On our last day in Sofia while trying to work out how we were going to get transport to VT, we were overheard by the staff in the hostel. Just by chance it turned out that there was a guy, a tour operator, who was travelling there the next day and would be happy to give us a lift. Of course after being on the road for so long the thought of traveling in a private car was great news and our answer was basically “fuck yeah!”
The next day we roll out of bed, get ourselves ready and wait downstairs for our lift. Before too long Andy, our lift, appears and we haul our stuff out to the carpark to the vehicle. This is where things get interesting. Our vehicle turns out to be an old 80s series land cruiser which has done some seriously hard km’s and wouldn’t look out of place in mad max. The thing is covered in dents, scratches, has missing mirrors and I’m fairly sure that there are mismatching panels. The trip looks like it’s going to be fun and we jump in really keen for a road trip.
Andy is a middle aged guy and turns out to be a Kiwi expat who has been living on and off in Bulgaria for the previous 7 years. As we chat to Andy during our trip it turns out that the cruiser is his whole reason be being in Sofia for the last 5 weeks due to multiple breakdowns with is gas/diesel system and generally shitty mechanics who still work with the old communist ‘be happy with what I give you’ attitude. “But luckily” he exclaims, “it’s all fixed now.”
Around halfway into the trip we pull into a fuel station and while Andy is filling up we all go inside to get some drinks and snacks. As I’m walking outside I pass Andy who has finished and is on his way in to pay for the fuel. As I get to the car I instantly hear a hissing sound coming from underneath the car and after the story about the gas system (and being pretty good at connecting dots) I’m waiting for some kind of fireball to happen. I poke my head underneath the chassis just to be sure and sure enough there is liquid gas squirting out from a hose and there is so much it’s forming a puddle on the ground before it evaporates. Shit. So as Andy comes out I tell him about his cruiser becoming a bomb and, casually as fuck, he jumps in the car and drives it over to a carpark. While gas is still flowing out he get under there with a spanner and tightens off a loose connection. Crisis over and Andy is looking a chilled as you can be. So with all of this fresh in my mind we continue with our trip and the whole time I’m just waiting for a gas tank to fall off or something like that. Luckily we get to VT safely and have a pretty great time along the way.
Early the next morning we wake up for probably the best organised tour I’ve ever been on. Aaron has heard of other travellers visiting an old abandoned communist conference centre somewhere in the mountains near VT. Because myself and Aaron like exploring abandoned places, this story of an evil lair sounds cool AF. As it turns out our hostel knows a local guy who runs a 4×4 tour to get there and guess who it is? Andy!
Ready to go myself, Aaron, Kate, a Japanese couple, action-man Andy and enough go pros and cameras to film a red bull commercial pile into the car ready for pretty much anything. We start of nice and easily with a visit to an open air museum set up like a traditional Bulgarian village which was pretty cool and had some really great food/craft displays.
Now the serious part of the journey begins. As we are getting back into the cruiser to start the 4×4 trail Andy asks us if we have anything fragile in our bags which we have stuffed into the rear of the car. Why? We ask. “Because shit is going to fly everywhere,” is his reply. We all look at each other with a mix of ‘holy fuck what are we getting ourselves into’ and ‘this is sounding more fucking awesome by the minute.’ So we pack everything in as tightly as we can and hope for the best.
The trail starts off and it’s completely fucking insane, in the best kind of way. Andy is driving with either complete disregard for the wellbeing of his 4×4 or the belief that it can handle anything. We are travelling at high speed along shear drops, around hairpin bends and smashing through trees which scrape along the side of the cruiser as we gradually travel further upwards. There are so many times that we reach wash outs that are so bad we are balancing on 3 wheels and at one point we hurtle around a corner to see a tree fallen across the road with a puddle in front of it. Andy slams on the breaks and we skid through the puddle, water and mud going everywhere, to stop just as the branches hit the side.
We are driving through a bit of forest and emerge into a clearing to finally see the ruin up close for the first time. This thing is immense. On the peak of a mountain the main structure looks like a UFO sitting on top of a landing platform and next to it is a giant concrete tower with a glass communist star about 5 stories high in the side. It looks like the textbook definition of an evil villain’s lair. Especially with the backdrop of low clouds rushing over the peak and winds gusting to over 100km/h. We drive up to the bottom of the tower with an old communist anthem blaring from the speakers for effect. There are a couple of other people there as well and they are completely confused when they see this beat up (now with broken suspension) old 4×4 park on the steps to the building.
It doesn’t disappoint up close either, if anything our amazement just keeps growing. The thing is in complete disrepair. The base is covered with plenty of political anti-communist graffiti and the roof is completely missing. We are told that the roof was once copper and the building was once full of expensive glass and bronze statues and mosaics that are now probably sitting in the living room of one of the local farmers. Now though, all we can hear is the sound of roofing steel being ripped off the top as the winds gradually get fiercer. Andy pulls out some torches and now its time to explore the inside. We boost each other up and climb in through a smashed out window and emerge onto an old internal staircase. Climbing up the staircase we walk out into an enormous round meeting room that looks like something in between a parliament and that meeting chamber from the third star wars film. Most of the roof has collapsed so heaps on natural light is getting in. every wall is covered in intricate communist mosaics and it seems like most of the floor was as well. We walk through countless rooms that have been completely stripped of anything of value. Electrical fittings, old wall coverings, aircon ducting are all gone so that all there is left to see is the bare concrete and steel which is also looking pretty close to collapse.
Deeper inside we get to the bottom of the old tower, to the side of the main structure. In pairs, so we all have light, we gradually climb up the really dodgy ladders inside the tower. All up there are around 30 floors to climb up in the dark, wet and cold. When we get close to the top we emerge onto a platform in between the old communist stars which are enormous, around 15m high. The glass is smashed on some of the panels by trophy hunters, with the red glass obviously being a pretty good memento to take home. At the top of the tower we take a break and have a late lunch while we take in the incredible view.
The next day was spent exploring Velico Tarnovo itself. The old town is really impressive. Hugging the bends of a river as it winds, a lot, through a mountain range the buildings seems to pretty much teeter along the edge of the cliffs like they are a stiff breeze away from falling down into the river. After the mission the day before we were happy to do a casual explore of the city fortress and try some of the local food which was also starting to grow on me.