SURPRISE, SURPRISE IN... PERNIK

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Derelict industrial town holds hidden gems

industrial ruins bulgaria

When you plan a trip in Bulgaria, Pernik is rarely on the list (except for one event, more on this below). An industrial behemoth of the Communist era that fell on hard times after the collapse of the planned economy post-1989, the city is known for its uninspiring urbanscape of factories in different states of dereliction. Its residents now often commute to nearby Sofia – less than 20 miles away, and have the dubious reputation of spending weekend nights in local clubs where fights are de rigueur. The comparison to Tolkien's Mordor has been made in popular culture and social media so frequently that is has long stopped being interesting or funny.

This explains why most people just pass by Pernik on their way to more attractive places, like Rila Monastery, Greece or North Macedonia. However, if you do leave the highway and head towards Pernik, you will discover a place that is, if not fascinating, then at least interesting to explore.

Pernik, for example, is one of the few old towns in Bulgaria which has not changed its name since its foundation. It has been Pernik since a fortress was built on the easily defended bends of the river Struma in the 9th century. The only hiatus was between 1949 and 1962, when the city's name was Dimitrovo, after Communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov, who was born in the nearby village of Kovachevtsi.

mining directorate pernik

"Glory to the miners' labour" says a sign on the façade of the Mineworks Directorate, an emblematic Pernik site. In front of it is one of the few monuments to the victims of the Communist regime in Bulgaria. The directorate was privatised along with the Pernik mines after 1989. Its owner went bankrupt and in 2022 the National Revenue Agency put the building into receivership. Scandalised that the directorate could fall victim to some investor who would turn it into a flashy mall or demolish it altogether, Pernik citizens forced the city council to buy the building back. Eventually, the Bulgarian government lent the needed money. Until recently, the building was used for offices and there was a mining museum on the ground floor. Its interior and exterior have not been changed since its construction in 1932

The Pernik fort guarded the important trading and military road to the Aegean, and at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries it became a hotbed of Bulgarian resistance against the advancing Byzantine Empire. The local lord, Krakra, fought the invaders bravely and with all of his might, but in 1017 he saw that resistance was futile and surrendered to Emperor Basil II. His fortress remained an important outpost until the end of the Middle Ages, when it was abandoned. People, however, still lingered around the area.

In 1869, the fate of Pernik changed. Under Ottoman rule, significant deposits of coal were discovered in the environs and these were soon exploited. When Bulgaria regained its independence, in 1878, Pernik became one of the hubs of the new economy. The coal mines expanded, with Bulgarian and foreign investment, and a number of other industries sprang up, including glass factories and steel mills. The population of Pernik increased, rising from 1,413 to 12,296 between 1892 and 1926. Within a generation, Pernik became the industrial heart of still largely agrarian Bulgaria.

communist art pernik

The face of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s forst Communist dictator, dominates over nameless Pernik miners in this relief in central Pernik. Dimitrov was instrumental for the organisation of the two big miners' strikes for better working conditions, in 1906 and 1919

It was only natural that this trend intensified when Bulgaria became a Communist state in the mid-1940s. Pernik became one of the favourites of the new regime, and not only because a number of top apparatchiks were born in the area. The city had all the prerequisites for an exemplary workers' community, and workers were the most fêted class in Socialist society. More factories were built, including those for heavy machinery and metallurgy, and the coal mines expanded even more.

The city swarmed with new inhabitants, spreading out across the valley. Today Pernik has 10 large and 33 smaller neighbourhoods, the names of some of which reflect why and how they came into being – like Prouchvane – or Survey, and Rudnichar – or Miner.

culture house pernik

The Palace of Culture. The graffiti on the fountain's edge depict Pernik's symbol, two crossed hammers. The building was used as a backdrop in a 1970s East bloc movie about the deposition of late President Allende of Chile

Like all the industrial centres of Communist Bulgaria, Pernik suffered heavily during the post-1989 transitional period from a planned to a free market economy. Many factories were closed down and others scaled back production, leading to mass emigration. Pernik remains a sort of an industrial hub, specialising in heavy metallurgy, and has a major thermal power plant, but it is far from what it used to be in the past.

The face of Pernik is a mosaic of all the crucial periods in its history. The fortress where it all began is the city's main tourist attraction. Now known as Krakra, it is about 2 km from the city centre, on a plateau with fine views of the area. Until recently, a visit to the fortress made for a pleasant walk among greenery and the low walls of fortifications and medieval churches. A recent initiative, however, has robbed the place of all its rustic charm. Walls of plastic and metal now rise above the genuine ruins, "recreating" the long lost turrets of the fortress. As with so many fortresses these days, the "reconstruction" was made with EU funding, under the Regional Development Programme. It caused an outcry, but it is unlikely that the new structures will be demolished before the elements take over.

georgi dimitrov monument

Monument to Georgi Dimitrov, who was born in nearby Kovachevitsa

The centre of Pernik is a mixture of buildings from the various stages of industrialisation. Among the rather drab and faceless apartment blocks and administrative buildings from the 1970s and the 1980s, the neo-Classical buildings of the Mineworks Directorate and the so-called Mining Church from the 1920s-1930s stand out, as does the Palace of Culture, from 1957 – a gem of Stalinist baroque style that has been used as film stage sets.

Pernik has its own history museum, whose exhibition includes artefacts from a Roman era sanctuary of Asclepius and Hygieia, but more interesting is the underground Mining Museum. Established in the 1980s. It went through a period of abandonment and ruin in the 1990s, and was reopened in the late 2000s.

abandoned restaurant

An abandoned restaurant near Krakra Fortress

Curiously, the most popular cultural event in Pernik has nothing to do with heavy industry, but with traditional Bulgarian culture. It is the Surva mummers festival, the event mentioned at the beginning of this article. Held each year in January or February (the dates vary) since 1966, it brings together folklore groups from all over Bulgaria and Europe. On the coldest days of the year, when Pernik is even greyer than usual, the colourful masked men fill the central streets. Their bright costumes enliven the damp winter and the ringing of their bells echoes between the buildings, providing another reason to show that Pernik is not as unwelcoming as it is perceived by most Bulgarians. 

mummers pernikThe mummers that participate in the Surva festival take their costumes seriously. Many are dedicated to preserving the authenticity of the tradition that celebrates the rebirth of nature in late winter

  • 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

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.