Every once in a while there is an opportunity to do something that seems like a good idea, but for a variety of reasons — maybe cost, time, or that gut feeling saying ‘don’t bother’ — you decide against it. We almost decided against this, but some nagging feeling convinced us that this could be something big.
So let’s start the story. We had caught wind that one hostel in Veliko Tarnovo operates a tour, and I use the word tour loosely because it isn’t exactly conventional, to visit a building that supposedly looks like a UFO. The building was constructed in the Soviet era, and today it is abandoned, looted, and rotting away. It isn’t an official tourist site, nor is it even legal to explore the inside of the building.
The day began with us getting into a 4x4 with two other passengers, a German guy and an Austrian girl. The driver, whose name escapes me right now so let’s call him George, was from New Zealand. He had visited the site hundreds of times over the last few years.
During the drive, he explained the story of the building, piecing it together from word of mouth and whatever evidence he has seen leftover on site. Bulgarians are not proud of the UFO, so no official information about it exists on site. Many believe it represents a colossal waste of money, considering the building was only used for 8 years before the Soviet Union collapsed. The building was intended to be both a symbol of communist strength, as well as a conference center for high ranking party officials.
He also shared recent experiences that added a kind of rebelliousness to the adventure, including how he once he saw a famous graffiti artist tagging the building, or the time the police showed up and took his plate number.
“Hang on!” George exclaimed. We suddenly went from talking about this mystic building to bouncing in our seats.
“Aaaaah!” The Austrian girl screamed, when she saw that we were about to drive into a ditch. George pushed the pedal to the metal and continued to drive up a forty five degree angle hill. We were taking a shortcut that the Soviets constructed through the woods.
Helene and I bounced in the back seat, holding onto the 4x4’s ceiling straps so we didn’t get thrown into each other. It felt like we were on a roller coaster. I was having so much fun driving through the woods that I couldn’t help but wonder if the building would have been as exciting as the ride to see it.
Once we approached the building we stopped to take some photos. Perched atop the mountain, the building certainly was making a statement. As we got closer, it was clear that the building met the definition of abandonment: broken glass everywhere, locked up doors, and a story to tell.
The main entrance was convincingly closed off to visitors with metal bars and a pad lock. Towards the side of the building was our entrance which was basically a hole where a vent was once installed. We awkwardly climbed through the opening trying not to cut ourselves on the jagged edges, clearly not confident that this was a good idea.
The inside of the building was dark, musty, and dusty. The building’s marble floors and stained windows that would have characterized its grandeur had been looted and were now diminished to rubble and shards of glass. With our head lamps we explored dark corners of the building.
Broken porcelain was all that was left of the bathroom. Dangling cables was all that was left of an elevator. Remnants of red velvet was all that was left covering the walls.
We ventured upstairs to explore the conference hall. We entered the room and the fathers of communism’s faces looked down upon us in the form of mosaics that encircled the hall. Much of the mosaics were starting to decay, or were destroyed by the elements. Entire sections laid on the floor. Enough detail remained for your brain to fill in the blanks, leaving an impression that the room was once, indeed, grand.
Surrounding the conference hall was a corridor circling the building. Walking through the corridor was also a site to see. To the left were windows overlooking the mountains. Even the glass that filled the windows were either looted or shattered on the floor. To the right, more mosaics depicted everything from capitalist demons to communist workers doing an honest day’s work for the state.
Adjacent to the conference hall was the building’s tower. We climbed to the top of the tower through the fire escape, which was littered with empty beer cans. Some fifteen floors up, George pointed out that the red stained glass communist star had holes in it, holes that weren’t there the last time he visited. I had a feeling the next tourists who would visit would see the UFO a little more run down than we did.
More clues along the way showed that the tower’s electricity was powered by Cisco, and of course the circuit board and wires had also been stolen.
Getting to the top of the tower rewarded us with a 360 degree view of the mountains. The fresh mountain air cooled us down after the hike up the tower. We sat up there and relaxed.
In reality, the whole experience, while exciting, was quite sad. I’m not sure if the declining state of the building represents a conscious effort to forget the past, or is a reminder that the capitalists won. Perhaps it just means that there isn’t enough money in Bulgaria to preserve something like this. Cleaning up the mold and asbestos alone wouldn’t be worth the liability. Maybe the message here is something as simple as this isn’t an important part of Bulgaria’s rich 5000 year history.
After three hours, or so, we were finished with exploring the building. As we exited the crawl space, we did so with a much more assured sense of confidence. While we were exiting through the crawl space, three Bulgarians and their lap dog were walking near the building with the same awe struck faces we had some three hours earlier. It was clear they didn’t know where to enter, so we gave them some friendly advice and returned to the hotel.
I’m not sure if I would have appreciated my visit if the UFO if it were roped off like most tourist sites are. In a way, the story is more telling without signage. The whole experience raised more question than it answered, a sign of something truly amazing.