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In Search of Buzludzha - Balkans, Bulgaria

I first heard about the Buzludzha Monument whilst browsing an article online. I couldn't believe that this place even existed in such a remote location sited in the middle of Bulgaria. It looked like a flying saucer straight out of a science fiction movie that had landed in the Balkans undetected. The image of this unique structure had stuck in my head, it seemed to have taken a hold of me, it filled me with intrigue and I knew one day I would have to see it for myself.

A Short History of Buzludzha

The location of the monument witnessed a series of famous battles between Bulgarian rebels and the Ottoman Empire that led to Bulgaria's independence. 1891, a group of men met on Budzulzha peak to create the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers' Party, which later became the Bulgarian Communist Party.

The historical significance of the site led the government to approve a large memorial to celebrate Bulgaria's communist progression. In 1981, after nearly eight years of construction, 15,000 cubic metres of rock removed from the peak and 70,000 tonnes of concrete used, the Buzludzha Monument was unveiled standing prominently 4,698 ft above sea level. Designed by Architect Gueorguy Stoilov, his idea was to create a monument that could become timeless, by incorporating both ancient and futuristic motifs into his design. He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations.

“This intergalactic saucer echoed popular themes of the era” - Georgi Stoilov

The monument had nearly a decade of use, as the Bulgarian people had paid for the construction of the monument entry was free for everyone. The site served the functions of a memorial, a museum and a ceremonial venue, many visits were arranged by schools or employers, and more than two million people visited during its eight years of use.

A Relic to the Balkan's Communist Past

The 1990's was the beginning of a new era of democracy in Bulgaria but as the country opened it's borders to western culture and capitalism, there wasn't a place left for monuments to socialism. The Buzludzha monument was closed, sitting abandoned for half a decade on its mountain peak. Towards the end of 1990's saw the conservative and anti-communist government under Prime Minister Ivan Kostov begin the dismantling of various notable communist-era monuments. Kostov's government dismissed the guards who had been protecting the Buzludzha Monument, and left the building open to the public and unfortunately looters.

Now a skeleton of its former self. The glass is gone from its windows, the red star has been smashed, and the intricate murals that decorate the interior are falling gradually to the elements. Buzludzha has began to attract new kind of visitor. The breathtaking location, the melancholic atmosphere of decay, and all of that combined with the rich political significance of the monument, has attracted the attention of the world’s media and the intrepid explorer.

In Search of Buzludzha

With no public transport connecting this part of Bulgaria, the only option was to hire a car and make my own way there. Setting off from the city of Plovdiv, I drove through the beautiful Bulgarian countryside, through small villages, past farms and flat open fields which gradually revealed the mighty Balkans and my ascent into the mountains began. Meandering my way up mountain roads my first destination would be Shipka Pass, a location that witnessed the Russo-Turkish War from 1877-78 four battles took place here until a small army consisting of 5,000 Bulgarian volunteers and 2,500 Russian troops resisted an attack against a nearly 40,000 strong Ottoman army, the army finally overthrew the Ottomans and a monument was built to commemorate the battle in 1877.

Arriving at Shipka Pass I parked the car and ascended a series of what seemed like never ending stone steps that made their way up a steep incline through woodland towards the monument, a tame stray dog joined me half way up maybe hoping for some food scraps or giving me some much needed encouragement to complete the climb, we both eventually made it to summit and we parted ways.

Being at the top revealed a towering stone monument adorned with Russian murals surrounded by old cannons, with panoramic views of the mountains beyond. It was breathtaking scenery, stunning mountains peaks rolled into the distance and the only sound came from the rustling of an enormous Bulgarian flag that waved gracefully in the cool breeze. From my vantage point I could see the distinctive silhouette of the Buzludzha Monument in the distance, perched on it's peak my target was in sight so I eagerly headed back down and jumped in the car.

A Sight to Behold

I took the road that was sign posted 'Buzludzha', it was an old road that ventured into the forest and required some advanced driving skills as it was dotted with bottomless pot holes. I slowly negotiated my way along the mountain road avoiding the huge craters and the sheer drop on my passenger side, it felt like had been driving for some time until I reached a hair pin bend that led me out of the forest, back out into the open and suddenly there it was, Buzludzha.

I had anxious excitement laying eyes on the monument for the first time, I had waited so long to see it and finally I was seeing Buzludzha for real. It certainly lived up to the description in article I read, it was incredible! It really looked like space ship from outer space. A striking concrete structure it just dominated the landscape. I parked up the car grabbed my camera and made my approach, I was instantly confronted with a pair of colossal soviet inspired iron fists clenching a flaming torch, you immediately felt the power and scale of the place.

The UFO like structured seemed to hover above me as I ascended the paved pathway that wound its way up the mountain side towards the monument. I was in awe of its presence and the brutalist architecture with it's aerodynamic form and space age design it seemed like it was poised ready for take off. The iconic red star mounted in a slender tower glistened in the afternoon sun from last remains of it's ruby red glass, its concrete body showing signs of decay and water dripped from the cracks in the crumbling shell, it was clearly now a dying relic of the Balkan's communist past.

On top of the peak it was eerily silent no signs of life as far as the eye could see, just spectacular panoramic views across the Balkans, wispy clouds gathered in the blue sky with the setting sun. I sat down to take in the moment, over looking the landscape it felt strangely enchanting and magical like a closing scene of an epic sci fi movie.

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