Explore #121: Buzludzha Monument, Bulgaria – January 2015

I’ve got another one of my XXL supersized reports for you this time – the tale of three days spent up a snowy mountain top in the wilds of Bulgaria to see this little beauty…

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There were a few sore heads and bleary eyes the morning after our boozy arrival in Plovdiv and my late night explore of an ancient Roman amphitheatre, but we loaded up our hire cars and drove through the uninspiring Bulgarian lowlands towards something far more spectacular – Buzludzha! This place had been very much near the top of my exploring bucket list from the moment I first saw photos of the incredible interior. But I’m getting ahead of myself – time for a brief history:

History
(rewritten and abridged from original articles here, here, and a particularly excellent one here – all rights acknowledged)

Buzludzha is a historical peak in the Central Balkan Mountains of Bulgaria, at an altitude of 1441 metres above sea level. The peak and its surrounding area was the location of a number of important battles between the Russian Empire, aided by Bulgarian volunteers known as Opalchentsi, and the Ottoman Empire for control over the vital Shipka Pass during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878).

The Buzludzha Monument – or ‘House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party’ to use its official name – was built on the peak by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891, when the socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement which led to the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, a forerunner of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The Monument was opened in 1981, built by civil engineering troops from the Bulgarian army and thousands of volunteers at a cost of in excess of 16 million Bulgarian Levs (approx £6m). The monument was designed by the architect Guéorguy Stoilov, and construction overseen by master builder General Delcho Delchev of the Stara Zagora civil engineering section. Several famous painters and sculptors also participated to the decoration of the building.

The monument was envisaged as a symbolic meeting place for the communist regime, which would welcome visiting foreign dignitaries and hold political rallies and award ceremonies.The 107 metre high tower is emblazoned with a huge red Soviet star which measures three times the diameter of that which adorns the tower of Moscow’s Kremlin, so that it could be seen from far away in the lowlands on either side of the mountain range. 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!
LET US WITHOUT MERCY, WITHOUT FORGIVENESS
YES, WE TAKE DOWN THE OLD, ROTTEN SYSTEM…
WORKING MEN, WORKING WOMEN
FROM ALL COUNTRIES COME TOGETHER
FORWARDS! COMRADES WITHOUT FEAR
BUILD STRONG OUR GREAT DEEDS!
TO WORK AND TO CREATE…”

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 Bulgarian dialect, summoning the nation’s proud and independent past.

The 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, and 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”.
With the end of Bulgaria’s socialist republic in 1990, just before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the building became disused and uncared for and rapidly fell into serious disrepair as a consequence of its extreme location, exposed to brutal winds, storms, and harsh winters. The mosaic of the last communist leader Todor Zhivkov was entirely removed, and vandals and thieves stripped the building of its copper adornments. The red stars on the side of the tower were even perforated by the gunshots of would-be-thieves, who misguidedly thought they were made of ruby!

Nowadays the monument’s remains are the setting for the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s annual meeting, which attracts crowds of up to 40,000 people in late July / early August. The official meeting at the gathering always starts with a singing of the National Bulgarian Anthem and the Communist ‘Internationale’.

Our Explore
Where was I? Oh, yes, hungover and on our way to Buzludzha….

Day One
It was mid morning by the time we turned off from the lowlands and headed up the winding mountain road towards Buzludzha. The weather wasn’t great, but we stopped briefly to take a quick shot of the ‘torch’ monument which is positioned by the side of the road a few hundred metres down the mountain…

As always, click on a photo to VIEW LARGE

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We then arrived at the mountain chalet which was to be our home for the next three days. We were greeted by Nicola and Jonathan, two ex-pat friends of Rebecca who have been to Buz more times than I’ve had hot meals, and a couple of their Bulgarian friends Dorina (who was to model for Rebecca) and her boyfriend Ivan. The other chalet guests were all local Bulgarians, who seemed intent on enjoying the weekend judging by the cans of beer they were ploughing into at 10am…

We were all itching to get up the mountain, so as soon as we had checked in we jumped back in our hire cars and navigated the final handful of twists and turns up the mountain until we got as far as the road would take us. Hiking over the brow of the hill we caught our first proper glimpses of the mighty Buz, and proceeded to excitedly shoot it from every angle as we approached it…

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The gang!

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We then climbed our way into the dark interior, struggling not to slip and injure ourselves on the treacherous ice-covered concrete stairs inside… and then, finally, I was stood in the stunning main auditorium (you should definitely click on this pic to view it large!)…

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…and here are a couple of photographs of the exterior of the monument and the main auditorium back in its heyday – spectacular!

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After 5 minutes of WOWing, we moved out to the single sweeping circular corridor which runs around the perimeter of the auditorium, admiring the remains of the tile mosaics on the walls and the stunning views over the surrounding countryside…

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Here are a couple more old photographs which show how the corridor used to look in its pomp.

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Darren, Richie and I then decided to climb the tower – this was something which I had been looked forward to and dreading in equal measures. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have what I like to classify as a “healthy” fear of heights. But I am also working on facing that fear, whilst not taking unreasonable risks, and have definitely got better at facing down the high stuff over the past couple of years since I’ve got into exploring.

The ascent of the tower involved climbing up a series of around twenty five (I lost count) 10-foot high ladders in the pitch-dark interior. Darren and Richie had scampered off ahead, so I made the climb alone and with only a solitary torch which decided to take that moment to start cutting out intermittently! Each time the torch cut out I banged it against the metal ladder, which brought it flickering back to life, as I wondered whether then next bash would be the one which would kill the torch for good.

Luckily the torch kept going until I reached the level where the huge red stars are adorned on the exterior of the tower. The next couple of floors were bathed in a mix of natural and red-tinted light, as the winter sun shone through holes and the red stars respectively. Here is a photo that Darren took of me on the way back down – I should also add that the floor was decidedly rusty metal sheeting, which flexed unnervingly as you trod on it…

darren pic of me in tower

After the ‘stars’ levels there were about 5 more floors to climb – all by ladders of varying degrees of decrepitude. Towards the top some of the iron rungs had ice built up on them… it was certainly a memorable climb!

But then, finally, I was at the top. I climbed out of a hatch onto the tiny rooftop, and took in the stunning views (sorry, I get the feeling I’m going to be using words like “stunning” quite a lot in this report)…

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Looking down onto the roof of the main building / auditorium…

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Team shot with Darren and Richie.

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After a while we all decided to head back down. I had thought of trying the infamous ‘ledge of doom’, which juts out from the top of the tower and overlooks the auditorium but to be honest I was feeling pretty tired, and the climb up had been enough of a challenge for me for one day. So Darren and I left Richie to take some naked selfies (!) on the tower roof as we headed back down. Here are a few of my shots from the stars level…

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By the time we got back down to join the others it was late afternoon…

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My tiredness was really catching up on me, and I was conscious that I had offered to cook dinner for everyone that night, so decided to head back to the chalet for an hour or two of down time before the evening’s festivities.

After a couple of hours of chilling out the rest of the gang arrived back at the chalet. James was hammered drunk (he had polished off his hip flask of Jack Daniels), and proceeded to gleefully tell me how the rest of them had gone up the tower and taken photos out on the ledge of doom! I felt a bit disappointed that I had missed out, but equally I knew that wouldn’t have been happy attempting it in the tired state that I had been in. So I busied myself with making what turned out to be a pretty disgusting concoction from the various bits and pieces we had drunkenly bought in the Plovdiv supermarket the night before – the dodgy smoked Bulgarian sausage ruined it, but we did enjoy the stupidly cheap big bottles of Bulgarian beer that we had also bought! 🙂

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As we finally turned in for the night a few flakes of snow started to fall. We asked the chalet owner whether he thought it would settle, but he said the forecast was that it wouldn’t and that there wouldn’t be any snow that weekend. We tried not to be too disappointed, but we had deliberately booked to visit in January in the hope of there being some snow…

Day Two
We awoke with sore heads, but these were forgotten in an instant when we looked out of our chalet window to be greeted with this:

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It was like waking up to a dream Christmas morning!

After a quick breakfast we headed back up the mountain. But the foot or so of snow which had fallen meant we had no chance of using our hire cars (even with snow chains), so we all hopped on Jonathan and Nicola’s 4WD jeep instead!

The weather at the top was atrocious – howling wind, low cloud and semi-blizzard conditions. We pressed on through the knee-deep snow towards the monument…

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Once inside the building the noise inside the auditorium was incredible. Huge pieces of melting snow kept falling from the ceiling, and there was the sound of dripping water everywhere. As we were effectively in the middle of the low-lying clouds the moisture content in the air was ridiculous, and made it extremely difficult to take photographs. I was glad that my DSLR is weather-sealed. I was also glad that I had forked out for some fur-lined snow boots especially for the trip!

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The conditions out in the corridor were even worse…

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…after a few quick shots I retreated back into the auditorium…

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Darren and I sheltered in an alcove from the melting snow which was raining down – check out the icicles!

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Rebecca took this cool group shot of us all (used with kind permission)

It was then selfie time…

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Given the terrible conditions I then ventured down into the basement underneath the auditorium, where we took a few more shots and Dan was kind enough to share some of his steel wool to play with – this was my first ever attempt at doing this, but I’m reasonably pleased with the results.

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Dan…

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…and me!

By early afternoon everyone was pretty cold and still moderately hungover, so we decided to head back to the chalet for some warmth and alcohol. On our way back to the jeep James and I grabbed a few more external shots – these were all taken within about 10 minutes of each other, and illustrate just how variable the weather was at the top…

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We then jumped back onto the jeep – all ten of us!

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(Photo by Darren Smith, and used with kind permission)

Once back down the mountain I took a few shots looking up towards our chalet, with Buzludzha just peeking through the clouds in the distance…

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Soon the sun was setting on another great day up the mountain…

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…and it was time for pizza and alcohol! 🙂

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Day Three
The final day turned out to be the best weather-wise, and rewarded our decision to spent three days up the mountain.

With snow still thick on the ground we caught our 4WD ride back to the top. With clearer weather we took yet more externals…

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…we then hiked over to a neighbouring peak for a different view back over the monument and breathtaking scenery…

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James creating his magic. 😉

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Group shot taken by James and used with kind permission.

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Walking back to Buzludzha I couldn’t resist taking a quick panorama shot on my iPhone….

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Here’s another cool group shot taken by Rebecca, used with kind permission.

I then went back into the auditorium to focus on recording some of the details of the remaining mosaics adorning its walls…

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Looking up… “Proletariats of Every Country Join Together”

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Dimitar Blagoev

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Georgi Dimitrov

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Looking out over the mountains I knew that there was just one last thing I needed to do…
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I grabbed Darren, who is the calmest and most sensible of the group, and asked whether he would be my wingman for one last mission. He agreed..

…15 minutes later, I climbed out over the metal railings onto the wooden LEDGE OF DOOM. My heart beating out of my chest I lay down and pointed my camera over the edge and down…

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(Photo taken by Darren)

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“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” – Sir Edmund Hilary.
Only two years ago I was truly petrified climbing two stories of secure scaffolding.

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And so with the tower conquered it was finally time to say farewell to Buzludzha and head back down the mountain. Although a lot of the snow had melted our cars still needed a tow from the jeep to get us back onto the road.

We stopped again at the torch monument for some shots…

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…and I’ll leave you with just one last shot, taken on my iPhone as we drove away…

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If you’ve read this far then thank you so much for sticking with me! Please also have a look at this brilliant little video that James compiled of our trip – well worth a watch. 🙂

On the way back to Plovdiv airport we made a brief stopover to explore an abandoned train graveyard which guarded with security and dogs. That report up next!

Thank you for visiting, Comrade.

Adam X

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4 thoughts on “Explore #121: Buzludzha Monument, Bulgaria – January 2015

  1. Incredible shots in a breathtaking location – beautifully done Adam. There really isn’t anything else like this place is there? A big ‘well done’ also for tackling the Ledge of Doom! Great planning getting the set over three days – such a variety of conditions and viewpoints, just spectacular. Very clever with that last shot… My vicarious urbex journey continues thanks to yourself, Rebecca and James – thanks:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Explore #122: Locomotive Train Graveyard, Kaloyanovets, Bulgaria – January 2015 | Adam X

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