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. 


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