A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
14 June 2013
Not far from the Black Sea coast, where Bulgaria’s bustling tourist resorts throb to the sound of stag parties and booze-fuelled weekend breaks, there lies a tunnel. Designed to reinforce the infrastructure of a burgeoning communist state, the project was nevertheless abandoned before completion. Now overgrown and forgotten, I headed out to find this lost structure – and trace the unused tracks of a subterranean highway gone to ruin.
The Kosharitsa Tunnel
Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast is dominated by two port cities; Varna in the north, and Burgas in the south. A distance of roughly 130km separates the two, and although it would seem logical there is as yet no direct rail connection. As a result, taking a train from Varna to Burgas means a 210km detour with a change at Karnobat – the transfer often being the most painful part, given the frustrating irregularity of trains in this part of the world.
During the communist era, when Bulgaria served as an unofficial satellite to the Soviet Union, the country was slowly moulded into a highly efficient labour pool. The USSR outsourced production through sites such as the glass factory I once visited in the Balkan Mountains, as well as the larger arms manufacturer, Arsenal AD, who operated out of a large industrial plant near Kazanluk. Even the Soviet Union’s standard issue Makarov pistol would often roll off Bulgarian production lines.
It was common in those days for manufacturing sites to be linked with their own independent rail tracks; the Soviet glass factory I explored had once been supplied by a track that ran all the way from Varna, bringing in vast quantities of sand to be processed. No wonder then, that in 1958 plans went underway to connect Bulgaria’s two main port cities by rail.
The land between Varna and Burgas consists largely of forest and rolling meadows. However, it proved necessary to excavate a tunnel beneath the hills north of Burgas; planned to start near the town of Dolno Ezerovo (Долно Езерово), and reaching as far north as Dolni Chiflik (Долни чифлик), the project was abandoned before completion.
I first came across photos of the disused tunnel entrance while browsing through a forum for Bulgarian photographers. It took me a little time to locate the structure, and place it on a map – the site being well removed from human settlements, and with little-and-less information available in English.
When I did finally visit, it was with Nate from Yomadic; parking up near the coastal village of Kosharitsa on a bright May afternoon, and heading into the wilderness along an unmarked, overgrown path. We spotted our first clues early on – large square slabs of concrete set into either side of a ditch, which would have formed the supports for a train track.
The walk took us around 20 minutes, and we couldn’t have picked a better day for it; the sun warmed our backs, and wherever we stepped the dry undergrowth would rustle with the movement of birds and lizards.
More signs appeared as we grew closer to our destination. The path we followed was littered with concrete fragments – supports and foundations – while a gravel embankment rose up above the babbling stream to our left.
At one point we wondered if we had gone too far; whether we should have crossed the water, or strayed a little further from the path in search of our goal. Then we came around one last corner, and there it was before us – a proud and prominent brickwork arch, rising out of the trees.
The imposing archway had been bricked up at some point, presumably when the project was abandoned; a small gap had been left however, providing access into the tunnel that burrowed beneath the hills beyond. We approached the entrance, peering into the gloom. The tunnel had been flooded, its floor a black mirror pool, and the darkness marched on beyond knowing.
In my research I had found a wide variety of mixed and contradictory accounts of the tunnel at Kosharitsa. Some reports reckoned it at 4km, others at 8. Another forum – frequented by trainspotters (and all written in Bulgarian, naturally) – suggested that this tunnel was a part of an ‘understudy’ line; that a direct line between Varna and Burgas would have been supported by ancillary tracks stopping at the towns of Obroz, Byala and Dolni Chiflik along the way.
One self-professed expert on the subject of Bulgarian rail had claimed this tunnel was part of a military installation – codenamed ‘Project A’. The purpose of Project A, he explained, was to allow the rapid transfer of troops to the Turkish border. There seems to be some mileage in this theory. Bulgaria had only achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908, 30 years after the end of the Second Russo-Turkish War. It follows that 50 years later, a Russian-influenced Bulgaria would remain wary of its southern land border with Turkey.
We scrambled up the grassy slope, hopping across onto the concrete portal. Some have suggested that this structure was intended to form engine room curtains; others dismiss it as purely decorative, as is suggested by the flagpole mounted on top of the framework.
I decided it was time to take a look inside.
Ducking under the brick lintel and into the darkness of the tunnel, I clung to the wall, my feet finding purchase on a narrow ledge over the murky waters.
After the bright sunlight outside, it took a while for my eyes to acclimatise to the tunnel. I waited for a few moments, surrounded by soft plops and the mating call of frogs.
The water made for slow progress at first. It was hard to gauge exactly how deep it was, and so I was forced to leap from one concrete outcrop to another along the tunnel wall. I didn’t have to travel far though, before the flood subsided; and pretty soon I was able to walk unhindered through the darkness.
The train tunnel was almost bare inside, save for ceramic insulators which extended at regular intervals from the ceiling – evidence that at some stage the Kosharitsa tunnel had had electric power; or at least dreamed of it. Chalk marks broke up the monotony of the tunnel walls, while neat Cyrillic script spelt out builders’ notes to one another.
A deep groove dug down the centre of the tunnel marked where the track would have been laid. Instead of reaching completion though, this trench had simply been covered with a series of cracked paving slabs.
Occasionally a frog would be startled at my approach, and disappear into the central gully. Bulgaria is home to a couple of venomous snakes, and I wondered what else lay sleeping in the moist darkness around me.
The cavern just kept on going. Wide enough for a cargo train and somewhere around 5m in height, this subterranean space felt vast and endless. At one point it crossed my mind that I hadn’t changed the batteries in my headlamp for a while… and I didn’t have a spare torch. Nevertheless, this place didn’t strike me as dangerous; just a highly inconvenient path to retrace in total darkness.
Once or twice I found signs of other visitors. A couple of plastic beer bottles were discarded in an alcove, beside the charred remains of a camp fire. Further along I found the skull and bones of some small mammal, long since perished.
By my reckoning, the Kosharitsa tunnel extends for a distance of around 1km. One report I read had placed it at 1,200m, and I’m happy to go with that. The far end was much like the entrance, blocked by a wall of solid grey brick. It was exactly as I had read, as I had expected; tools dropped, work finished, the half-built tunnel sealed and left to fester in darkness. Somehow though, I still felt a little disappointment.
I retraced my footsteps; the light from the entrance growing from a distant pinprick to a glowing orb, giving the illusion of a ghost train approaching out of the darkness. The orb grew further still, until I could make out Nate’s silhouette framed in the brick entrance; his long shadow rippling over black water.
Despite exploring the Kosharitsa tunnel in its entirety, the site was still shrouded in mystery; what exactly had been the original purpose of this track, when was it abandoned, and why so suddenly? In a post-communist country it’s easy to blame such things on a regime change… but when you look a little closer, you find that this isn’t always the case.
Whatever the reason for its abandonment, the tunnel at Кошарица now takes its place alongside countless other relics from an age gone by; buried and forgotten beneath the green hills of Bulgaria.