When you mention to a Bulgarian that you are going to Pernik, the closest city south of Sofia, the response is almost always the same: are you crazy, they say, didn't you see all those memes on Facebook exposing how backward and dangerous that place is? In Pernik, they continue, the guys love to drive their emblematic Golfs way beyond the speed limit, and the usual way to end a night in the bar is with a fist fight. The landscape is just as awful, as Pernik is the real-life version of Tolkien's Mordor with its mines, wastelands, and dark smoke pouring from tall factory chimneys. Don't go to Pernik, goes the popular adage, there's nothing but trouble there.
Pernik's reputation is pretty bad, and at first glance seems well deserved: the city strives to reinforce the perception of menace and danger. While driving on the road to Tran, which passes through some of the industrial parts of Pernik, you see all the hallmarks of a dark Tolkien fantasy. Heaps of rusting metal rise on either side of the road between mammoth factories – some operational, others abandoned. These are grey, overgrown and expose their innards of machines, belt-lines, tubes and chimneys. More chimneys fill the narrow valley, and the apartment blocks around are poor and dilapidated.
Only lovers of dystopian landscapes could fall for this.
Like many places of bad reputation, however, Pernik is much more than it seems. For example, it is one of the few old towns in Bulgaria which hasn't changed its name since its foundation. Pernik has been Pernik since a fortress was built on the easily defended meanders of the 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.
The Pernik fortress guarded the important trade and military road to the Aegean, and on the cusp of the 10th and the 11th centuries it became a hotbed of Bulgarian resistance against the advancing Byzantine Empire. The local lord, Krakra, fought the invaders eagerly and with all of his might, but in 1017 he saw that resistance was futile and surrendered to Emperor Basil II. The fortress remained an important outpost until the end of the Middle Ages, when it was abandoned. People, however, still lingered in 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 were expanded, with Bulgarian and foreign investments, 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 agrarian Bulgaria.
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, not only because a number of top apparatchiks were born in the area – the city had all the prerequisites of an exemplary worker's 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 in 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.
Like all industrial centres of Communist Bulgaria, Pernik suffered heavily during the post-1989 transitional period from a planned to a free economy. Many factories were closed and others reduced 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. Many of its citizens now prefer to commute to Sofia, because of the better opportunities they find in the capital.
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 "socialisation," however, 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.
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. The latter is a fine example of Stalinist brutalism, and is adorned with reliefs of miners and metal workers.
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.
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. 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, the ringing of their bells echoes between the buildings, providing yet another reason to show that Pernik is not as unwelcoming as it is perceived by most Bulgarians.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.