A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
25 May 2012
On the outskirts of a sleepy mountain town, high up in Bulgaria’s Balkan Mountains, there lies an abandoned glass factory. This Soviet-era factory covers an area the size of an airport – incorporating warehouses, furnaces, production lines, offices, canteens, mess rooms and even a bomb shelter, all in varying states of disrepair.
In its heyday, the site would have had somewhere in the region of 500 workers. They worked around the clock, 12- or even 14-hour shifts overlapping, so that the factory itself was always awake; the process of melting sand into glass requires a constant temperature in excess of 1500 degrees, and so it made more sense to keep the furnaces in perpetual use. As a result, somewhere in the region of four tons of fossil fuel were burnt in the factory’s ovens every single day that it was open.
The sand used in the glassmaking process was taken from Bulgaria’s Black Sea beaches, and carted here by trains. Under a Soviet regime these trains were punctual and efficient, operating on tracks that ran all the way inside the main warehouse. From here a series of metal carts and conveyor belts would take the sand right to the mouth of the furnace.
The train tracks were built in 1975, and yet only 14 years later they were allowed to fall into ruin. The final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was preceded by the loss of many of its satellite states; when Bulgarian communism came to an end in 1990, many state-funded services fell into disrepair. As a result, the rails that supplied the engines at this particular site were soon out of use and overgrown.
For a while the glass factory struggled on – with unreliable shipments of sand coming in lorries from the coast – but without the efficiency of the railroads, the heart of the factory had effectively stopped beating. The body followed soon after, and by the beginning of the 21st century the furnaces were empty and cold.
This vast site is now owned by a private company, and one with rumoured connections to organised crime. They have plans to take down the warehouses, disassemble the rusting machinery, and sell the parts as scrap metal. Even now though, the factory remains untouched by anyone… except for the creeping onset of nature.
Eager to keep out looters and other intruders, the owners posted armed security guards around the site. It’s a similar scenario at the majority of abandoned industrial sites here, and one of the many challenges of urban exploration in Bulgaria. I had all but given up on finding a way in… until it transpired that a Bulgarian friend of mine went to school with several of the guards, and was confident that he could talk his way past.
With a wave of approval from the guard, we were soon sauntering along the cracked tarmac road that runs from the main entrance to the first of the colossal buildings. I was told that I was welcome to walk around the site, but not to go inside any of the buildings; and so I followed this instruction to the letter (for as long as I remained within sight of the guards).
Scattered around the complex, between towering chimneys and the blackened remains of blast furnaces, were piled stacks of bottles. Some had been weathered into shifting dunes of dust and shards, while others looked more recent – with cardboard packaging dissolving away from the once-orderly stacks, to leave chaotic rows and columns of green glass. Somewhere near the entrance one of the giant cooling towers had fallen – it now lay uprooted in the grass, a great concrete tube surrounded by crushed trees.
All of the access paths around the site seemed to converge onto one central area, from which the roof had been stripped away, leaving only bare concrete pillars forming an acropolis at the factory’s heart. On one side of this open expanse there spread a series of office buildings; the outer wall had completely fallen away in places, allowing access to the maze of corridors beyond.
My guide was not as eager as I was to see inside the falling ruins of the factory, and so for most of the afternoon we parted ways as I scrambled through broken windows and over crumbling walls.
A while later, disorientated as I found my way out through a side door from the office complex, I came across a low concrete archway set into a grassy bank. Climbing down into the burrow, past thick metal doors propped open by wooden planks, I found myself inside a bomb shelter.
It is not uncommon for Soviet industrial sites to feature such shelters, usually intended to protect workers from American bombs. In Bulgaria’s case, the threat was only too real; the Bulgarian capital of Sofia suffered a series of Allied bombing raids, most notably in 1943 and 44, after the country was bullied by Hitler into signing to an Axis allegiance.
The shelter at this particular factory was built large enough to house all 500 workers. It was divided inside to feature a number of different chambers… from which it was easy to recognise the dormitory full of bunk beds, several washrooms, a canteen and even a lecture hall.
Needless to say, the inside of the bunker was pitch black – making this a somewhat atmospheric side note to my exploration of the factory. The ornate white chairs which lay scattered about the main hall appeared entirely out of place in their surroundings, lending an eerie quality to the otherwise drab cavern.
Eventually heading back into the light of day, I made my way towards the back of the complex. Here a reservoir had been constructed, in order to hold the large quantities of water required for the cooling process. A thin walkway led out into the artificial lake, reaching a concrete platform with a lock – along which were arranged a series of archaic cog-driven mechanisms, used for raising or lowering the gates. This platform also offered a great opportunity for views of the rear warehouse, its clear reflection caught in the still water below.
It was at this point that I heard shouting in the distance, and looked up to see one of the security guards running towards me… I braced for trouble, but as it turned out he only wanted the car moved from where it was parked in front of the entrance.
Making my way from here back into the main site, I followed the buildings around the other side of the central courtyard, past rusting cranes and cascading piles of green bottles. After checking I was out of sight from the guards, I managed to squeeze through the gap made where a conveyor belt entered one of the small outlying buildings. Inside, the conveyor was flanked by a gantry, terminating in a vast cog mechanism which would have been responsible for driving the belts, and ferrying sand from the furnace to the cooling chambers.
To one side of the factory floor stood a small makeshift hut, composed of cardboard boxes and polystyrene blocks. A table replete with mugs and an ashtray evoked a vivid image of how the staff would have spent their short breaks, playing cards or sharing food inside a haphazard shelter.
The same conveyor belt whose lower portion fed into this building, stretched upwards in the opposite direction, reaching a point high up on the wall of the main building. I decided to follow it – being careful not to look over the edge, and trying to ignore the ominous creaking of rusted girders. Eventually reaching the apex I was able to climb through a window, stepping out onto a raised ledge high above the cooling chambers below.
I now stood on a narrow concrete lintel, no more than three feet across, which fell away from me on either side into vast reservoirs for water. On my right, an open tank the size of a swimming pool was filled with a murky, encrusted filth; the space on my left however was empty, with a sheer drop of roughly 60 feet to the dry concrete beneath. The walls of the tank were smooth and bare, with neither steps nor a ladder to facilitate access into – or out of – the pit beneath my feet.
Carefully making my way to the far end of the walkway I was able to gaze out over one of the main rooms of the factory, enjoying an aerial view of the cooling tanks, conveyor belts and other esoteric mechanisms, before climbing down a precarious iron ladder perched against the outer wall of the reservoir.
Several of the rungs had already corroded into red dust, and those that remained were brittle, and powdery to touch. Nerve-racking though it was, I persevered on downwards… being careful to spread my weight evenly and keep hold of as many rungs as possible.
Eventually reaching the ground, I found myself surrounded by antiquated cog-driven machinery, and mountains of pure, white sand. From here I was able to follow the trolley rails back into the unloading bay – a vast depot with enough space for several trains to be housed side-by-side.
By now, having made the full circumference of the site, I was once again close to the main entrance. On this side of the complex stood the mess hall and canteen. My guide had told me that this was once the most popular eatery in the town, providing good quality food free of charge to the workers; it was certainly a higher standard than the basic necessities available on Soviet rations.
From here an elevator shaft led up to the offices on the higher levels, its thick iron doors hanging open, studded with pink glass windows.
As we made our way back towards the overgrown car park, a bark rang out somewhere behind us. Turning, I spotted two dogs approaching fast across the open forecourt. I felt a brief moment of panic, expecting to be set upon any second by rabid guard dogs. As they got closer though, it became apparent that these were harmless strays, no more than puppies, who had found shelter within the rotting carcass of the disused factory. They stopped a little way off, yelping and growling from the bushes that marked the perimeter of their home.
As I turned to walk away they followed me, always at a distance, and dropping back sheepishly each time I turned to glance behind.