Our first obstacle was a two metre drop through a concrete vent, easy enough to lower ourselves into. The next challenge wasn't so forgiving however - a three metre drop too high to jump down, especially with a sea of broken glass and jagged metal fittings awaiting us. I lower myself down carefully, reaching for a slightly wobbly concrete slab that would be my only foothold. Once I felt foot on concrete, I could then grab a long-disconnected electrical cable and use that to slowly slide down a rusty girder until I could brace against an old metal cabinet. A short jump and I’m in!
Officially known as the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, it is now colloquially known by its location in central Bulgaria - Buzludzha. And its shape gives it another (obvious) nickname – the Bulgarian UFO. Construction began in 1974 and was completed and opened in 1981. Once opened, its purpose was twofold - to host meetings of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and for Bulgarians to visit to learn about and pay tribute to both the Communist party and the historical significance of the region (the location of the structure was not by chance – it is found at the site of a pivotal battle between Bulgarian rebels and Ottoman forces in the lead-up to Bulgarian independence in the 19th century).
There is another angle to visiting Buzludzha – while it is perfectly fine to visit the structure, it’s actually illegal to enter. Besides a chained and welded-closed gate, there is no official way in. Enterprising locals have always found a way - our entry point is a vent that had been broken open weeks or months earlier. And there is an element of danger - as we discovered upon entering, the interior is full of hazards – a sea of broken glass awaits below. Any kind of accident, you can forget about your travel insurance company coming to the party. And there was no way we were going all that way to take a few photos of the exterior, remark how impressive it was and then leave. Oh no, we were going in!
Once we’re in we begin exploring. What we see is astounding. The building has been completely unmaintained for nearly 30 years and it shows. Swedish traveller Mikael explains: “Sometimes you hear stories of cool places and when you get there it is far from what you expected. This was the total opposite…. I actually thought at one time that I was in some weird video game.” As with the entry point, glass and rusty pieces of metal litter the floor everywhere. A series of corridors and staircases lead to the central chamber. The circular corridor surrounding the main meeting room contains numerous Roman-style mosaics celebrating Bulgarian Communism, hinting at a former grandeur. Now they are crumbling, with as many pieces on the floor as still in place on the wall. The interior chamber is covered in graffiti, much of it political and either topical or referencing the Communist period. Holes allow light to spill in, also leaving the interior vulnerable to the elements. Murals display Communist icons, from Karl Marx through to 1984-89 Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov. Above all of this, a faded hammer and sickle appears in the interior of the central dome.
After an hour of exploration, it was time to leave. Much like our entry, a little teamwork was required, although it all seemed a little easier in reverse. Before we knew it, we were out and reflecting on what we’d just encountered. We all agreed; it was unique experiences like this that you remember years from now.
The future of Buzludzha is uncertain. It seems likely that it will be turned into a museum, commemorating not Communism but rather Bulgarian history. Check out this page to see their vision - http://www.buzludzha-monument.com/project; on paper it certainly looks impressive and well thought out. I’m in two minds over this; while this is a unique experience for the traveller in its current state, it is up to the people of Bulgaria to decide what will work best. Only time will tell. All I can suggest is that if you have the chance to visit, do so while you can - it is not an experience you can take for granted.
Footnote – less than a week after I visited, I heard via a hostel manager in Plovdiv that officials raided Buzludzha while a small group of tourists and locals were inside. Details were taken and warnings issued, subsequently both entry points we were aware of were blocked. That was back in August so who knows what the situation is. But what seems certain is that people will always find a way in.