Veliko Tarnovo is a really beautiful little town in northern central Bularia. It was once the capital of Bulgaria, but today it is primarily a university town, with four different institutions providing various types of tertiary education. The town is situated on three or four hills, and it has an “old town” with beautifully restored remnants of various periods and empires. On one of the hills is an incredibly imposing and impressive medieval fortress and castle, Tsarevets. The old remnants and monuments and churches are what most tourists and visitors come to see.
In the guest house I am staying at there is a brochure on the notice board suggesting a trip to visit something different – the communist UFO building. I’m intrigued, and ask the staff about it. They respond that it is also a monument, but of a more recent period, and there is simply no explaining what it is, “you just have to see it for yourself”.
Well, nothing could possibly have prepared me for this amazing building. It is located in what appears to be the middle of nowhere on the top of a mountain, overlooking the Valley of Roses. In fact it is a very important site – many hundreds of Russians and Bulgarians died here, resisting the final Ottoman onslaught. Construction was completed in 1981, and the building was officially opened on the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Bulgaria. It was built as a monument and communist conference centre, with construction of the UFO shaped [yes, really UFO shaped] building taking seven years and costing more than eight million Euro at the time – probably the entire GDP of Bulgaria and then some. The huge tower at the back had a massive back-lit red star at it’s very top – supposedly a symbol that could be seen all the way to Turkey. Rumour had it that the red was actually ruby.
Absolutely no expense was spared for the external appearance and interior of the building – white marble walls and a huge auditorium with white marble, heated seating. Black marble floors, red velvet covering other walls and ceilings. And the most unbelievable mosaics, depicting all manner of communist glory and propaganda, covering the entire circumference of the internal and external walls on the second and third floors. And other amazing mirror and crystal things, including apparently massive crystal chandeliers.
It was in use for only a few years – urban legend has it that it was only actually used six times – before the communist era [momentarily] ended in Bulgaria, and Russia and Bulgaria were no longer friends – and this is when locals descended. The entire building has been completely gutted and destroyed, with locals carrying off anything that might be of any value. Leaving behind nothing but trash and rubble, strewn simply everywhere. It’s incredibly dark in places, even with torches, and we need to step very carefully to avoid sharp shards of marble and glass and other rubble.
But the most extraordinary thing is what the looting revealed. The actual internal structure of the building was so poorly constructed it is a building that was never going to withstand the test of time. When locals came in to cart off the marble, instead of having to use pick axes to pry it off the walls and floors, it literally peeled away in sheets with a few taps of a hammer. And the steel and concrete used in the frame of the building is of such poor quality that after only six years it was already rusting and falling apart. There are massive holes that you can see have been patched up with sheets of newspaper apparently coated in something like liquid nails. It is truly spooky wandering around, with a constant drip drip drip of water, and in fact huge pools of water all over the place, bringing to mind post-apocalyptic impressions and complete amazement. How many people were going hungry as this incredible edifice was taking shape? Who thought it was a good idea to use glue and string and bits of paper to support monumental marble staircases and seating arrangements? What madness is required to create such a place?
Today, the building is supposed to be off-limits – but of course many people including locals still come here. It is simply a case of prising open the bits of mesh that are supposed to block entry. All that really remains in-tact are some of the mosaics – of no material value to the locals – of Karl Marx, Lenin, the previous Bulgarian president, and a few communistic propaganda scenes of the workers. But these too will soon be gone, the roof structure has almost collapsed in on itself, and it will only take another season or two for the entire internal aspect of the building to be completely exposed to the weather.
As you ascend the massive concrete steps – once completely covered in black marble – to the entrance of the building, you are confronted with huge red graffiti above what were the giant sized entry doors – FORGET YOUR PAST. I couldn’t help but think no, don’t forget your past, keep this building as a reminder.