A monument in the mountains of Bulgaria
, and indeed one of the greatest such structures from the communist
era anywhere in the world. An absolutely stunning concrete edifice in a shape resembling a flying saucer stranded high on a mountain summit. Inside, the UFO-like interior is breathtaking too, a mix of a surreal sci-fi-like atmosphere and faded socialist realism
art. Unfortunately, the monument is in a bad state of dereliction – although that can also give a visit to it a kind of extra kick of adventure. [UPDATE: the monument is now guarded around the clock by the police, so going in is no longer possible.]
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Buzludzha (sometimes also spelled 'Buzludja') is such a magnificently great monument that it is surprising that for so long it had been so hard to obtain reliable background information about it (when I went there in 2011 there was hardly anything to be found on the Web, at least not in English). This has changed a lot since then, as Buzludzha has increasingly received more and more attention both in the media and on specialist websites (including ones for/by urban explorers
), and finally also in heritage preservation organizations.
Here's just a short summary of the key essentials: the monument was devised and built in the late 1970s and inaugurated in 1981. It was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov and constructed by both "volunteers" and civil engineering units of the Army. Funds for the building (the equivalent of over 30 million Euros in today's mones) apparently came not from the government/party but from a nationwide whip-round for donations.
Its commemorative function is, or rather used to be, threefold: firstly it was to commemorate a battle between Bulgarian
rebels and the Turks
in 1868 that was fought here, secondly a battle between partisans and fascist forces in WWII
, and thirdly and most importantly it is dedicated to the founding of the Bulgarian socialist movement by Dimitar Blagoev, which allegedly took place in an assembly convened on this very mountaintop in 1891.
In addition to these more specific motives, it is also a celebration of socialism at large – including the usual hero worship of workers and peasants as well as that of more-equal-than-others individual figureheads, such as Marx
. Naturally, Bulgaria
's own big shots of communism
received (even more) equal treatment, not just Blagoev but also the deceased first communist leader of the post-WWII
-aligned socialist republic of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov. Needless to say, the then current leader of the country, Todor Zhivkov, did not pass up this grand opportunity to have himself represented in the same kind of rank either.
Other than that, most of the artwork is less cult-of-personality-oriented and rather ideologically inspired. Marx's main rallying cry of international communism, "workers of all countries unite", features repeatedly, as do various other slogans. Red Stars emblazoned on the campanile-like tower next to the main monument indicate the structure's symbolism to be seen from far away.
However, more than all the "content" of the celebratory artwork, it is the exceptional execution of the building that contains this artwork that makes this monument so outstanding overall. Its size alone is almost second to none (unless you count more multi-purpose megalomaniacal piles such as the Palace of Parliament
The shape of the main part of the monument is pure modernism to the extreme. It's a concrete disk with huge windows around its rim – which makes for more than a vague resemblance to the prototypical cliché of a flying saucer. It's hence no surprise that Buzludzha is so frequently described as a "UFO of communism".
The location, too, adds to the wow-effect of the edifice: it's perched on the summit of the ca. 4700 feet (1432m) high Buzludzha mountain in the middle of the central Balkan range. In clear weather it can be seen from as far away as Veliko Tarnovo ... the old capital of the Bulgarian Tsars – whatever extra turns in their graves that may have given them.
The glorious outward appearance is still there, but the interior is in a very sorry state of dilapidation. Opened in 1981, the monument had only a very brief glorious period to enjoy its function as the country's principal socialist monument. Just eight years later it was all over, with the fall of the communist regime in November 1989 and the dissolution of the Socialist Republic of Bulgaria in 1990.
In the wake of this political turnaround, the Buzludzha monument too was simply abandoned. No one seemed to take responsibility for maintenance or protection of the site any longer, and so it soon fell victim to vandalism and looting. Most materials of any value have since been stripped from the monument – and some of the portraits deliberately destroyed or mutilated. Rubbish and graffiti are likewise signs of contemporary disrespect for the site.
While the Bulgarian state/government doesn't have much interest in Buzludzha or other communist-era monuments (or rather: would prefer these didn't exist). The remaining Socialist Party of Bulgaria have long tried to reacquire the site but squabbles with the government over the issue have never led to anything. And so the site has increasingly fallen into precarious dereliction and disrepair. And that despite the fact that the party still uses the site as such – though only the open-air areas in front of it – for an annual rally and celebration each summer.
[UPDATE April 2018: things have moved on at Buzludzha: a campaign to get it recognized as an important monument that deserves saving, has finally been at least in part successful. In early 2018, Buzludzha was put on a list of Europe's seven most endangered sites by the heritage organization Europa Nostra. Since then, authorities in Bulgaria
have finally taken note. As of 30 April, a permanent police post has been installed – so the site is now guarded around the clock.
While that means visitors can no longer go inside, it also means further vandalism is being stopped. Moreover, plans for restoring the monument are now being seriously discussed. And that is definitely good news, from the point of the view of the monument's preservation. For dark tourists, however, it means that exploring the inside of the abandoned structure is now a thing of the past. But maybe in a few years, when the refurbishment is finished, it will become a major attraction again, even if for somewhat changed reasons ...]
What there is to see: Even from a distance, as you approach the site, it's an impressive thing to behold. The structure has frequently been described as resembling a UFO stranded on top of the mountain. Very apt. It is indeed shaped like a proverbial flying saucer – only, unlike most prototypical images of flying saucers, it also has a tower (or chimney?).
It gets better and better as you get closer – especially from down by the first set of car parks, where it forms the backdrop for a silver hands-with-torches sculpture at the foot of the hill. If the light is right it catches on the huge red star that is set into the side of the tower – not the usual symmetrical red star familiar from socialist flags and symbols, but slightly stretched so that the lower parts are longer that the rest.
But the true "wow!" factor comes when you get close to the monument from the front. The dimensions of the structure are really stunning. If you don't know what it is it really must appear like it's been dropped down here from outer space by some alien race.
Soon, however, the real world reasserts itself too – in both sad and profane ways (as it usually does). The closer you get the more in your face the evidence of neglect and vandalism becomes. There's lots of graffiti – some of it of the nastiest sort, and not just the hammer-and-sickle symbols you'd expect to find at a site like this: I also saw several swastikas and slogans from right-wing groups. Other graffiti is of a less politically obnoxious sort but similarly mindless, such as names of football clubs or car makers ... or maybe motorbikes – the place seems to have a special allure to bikers – maybe just because it's close to a mountain pass with lots of challenging hairpins.
The original communist
slogans set in stone on either side of the entrance at the base of the monument are slowly crumbling apart – or have been hacked off. In the centre, written in huge red letters above the entrance the most prominent line of graffiti reads "forget your past". In a way, this seems to sum up the general attitude towards Buzludzha … [UPDATE: this line has since been painted over again and at one point prefixed with the word "never"! ... in general, the graffiti at Buzludzha is in constant flux; you can never predict what you might find that previous visitors have felt compelled to leave as graphic proof of their visit. I wish people could just learn to leave places like this just as they find them, but that's probably naive wishful thinking ...]
Disregard for the site is also expressed by the non-human visitors who seem to come here in droves … literally in droves: cattle graze on the hill, and apparently the cows like to shelter by the entrance area, leaving behind their dung. As if they, too, are trying to say "socialism is shit".
Even just standing in front of the structure you can tell that the inside is in a much worse state still. Through the window openings you can see the holes in the roof. These openings that run all along the rim of the flying saucer did indeed once contain large glass windows. Now they are all smashed in and stripped away, leaving the interior open to the elements even more. You can even see the metal ceiling of the inside evidently rusting away.
The most breathtaking part of experiencing this site is venturing inside. The entrance doors are locked and chained, so there's no "official" way in. However, along the side of the base of the monument there's a hole in the wall, through which intrepid visitors could crawl in. I simply couldn't resist the temptation.
[UPDATE: this has changed! It is no longer possible to go inside. Since April 2018 a permanent police post has been set up at the monument to guard it around the clock. On the plus side: this may be the beginning of efforts to save the monument. If only from vandalism for now – but actual restoration may also begin in the foreseeable future … watch this space for further updates!]
Venturing in was somewhat dicey, I have to admit, also because I was going in on my own (neither my wife nor my guide had any intention of following me in). And indeed I had to take great care not to slip or step on anything unstable. There was still lots of snow about too – even inside the monument there were some sizeable snowdrifts. Puddles of water were partly frozen so patches of slippery ice made walking about more difficult still. But I had sturdy shoes on and didn't care if I got a bit dirty, so I ploughed on. I was on a mission of "urban exploration
The first large room that becomes visible is what must have been a kind of foyer, in a roughly triangular shape. It's completely stripped bare – just indications of something on the wall opposite and to the right, which looked like there may have been some sort of wall adornments there, loomed like shadows from the past. But I couldn't work out what they may have been. The floor was strewn with bits of debris and rubbish.
Stairs lead up to the level above. The steps were even more dilapidated – but served their function if negotiated with care (there's no railing, and some steps are loose – and of course littered with debris and rubbish too).
Upstairs you then enter the former inner sanctum of the site – the main hall, completely circular and adorned all round with elaborate mosaics. Just the feel of this spaceship-like room made my heart race. It's almost like stepping into a film
set for yet another instalment of "Alien".
But instead of any extraterrestrial monsters you encounter the images of some very real-world usual suspects from Planet Earth: one side of the wall mosaics depict the usual triumvirate of Marx
, Engels and Lenin
– somewhat battered but still well recognizable. Opposite another triumvirate forms – or formed – the Bulgarian counterpart: Dimitar Blagoev in the centre (founder of socialism in Bulgaria
), Georgi Dimitrov to the right (the first communist leader of the country after WWII
), and on the left … well, a blank. A whole face scraped off the wall leaving no more than a silhouette. Obviously, it was Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's communist head of state from 1954 to the very end in 1989. Why only his face was so completely vandalized (as to be completely erased) while the others were left intact remains a mystery to me.
Apart from those (more or less) familiar faces, the rest of the 360-degree mosaic is more abstract and less personal but still quite impressive, even though some stretches have also suffered badly. Most of these murals probably depict episodes of Bulgaria's (socialist) history, others are more symbolic. I particularly liked the cluster of hands, with some holding a torch or a feather stylus, while in the centre a hand holds a red star (no surprise there) and yet another a rose … probably an allusion to the nearby Valley of Roses, where the production of rose water/essence is a major industry.
The star piece of the hall is emblazoned in the centre of the ceiling: a golden hammer and sickle radiating red rays and encircled by the slogan "workers of all countries unite" (in Bulgarian, of course) in red letters against a green background. It hangs there as if in defiance of the surrounding dereliction. It's totally surreal.
The rest of the ceiling is in a particularly dilapidated state. All of the ceiling's inner cladding is gone, leaving only the metal frame through which you can see the outer cladding. Lots of holes let in light as well as wind, rain and snow … and birds. Occasionally I would hear the flutter of wings breaking the otherwise eerie silence. A couple of times there was a reverberating "thud" sounding almost like heavy footsteps – but when I turned round I found I was still alone: it was simply clumps of snow falling from the roof through the ceiling and thudding onto the hall's floor.
More steps lead out to the gallery that rings the whole structure. The openings were once windows but now are just empty holes – the only glass to be found is strewn about the floor in small shards. Through the holes one can enjoy the view of the mountains … still intact and serene. The outside of the wall of the inner hall is a sadder sight. It too is, or mostly was, adorned with more mosaics. These are faded to be almost colourless, and large parts have either crumbled away or have been chiselled off by vandals.
I did a full loop of the gallery level then went back inside. After savouring the cavernous inner hall a little longer I went further downstairs, also to a level below the "foyer". There I found what to me looked like it could have been a cloakroom, or maybe a bar, with a long curved counter. I peeked into a couple of side rooms and used my camera flash to get an idea of what was inside in the pitch-black darkness. Not much. Just more bareness, debris and rubbish. The place has clearly been so thoroughly looted that no usable materials were left in place. Here and there bits of cable poked out of the ceiling, but that was it. Metal covers of floor hatches were missing – so traipsing into the darkness carelessly could be really hazardous! At least the metal of the roof as such has not yet been stolen …
I couldn't venture any deeper into the bowels of the building because I hadn't taken my torch – and the focus lamps of my cameras would only go so far to let me see where I was stepping. Deeper in the completely darkened parts it wouldn't have been safe to go without a good torch. So I left it at that. But it still felt like a surreal adventure having been clambering about all alone in this massive, once so glorious edifice.
The aura of Buzludzha was a strange mix: the echoes of former glories, and the quietly oppressive feeling of transience of such glory, coupled with a good dose of regret for the sorry state of this massive monument now looking so feeble … and with more than just a small dose of anger at all those vandals and thieves responsible for its present state.
What I didn't get was what some other visitors have reported on the Internet: a sense of satisfaction with the fact that this symbol of communism showed this much evidence of disrespect. It's of course alright to wish away oppressive totalitarian political systems, cheer their demise and say good riddance to those who ran them. But I don't get this kind of triumphant zeal for iconoclastic vengeance.
It would have been so easy, but with those thoughts in mind I did not even really feel the temptation to take anything with me from Buzludzha when I left, not one morsel of crumpled mosaic or anything. And I hope future visitors may muster the same restraint. Please: just don't do it!
I wonder what will happen to Buzludzha. Will it be left to fall apart completely? Or will it somehow be saved? I doubt there is even the remotest chance it will ever be restored to its original state – who'd pay for that? It could cost more than the original construction. But I wish something would be done to at least preserve it in a stable state, rather than letting it rot, rust and be further vandalized.
For me the visit to Buzludzha was easily the highlight of my trip to Bulgaria
in April 2011. In fact I would go as far as saying it was the most impressive monument of any kind that I have seen anywhere in the world – and that despite the sorry state it is in now. Sad as it was, the fact that it's just abandoned and so dilapidated added not only a sense of adventure to exploring it but also a hard to describe otherworldliness to the whole atmosphere.
In short: Buzludzha is without any doubt one the most stunning dark-tourism destinations on the planet, almost totally unique in style and nature. An eerie, jaw-dropping, sadly surreal and altogether most wondrous experience.
[UPDATE: it's character as an attraction for visitors is bound to change significantly, now that the monument is guarded and plans for restoration in the pipeline – but that means it will still be a major attraction in the future, if in a somewhat different way. We'll see.]
on top of the mountain of the same name, which is part of the Balkan range, which runs right through the middle of Bulgaria
. Buzludzha itself is almost exactly at the centre of the range and thus of the country. The nearest larger towns are Kazanlak some 8 miles (13 km) to the south and Grabovo ca. 12 miles (18 km) to the north … as the crow flies, that is – the winding mountain roads make the actual driving distances much longer.
Access and costs: remote, but free; potentially risky inside the monument. UPDATE: interior no longer accessible!
: Buzludzha is a remote site – high on a mountain in Bulgaria
's Balkan range, and off the main trans-mountain pass running through it. The access road is in a bad shape in places, but is navigable by normal vehicles when clear of snow. Needless to say, access is much more difficult in winter when there's a lot of snow.
If you choose to drive yourself, there are two approaches: coming from the north from Grabovo, you need to take the No. 5 / E-85 road south across the mountains towards Kazanlak. You'll pass a restaurant/service station by a cluster of tiny chalets/huts on your right where you can also spot some bizarre sculptures (a crumbling green dinosaur with a saddle, and an object that looks like a cannon!). Shortly after that look out for the turn off to the left at a brown sign saying "Shipka" and "Buzludja" (in both Cyrillic and Latin script).
The access road to the Shipka monument then branches off to the right a short distance on, but ignore this and stay on the main road. This keeps winding and winding towards Buzludzha – and you can see the monument perched on the peak from the distance at various points. Eventually, you come to a car park and sharp turn at the bottom of Buzludzha itself where there's a metal sculpture of two hands holding silver flaming torches up in the air. If you're feeling energetic you could park here and climb up – but there's no need: the road continues further round the back of the hill, passing a modest ski resort hotel and eventually another car park.
In theory the road continues almost right up to the base of the monument. However, when I was there in late April (2011) there was still so much snow there the road was blocked (we would have needed a 4x4 with snow chains to continue). So we had to climb the last stretch of a few hundred yards … which wasn't so steep, though, quite easy.
Coming from the south, from Kazanlak, you'd first need to get the No. 5 / E-85 road to the north. Just past the village of Kran a road branches off to the right by a small monument consisting of a white column and a statue (I don't know who it's supposed to be). Soon the road starts climbing up the mountainside in a series of sharp switchback bends before joining the access road to the monument. Follow it straight ahead, past the Buzludzha ski hotel – and proceed as above.
The monument just stands there abandoned, so it is in theory freely accessible at all times.
UPDATE: this is changing (see also the other updates above)! There is now a permanent police post guarding the site, and before long restoration work may begin … so access will be limited for the foreseeable future, and it will probably also look different for a while. I expect scaffolding and cranes etc. to appear, but when it's all done, hopefully Buzludzha will look better than ever … fingers crossed!
Time required: depends. Just looking at the monument from the outside and maybe walking one loop around it won't take much more than 20 minutes (plus getting there, of course!). You may find yourself too fascinated by this unique mounument to leave that quickly, though.
In the past, when it was still possible to venture inside, you could spend hours in there. Serious "urban explorers
" certainly did, going by the photos I've seen online – including ones taken from the top of the tower, so there used to be a way of climbing it. I've also seen photos taken by a drone showing people precariously dangling their feet from the edge while sitting on the top of the tower!
If/when the monument's refurbishment & commodification is finished, hopefully in the not too distant future, and it opens to visitors again, it will probably be worth allocating more time to that again. How much remains to be seen ...
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The nearest individual other site of note is the "other" mountain monument nearby, also just off the road of the Shipka pass: the eponymous Shipka monument. This commemorates the battles fought here against the Turks
as part of the liberation from Ottoman rule in 1877-78. It's a far more humdrum traditional edifice compared to Buzludzha, though impressive in size too: almost 100 feet (32 m) high, with a big bronze lion over the entrance. I didn't go up there myself, but inside there are said to be a sarcophagus, allegedly filled with remains from battle casualties, as well as some battle relics. Whether all that's worth the hundreds of steps ascent to the monument, you will have to decide for yourself.
The nearby town of Kazanlak down in the valley south of the Balkan mountains in central Bulgaria
is the location of a large gun manufacturing plant, which also has an associated shop in town, where (amongst the various products for sale) an AK-47 "Kalashnikov" is mounted on a wall like a sports award trophy, in a gold frame and on red velvet. Quite a bizarre sight to behold, even (or especially) for someone like me who is anything but a gun enthusiast.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The mountainsides near Buzludzha are also a skiing area in winter – there's even a hotel catering for such activities right at the foot of Buzludzha hill ... you pass it on the drive up between the lower car park and the access road to the top. The whole mountain scenery is impressive as such also in other seasons.
On the eastern fringes of the town Kazanlak down in the valley is one of Bulgaria
's UNESCO world heritage sites: a 4th century BC Thracian tomb, discovered by chance in 1944. I went to see it too when I was in Kazanlak and must say I found it rather underwhelming. I suppose you have to be much more into archaeology and ancient wall paintings than I am to fully appreciate the place. So if you're like me, don't bother going there. If, however, you do have the ancient-historical-sites streak that I lack, then do not miss it. Its world heritage accolade surely means something.
- Buzludzha 01 - from a distance
- Buzludzha 02 - approaching
- Buzludzha 03 - closer
- Buzludzha 04 - closer still
- Buzludzha 05 - UFO towering
- Buzludzha 06 - expected type of graffiti
- Buzludzha 07 - side of the base with unwelcome graffiti
- Buzludzha 08 - gigantic dimensions
- Buzludzha 09 - once these would have been grand windows
- Buzludzha 10 - you can see the dilapidated roof even from the outside
- Buzludzha 11 - giant red star on the tower
- Buzludzha 12 - entrance locked and full of cattle droppings
- Buzludzha 13 - loophole in on the north side
- Buzludzha 14 - climbed inside
- Buzludzha 15 - first view of the interior
- Buzludzha 16 - the foyer area on the ground floor
- Buzludzha 17 - the grand hall upstairs
- Buzludzha 18 - classic communist triumvirate
- Buzludzha 19 - view towards the other side of the great hall
- Buzludzha 20 - selective vandalism
- Buzludzha 21 - 360 degrees of mosaics
- Buzludzha 22 - history in mosaics
- Buzludzha 23 - more modern history
- Buzludzha 24 - more abstract
- Buzludzha 25 - hands of Bulgarian communist fate
- Buzludzha 26 - ceiling centre
- Buzludzha 27 - way out onto the outer gallery
- Buzludzha 28 - outer terrace
- Buzludzha 29 - with great views of the mountains
- Buzludzha 30 - view down
- Buzludzha 31 - more mosaics in bad shape
- Buzludzha 32 - crumbling away
- Buzludzha 33 - like a last hand raised in a cry for help
- Buzludzha 34 - snow drift
- Buzludzha 35 - ice
- Buzludzha 36 - stripped side rooms
- Buzludzha 37 - even most tiles are gone
- Buzludzha 38 - you have to watch your step carefully in here
- Buzludzha 39 - lower level with counter
- Buzludzha 40 - back in the icy foyer
- Buzludzha 41 - view down to the hands-and-torches sculpture
- Buzludzha 42 - view up from the torch sculpture
- Buzludzha 43 - a last view back
- Buzludzha 44 - signposting at the bottom
- Buzludzha 45 - sign at branch-off at the main road
- Buzludzha 46 - Shipka monument
- Buzludzha 47 - Balkan range mountain scenery
- Buzludzha 48 - monument by the road north of Kazanlak
- Buzludzha 49 - Kazanlak central square
- Buzludzha 50 - Kazanlak Arsenal shop display of AK-47