Todor Zhivkov's birth house and gift collection, Pravets
The place where Bulgaria
leader of 35 years was born, and where a reception centre still displays a collection of gifts to the man. A strange kind of backward-looking cult-of-personality shrine and a quirky little treat for the dark tourist.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Todor Zhivkov was the Eastern Bloc
's longest-reigning leader, rising to power in the Socialist Party in 1954 and holding on right until the fall of communism
in November 1989. He died in 1998.
His origins were humble: he was born in 1911 into a peasant family in Pravets. It was also in his home town that he proved himself in organizing socialist resistance during WWII
, and later rose to higher ranks in Sofia
at the time of the communist take-over.
His peasant background, way of speaking and alleged "country bumpkin" manners made him the butt of many a joke throughout his career. Still, he stayed loyal to his origins and family, and his birth house became a sort of shrine even during his lifetime. He held receptions for foreign guests here and a modern building was erected for the purpose. Some members of his family are said to still live in the vicinity of the birth house in Pravets.
During the communist era, Pravets was also known as the site where Bulgaria
manufactured computers (at a time when the country was at the forefront of the industry within the Eastern Bloc), and the products were named after the town.
Today it is still a small, rather sleepy town – but boasts a couple of higher education institutions, including an American one! There are hopes to attract tourism of a more mainstream sort through the enormous resort complex and golf course by the lake to the north-west of town. Good luck!
What there is to see: The birth house as such isn't that spectacular. It's a rather ordinary typical peasant house of its era. You can peek inside the storage rooms on the ground floor, then climb the stairs to see the living quarters upstairs.
It all has a distinctly "refurbished" feel, and I had to wonder how original any of the artefacts on display really are when I was there. Not that they are that noteworthy anyway: there's a kitchen area with a fireplace, some stools and a low table and plenty of pots on them as well as on shelves on the walls.
Next door is a humble sleeping room ... well, not strictly speaking a bed
room, as the inhabitants slept on mats and cushions on the floor. Here a few interesting pictures on the wall are the most remarkable things to see – especially one with a wise old Mrs Zhivkov surrounded by admiring, beaming school kids with typical red pioneer scarves. Prime "socialist realism
The much more worthwhile part of the complex is to be found next door in the reception centre: the upstairs houses a collection of presents given to Zhivkov by various other leaders and organizations from around the (mostly socialist) world. It can hardly rival the grotesquely extensive International Friendship Exhibition
in North Korea
, but in principle it is of the same nature, only much, much smaller.
Still, you can find some remarkable items: For instance, from Libya
's Colonel Gaddafi there's a camel saddle ... he seemed to have been fond of these as gifts; Tito received a very similar one too (see Podgorica gallery
). Whether he also provided the prerequisite camel, is beyond my knowledge, but I have my doubts.
Other gifts include a set comprising of a knife, an axe and a drinking horn (why this combination beats me) that was a gift from the USSR
's Brezhnev; while some extreme kitsch is represented e.g. by an unspeakably ugly vase from the GDR
(the country had a knack of choosing such kitsch items as official presents … but it doesn't seem to ever have done any real diplomatic damage …).
In a corner by the entrance, a rather surprising exhibit is a small distilling apparatus. I didn't know communist leaders did a little moonshining on the side …
Worth a quick look is also the selection of souvenirs. The books and brochures are mainly in Bulgarian only, but you can pick up postcards, leaflets (also in English) and, if that's your kind of thing, even a fridge magnet with Zhivkov's rather nondescript face on it. (The one I bought is now on my fridge at home where he's struggling for attention between a Stalin
and a Vlad Tepes
Outside, there's a Zhivkov memorial stone – and across the road a fountain, known as the Zhivkov fountain, which incorporates the relief of a handshake. Thanks for that!
In town, you may also spot a roughly life-size statue of Zhivkov, but otherwise it's really a rather drab small town you may well be pretty glad to leave again sooner rather than later.
Still, the little shrine to Zhivkov and the almost endearingly small-scale cult of personality associated with it are worth the excursion from Sofia
, if you have the time and a taste for such things.
Pravets is some 35 miles (60 km) to the north-east of Sofia
, just off the main A2 road towards Pleven. In Pravets, the birth house complex is at the north-eastern end of town.
Access and costs: off the usual tourist track, but not too remote; costs will mainly be for transport.
: In theory it may be possible to get a bus or minibus to Pravets and then fiddle your way to the site independently (you'd probably need to ask for directions). More convenient is getting there by car as part of a half-day excursion from Sofia
; e.g. "nvision travel" offer this within their "Communism Tours
" options – see the relevant sponsored page here
Opening times: daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through October, between November and end of March only open during the week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed on official Bulgarian public holidays.
Admission: at the time of my visit the regular entrance fee charged was the equivalent of 1.50 EUR (but is likely to have gone up since), plus ca. 10 EUR for a guided tour.
Time required: not too long – a look around the birth house takes no more than 5 minutes, whereas the gift collection can potentially provide an entertainment value of a slightly more longevity, if you are into such things. All in all, some 30-40 minutes will do. When I was there (April 2011), an extra temporary exhibition of cartoons had me engrossed for an extra 15 minute or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
En route from Sofia
you pass near the gigantic former steelworks outside the city which are worth a look, if even only from the outside. Allegedly, though, you can have a look inside, provided you've secured a permit beforehand. We were turned back at the gate with that remark.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The drive from Sofia
includes quite a scenic part, but nothing really spectacular. The town of Pravets is generally a rather sleepy provincial one – however: by the lake there's a huge holiday complex with a hotel, brand new holiday apartments and a golf course …
The archaeological/ethnographic museum in town is a rather humble, old-fashioned affair only to be recommended to those with a genuinely keen interest in anything archaeological.
- Pravets 01 - Todor Zhivkov birth house
- Pravets 02 - interior of Zhivkov house - lots of pots
- Pravets 03 - bedroom in Zhivkov birth house
- Pravets 04 - old socialist glory painting in Zhivkov house
- Pravets 05 - reception centre
- Pravets 06 - exhibition
- Pravets 07 - moonshining apparatus
- Pravets 08 - gift from Gaddafi
- Pravets 09 - gift from Brezhnev
- Pravets 10 - kitsch from the GDR
- Pravets 11 - a bit more style
- Pravets 12 - oh no
- Pravets 13 - souvenirs
- Pravets 14 - memorial stone
- Pravets 15 - stony handshake fountain outside the house
- Pravets 16 - Zhivkov statue in town
- Pravets 17 - holiday resort by the lake
- Pravets 18 - decrepit building
- Pravets 19 - archaeology museum more or less summed up
- Pravets 20 - but it is only a photo
- Pravets 21 - back then someone seemed to still have hope for the language
- Pravets 22 - I hung my head