A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
9 October 2012
In Varna, Bulgaria, the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship rises like a concrete bird from a hill beside the seashore. I had been inside the monument on a previous visit: I had seen the hollow interior, and the spaces that led beneath the Brutalist structure into a series of basement rooms. But it wasn’t until many months later, that a local friend showed me the way into an abandoned Cold War bunker hidden several levels beneath, in the hill itself.
The Cold War Bunker
The entrance to the bunker was hidden in plain sight – you just had to know where to look. Pushing through the bushes we found the old hatch, a metal door half rusted off its hinges. Red lettering on the hatch offered a safety warning, too faded now to be understood. We powered up our torches and headed in.
The bunker was bigger than I could have imagined. We soon found ourselves in a vast underground labyrinth, a series of interconnecting corridors and chambers. Broken pipes and sockets, the rusted parts of old boilers, suggested that once, this place had been fitted with water, gas and electricity.
I tried to figure out the purpose of different spaces as we passed, counting off mess halls and dormitories, a kitchen, shower room and several blocks of latrines.
The first cylindrical passage after the entrance was heavily graffitied, the words “Fear the Reaper” sprayed bold beside an inverted pentagram. Clearly not all visitors made it far from the entrance, however. These crude tags and slogans became rarer as we made our way deeper into the darkness.
In a boiler room near the entrance, twisted metal ducts lay strewn across the floor like fallen branches. A panel, screwed to one wall, featured the remains of an electrical switchboard.
An alcove tucked away at the rear of this chamber offered access to a narrow shaft beyond. Putting my torch to one side as I clambered over the chest-high lintel, I dropped down into a long passage with what appeared to be a drainage trench hollowed out in the floor. A rusted iron plate divided the space in two – I managed to squeeze under it, into a chimney-like structure. Above me a series of flaking, red-brown rungs disappeared into the darkness. I started climbing.
I didn’t get far, perhaps 15 feet, before a rung came away from the wall in my hand – crumbling as it did so into a coarse red powder. Common sense prevailed, and I decided to head back down.
Heading deeper into this leftover Cold War bunker, the tunnels formed a vast criss-crossed network. As we turned left and then right in the pitch dark, passing by unmarked tunnels on either side, it was easy to get the feeling that we were becoming gradually more lost. In reality though, I suspect we were simply wandering around a large interconnected grid: a closed circuit.
Metal pipes and ducts lay scattered throughout the tunnels. Looters had stripped out most of the furnishings, though little clues lay behind: switches, hatches and glass windows, or occasional lightbulbs hanging from lifeless sockets.
Most of the corridors were formed from concrete tubes, and footsteps had a habit of echoing down the length of the passages around us. Sometimes the echoes seemed to get lost, catching up with us later, or laying in ambush around the next turning. Then there were the hand prints.
Most of the graffiti appeared near the entrance, but other visitors had left their own unsettling marks on the site. In the boiler room, my torch beam fell suddenly across a cluster of pale hand prints pressed into the black soot on the wall; elsewhere, we discovered four long, trailing finger marks dragged across the edge of a broken doorway.
Nature too had managed to leave its signature. Droplets of moisture clung to ceilings and door lintels, translucent beads that caught the torchlight like a hundred tiny prisms. In another room, roots had managed to find their way down into the darkness of the bunker. Several clusters erupted from the flaking walls, fanning out into an intricate pattern of blind, groping tendrils.
This structure, a Cold War bunker easily large enough to house a hundred people for an extended period of time, seemed like it had never been used. Perhaps it had never been finished, even – but it was hard to tell, as the place was so heavily looted for metal, parts, or anything else of value.
It was dusk by the time we clambered back outside. The fresh air tasted sweet in my lungs, and after the dust and bad air of the tunnels I drank it in greedily.
We waited a moment, for a dog walker to pass by – and then we burst out of the bushes back onto the path that wound around the park. Above us, framed against the twilight, the monument atop the hill rose like a half-seen ghost in the night.