that we attracted, I gave up on meeting a king since that seemed entirely unlikely and would probably result in us getting robbed, so we quickly removed ourselves from the apartment. Now people started to ask us for money and the mob took on a sense of desperation. We agreed it was time to return to the car and so we started jogging lightly back to the car, while the mob followed in pursuit yelling and demanding money. When we reached our vehicle, the mob surrounded it preventing us from safely entering the vehicle. To provide a distraction, I pulled out a handful of Bulgarian coins and small bills and threw them into the air, which resulted in giving us a few seconds to get into the car and make our escape while the mob attacked each other over the money. Stanislav peeled off and I’m pretty sure this was the last gypsy village he would ever be visiting.

Buzludzha

Day 4: To get to Buzludzha From the small village of Shipka, we had to drive up a small empty road into the mountains. Buzludzha was at an elevation of 4000′ and covered in snow. We were prepared with our winter clothing, but we didn’t expect for there to be a blizzard with whiteout conditions. Stanislov had never been to  Buzludzha either and this was just as much of an adventure for him as it was for us. He actually didn’t really understand our interest in Gypsie’s and old communist buildings. Most people in Bulgaria really did not.

Road to the mountains

Communist era monuments

Communist era monuments

As we approached the higher elevations the snow and ice became dangerous. Stanislovs small low clearance vehicle was hardly a match for the winter conditions. The snow was so heavy that we could barely see the road in front of us. We eventually found what we thought was a small parking lot for Buzludzha and we parked, donned all of our winter coats and snow pants and we set off walking up a hill into a blizzard. 

White out conditions

Finally the spaceship form of Buzludzha appears out of the snow 

The entrance that is all closed off

The tower with a staircase that climbs to the top

I knew from doing my internet research that there would likely be a small entrance off the side of the building. We had to climb over a few rusted nails and loose bricks but once we were inside, we were absolutely enthralled. We had the whole place to ourselves, and it was like traveling back into communist times. The building was completely abandoned and left to the elements. The huge ceiling in the shape of a spaceship was started to become fall apart creating large gaps in the roof and snow had fallen inside giving the building an even more surreal like atmosphere.

A hole in the side of the building that leads to the inside

We had to walk through a series of dark frozen tunnels and stairwells littered with debris that likely is asbestos containing before we found the prize, the large auditorium room where the communist party used to meet. A huge hammer and sickle were still visible in the decrepit ceiling or what is left of it. Snow had accumulated on the ground and communist murals, although peeling away from time and vandals, surrounded the auditorium. It was a magical sight and we sat in awe of this place for quite some time.

Me Standing in the Communist officials Meeting Room

Hammer and Sickle Ceiling

Stanislov

Communist Murals 

Communist Murals 

Communist Murals 

Me in the auditorium room

Dark and creepy dungeon 

Auditorium

There is definitely a risk of building collapse. The stairs are crumbling and falling apart, and danger lurks everywhere when you are inside Buzludzha. We climbed up a few flights of stairs to a viewpoint from the side of the giant space shuttle part of the structure and we could see the mountains through a gap through the clouds.

After spending a few hours in what remains one of my favorites so called urban exploring adventures, we decided not to press our luck any further and we snuck out the small entrance and headed back to Sofia.

More communist murals

View from the top

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