PostCommunism

WHAT IS DZHULAYA?

How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify? The answers are probably "never" and "no." Uriah Heep was an English rock band that was formed in 1969, named after Charles Dickens's infamous character. It did make a name for itself in the 1970s, but remained largely unknown.

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OPEN BUZLUDZHA 2024

The fourth iteration of the OPEN BUZLUDZHA festival is scheduled to kick off on 8 August and will last for three nights/four days. A plethora of local and international club scene bands will converge on the lawn beneath the controversial former Communist Party House Monument on Mount Buzludzha, informally referred to as the UFO. These include Wickeda, Hayes & Y, Kerana and the Cosmonauts, Two Cities One World, Funkilicious, Heptagram and others.

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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. It continues to maintain at least a dozen monuments to the Red Army. Some are gargantuan and placed in various top locations in bigger cities, some are small and unobtrusive. Urbexers and lovers of quaint and bizarre trivia will be bemused to discover that none of these remnants of the Communist past in actual fact commemorate any... real-life story.

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SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS

Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match. Sofia, as Bulgaria's capital, has a particularly high concentration of monuments and statues with unusual backgrounds. Some of these are just oddities and curiosities that add a pinch of spice to otherwise official public art and have become ingrained in the city's history. However, others are controversial and have caused various debates through the years.

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BRUTALIST BULGARIA

A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing. Looking from the lower ground of the Serdica station, the building, Unicredit Bulbank's headquarters, resembles a giant ocean steamer which is about to crush the Largo, the vast space surrounded by the Stalinist Council of Ministers, the Office of the President and the former Communist Party House, now parliament.

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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. This notion may be a bit outdated in a world run by social media where electronic "devices" by far outnumber fountain pens, and where a "content creator" makes more than a teacher of literature. But it is still at least indicative. Bulgaria, whose writers and poets have been translated into English only sporadically, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is very proud of its literary heritage.

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LONG LIVE RED ARMY MONUMENT

Other angry citizens have taken to the park, where the MOCHA is situated. They have set up tents threatening they will defend with their bodies the pile of stones which they see as epitomising the victorious Red Army's fight against Nazism, for which the Bulgarian nation should be "eternally grateful." In the agencies of the state pen-pushers of all shapes and sizes scurry to manifest why the Red Army moment cannot be dismantled, at least not in the foreseeable future.

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SORRY FATE OF BULGARIA'S 'SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS'

Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school.

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SUGAR FACTORY?

Faux industrial style is all the rage in new development in Sofia: brown and grey façades of fake bricks can be now spotted in both old neighbourhoods and gated communities on the city's outskirts.

But while new construction in Bulgaria aims to achieve the attractive weathered look of the repurposed 19th century warehouses and factory buildings that are now associated with the poshest parts of NYC, London and Hamburg, genuine old redbricks are slowly falling to ruins. Sofia's Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory, neighbourhood is one of the best – or worst – examples.

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WALKING ON FIRE

One of the emblematic sights associated with Bulgaria is a group of barefoot men and women clad in traditional village costumes dancing over live embers. This is nestinarstvo, or firewalking, a supposedly Christian rite, where firewalkers dance themselves into a trance and eschew the perils of fire.

Now firewalking is performed at tourist locations and even in restaurants, but the only place to see the real thing is in the village of Balgari in the Strandzha. It happens on the night of 3 June, the high day of Ss Constantine and Helena.

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LA VIE EN ROSE

A plant that everyone knows but few have seen in real life: by selecting the oil-bearing rose as its unofficial symbol, Bulgaria has made an odd choice. This particular variety does smell divine but is not particularly beautiful. Its attar is vital for the global cosmetic industry, yet its production and sales make a tiny spec in the Bulgarian GDP.

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LAPSE OF TIME

Sofia, with its numerous parks, is not short of monuments and statues referring to the country's rich history. In the Borisova Garden park for example, busts of freedom fighters, politicians and artists practically line up the alleys. On some of those, like the 19th century revolutionaries and national heroes Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, people still lay flowers.

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WHY DOES 'SORRY' SEEM TO BE THE HARDEST WORD?

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which was effected by the Kingdom of Bulgaria when it annexed Aegean Thrace, in 1943. They included Alec Oscar, the chairman of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews; Martin Zaimov, a political activist and former deputy chairman of the Bulgarian National Bank; Krasen Stanchev, an economist; and Manol Peykov, an activist and publisher.

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VELIKO TARNOVO DELIGHTS

Perched on a twisty meander of the Yantra River, where the hills of the Danube Plain meet the northern slopes of the Stara Planina, Veliko Tarnovo has unparalleled topography in Bulgaria, and possibly the Balkans. Traditional 19th century houses cling above the steep river bends, connected by alleys and steps that defy both gravity and everyday convenience – but living in Tarnovo has never been about convenience.

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BULGARIA'S FORGOTTEN RACE INTO SPACE

The mission of NASA's Space Launch System that aims to bring back humans to the Moon in 2024 is just the latest piece of space exploration news. The USA, China and Elon Musk are trying to figure out how to colonise Mars, Korea has developed its own rocket, and besides producing stunning photos of distant galaxies the brand new James Webb Space Telescope is searching for inhabitable exoplanets.

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BULGARIA'S VERSION OF CANNERY ROW IS IN CHENGENE SKELE

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.

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SURPRISE, SURPRISE IN... PERNIK

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.

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BUZLUDZHA LIGHTS UP AGAIN

The Flying Saucer, which in recent years has become one of the Top 10 world monuments for urbex, or dark tourism, was constructed in the early 1980s. It was designed to celebrate the Bulgarian Communist Party, in control of this country from 1944 to 1989. It was supposed to withstand the ravishes of both time and nature for several hundred years, as the Communists, who had commissioned it, thought they would be in power eternally.

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WHAT FEEDS BULGARIAN NOSTALGIA FOR COMMUNISM?

Some years ago the Pew Research Center in Washington DC produced a survey indicating the levels of nostalgia in Bulgaria surpassed by far longing for the past everywhere else in the former East bloc countries. How come? Why would the citizens of what today continues to be the European Union's poorest, most corrupt and least free state want to return to a nebulous and increasingly distant totalitarian past? What differs the modern Poles, Czechs and Romanians – not to mention the former East Germans – who have long forgotten about Communism from their peers in the southern Balkans?

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