BULGARIA'S VERSION OF CANNERY ROW IS IN CHENGENE SKELE

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Nondescript fishermen's settlement gains notoriety as 'alternative' Black Sea makeout spot

fishermen settlement bulgaria sunset

Any chance visitor who has detoured midway from the Burgas-Sozopol highway, on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast, will end up in an odd location. As you drive up the bad road to the infamous maritime oil terminal, now the property of Russian giant LUKoil, you will inevitably take in an assortment of buildings – some of them makeshift, others with a more stable construction, but none appearing as if designed by a professional architect. Then you are in for the first big hit, a road sign announcing "Everything away from sea is provincial," according to Ernest Hemingway. A little further up the road a stone relief will reveal... US writer John Steinbeck, the 1962 Nobel Prize winner, who penned such masterpieces as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men.

steinbeck memorial bulgaria

Probably the only place outside Salinas, California, where you can see a monument to John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

Rub your eyes. You are not in Salinas, California, but in Chengene Skele, 10 miles south of Burgas. And yes, the street you just stepped on is called Cannery Row! And yes, generations of Bulgarians grew up with Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday, often identifying themselves with the characters and trying to emulate their way of "peaceful wine drinking" and not being in a hurry for anything.

To understand how John Steinbeck ended in Bulgaria you need a bit of local history.

Chengene Skele is a Bulgarianised Turkish name which in translation means "Gypsy Harbour." The name is self-explanatory: at the turn of the 20th century the area was used as a fishermen's settlement, and many of the small-time fish catchers were local Gypsies. They would go out to sea in the early hours of the morning and by 10 o'clock they would already be drinking their wine: the working day had ended for them.

abandoned boat bulgaria

A river boat permanently docked at Chengene Skele was used as a training ground for divers. It has now been abandoned for years

Through the 20th century Chengene Skele had an uneasy relationship with the authorities of Burgas. In the 1970s, as the Port of Burgas expanded, the fishermen were ordered to move their boats elsewhere. Chengene Skele was a convenient location. However, the official promises of the City Council it would undertake to supply water and electricity to Chengene Skele never materialised. The locals simply had to take matters in their own hands.

Later, Chengene Skele was threatened with extinction because, understandably, none of its residents conformed to any urban planning, rubbish processing and so on. Most of the shacks erected there had no building permits. While some fishermen did live their fulltime year round, others just used the huts only occasionally, when they went out with their dinghies.

fishermen settlement bulgaria

Fishermen's Settlement likes Hemingway: "Everything that's far away from sea is provincial."

Things started to change in the 2010s when some EU funds were channelled into Chengene Skele to improve infrastructure. In recent years the fishermen's settlement has gained a somewhat cult status as visitors not only from Burgas but from elsewhere stop by to try the local fish soup and the catch of the day – never in short supply. In addition to Black Sea scad, goby, and seasonally bonito and turbot the local eatery always has mussels, shrimps and roe – at very affordable prices. Both Steinbeck and Hemingway would have loved it.

But be warned. If you visit in any time outside the cold months you will have to negotiate your way with the swarms of mosquitoes which locals claim can reach the size of sparrows. Unless you take all reasonable precautions you risk being eaten alive before you ever get yourselves to the fish soup. 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.

WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?
Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES
Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where co

WHERE IS GOD'S BRIDGE?
Lilyashka Bara, the brook that flows near the village of Lilyache, a few kilometres from Vratsa, is a quiet and peaceful stream.

SOFIA'S TOP 10
Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country.