Bulgaria: Buzludzha and Shipka Church

This is the last place we visited in Bulgaria and actually for the foreseeable future, it may be the last time we visit Bulgaria as a whole since my mum sadly had to give up her home in Veliko Tarnovo for personal and health reasons; she has been back in the UK now for nearly a year. Its a very sad time indeed since she’s owned that house since I was about 18 and for ages treated it like a holiday home and then three years ago plucked up the courage to live out there completely. I may venture back one day as I’d love to visit Varna however without a home base out there I don’t feel the need to continue to go right now at this point in my life. With the big wide world out there and plenty of other countries I want to adventure in, I feel, for now Bulgaria is in the past.

I will say Bulgaria is very up and coming and is a great place to explore, if you’ve had enough of the overly touristy areas of Europe; Bulgaria (and Romania) are perfect for you.

That being said, lets talk about my last ever day trip in Bulgaria. Because the journey was very long, down a winding road to see the main attraction, we managed to take two pit stops on the way to see other sites- might as well make a day of it right? And it breaks up the car journey too!

From Veliko Tarnovo its an hour and half drive to get to Shipka Church. You need to be in this road from Veliko Tarnovo to get to Buzludzha-but I’ll tell you more about this later. This was our first pit stop for the day to stretch our legs, have a drink and a small bite to eat.

We found the architeture of this church confusing, because Bulgaria has a rich history we were unsure if the style of this building was Turkish or Russian? We discovered it was built in a Muscovite fashion after many buildings in Russia.

The Memorial Temple of the Birth of Christ better known as the Shipka Memorial Church or Shipka Monastery is a Bulgarian Orthodox church built near the town of Shipka in Stara Planin and  parts of the Shipka Monument complex, is dedicated to the Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian soldiers that died for the liberation of Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78.

This church is surrounded by a beautifully built up complex of steps and gardens to wander around, priests can be found strolling peacefully through the roses, there is a small exhibition of stone statues to the right of the church and a small area of souvenir tents are propped up for tourist buses to pass through.

The church’s bell tower reaches a height of 53 m and its bells, the heaviest of which weighs 12 tons, were cast from the cartridges that were collected after the battles. In the temple itself, the names of the Russian regiments and Bulgarian volunteers are inscribed on 34 marble plates. The remains of the perished are laid in 17 stone sarcophagi in the church’s crypt. Inside the church walls are covered in traditional Bulgarian Frescoes and murals that really is a site to behold! We spent about an hour, here before moving onto the next pit stop.

We ventured through Shipka Pass; famous for its stunning views. It is an exceptionally gorgeous scenic route through the Balkan mountains We stopped off to visit the Monument tower residing on Stoletov Peak near the pass, and reached by a flight of steps or a short road. It is a Monument to those who died for the Liberation of Bulgaria during the Battles of Shipka Pass in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

The monument is a 31.5-metre (98-foot) high stone tower in the form of a truncated pyramid. A giant bronze lion, 8 m (26 feet) long and 4 m (13 feet) high, stands above the entrance to the tower, and a figure of a woman represents the victory over the Ottoman forces. A marble sarcophagus housing some of the remains of the Russian and Bulgarian casualties is on the first floor. There are four other floors where one can find replica of Bulgarian military flags and other relics. The top of the tower reveals a panorama of Shipka Peak and the surrounding area. Again we stayed here for about an hour as Jon wanted to wait until sunset in preparation for our last destination!

And eventually the Shipka Pass leads you to your final destination! Many travelers have this place on their bucket list. Buzludzha or “The Spaceship” (because it looks like a spaceship) is famous world wide, even though I had never heard of it until recently. In 1868 it was the place of the final battle between Bulgarian rebels and forces of the Ottoman Empire.

To celebrate these events, the government in power during the height of Soviet influence decided to erect a monument commemorating socialist communism.

Work on the monument began in 1974, and was undertaken by units of the Bulgarian Army assisted by numerous artisans responsible for the large statues and murals. Large images of Lenin and Marx looked over the arena built for state functions and celebrations. Above it all blazed a red star-shaped window in honor of Soviet Russia.

After the government’s fall from power in 1989, the site was abandoned and left open to vandalism. The main entrance has been sealed and therefore closed to public. However, there is still a little way to get into the building on the right hand side of the building. Inside the Buzludzha Monument, most of the artwork has been removed or destroyed, but the concrete structure still stands against the elements. No apparent plans are in place to renovate the building or surrounding area with little interest expressed by the present government in maintaining this monument to the past.

Upon getting out of the car we were hit by gusts of wind. After a whole day of hot temperatures this knocked me for six, I was so cold! Urban explorers go here in all weathers, in fact many prefer to see this saucer-like building in the winter when the snow falls thickly to the ground which must be a captivating site to see!

The main entrance is blocked and over the years many explorers have vandalized the building and created small holes to climb down and into the monument itself-often times on traveler forums, travelers leave instructions of where the location of the newest hole has been created since Bulgarian authorities continue to block up previous attempts.

On the exterior wall, slogans in huge concrete letters urge workers towards glory. But today the dominant message is the striking red graffiti that warns, ‘Never forget your past’. Next to it, the word ‘Communism’ is redrawn as a Coca-Cola logo.

A young man waiting outside approached us and asked us if he could guide us inside. I was reluctant (as I’m not very trusting-especially of solo travelers in the middle of no where) but he told us he’d already been inside and wanted to go in again, Jon accepted and we were shown the latest way inside. I opted not to go in, largely because I wasn’t wearing appropriate shoes (How was I to know?) and Jon explained it was probably for the best I didn’t try because even he felt a little unsafe. The small hole leads you down a small shaft with nothing to grip on to and then once on the ground, your feet are covered in mud as you climber through a side tunnel surrounded by crumbled walls that feel like they are going to topple on you any moment plus its pitch dark too! I stayed in the car-nice and warm and marveled at the views as the sun set. Jon accumulated a few bloody scratches and bruises on his way in and out!

As of January 2018, guards have been placed at the site to deter urban explorers from illegally entering the building. We visited this place in summer of 2017 so we were probably one of the last bunch of people to see inside it. I do understand why this site is now guarded, it is very dangerous and I’ve heard people have tried to climb up the massive old tower but failed and died. I do think, if it is such a big attraction, it should be made safer for explorers to go inside it, put money into making it safer rather than pay for security guards to ward off visitors?

Jon explained that inside it smells of pigeon droppings and the floor is unsafe for unprotected feet (I was wearing sandals). Because of the location this building is in, it does get hit by pretty harsh weathers plus over the years the building is falling to ruin. So much so that there is shards of glass, nails, concrete and wood all over the floor. Looking up at the ceiling and sharp shards of metal are hanging on by a thread as they sway in the wind and you hope to god it doesnt fall onto your frail body. Authorities recently closed the main entrance because of considerable dangers such as falling concrete, broken glass, decaying stairs, and fears that the roof may one day collapse entirely. Before you make the trip, ask locally for the latest advice on access, safety and the legality of exploring the site.

The walls can be seen partially covered in mosaics which are now chipping away and over the years numerous graffiti artists have left their mark all over the building too. This site is very peculiar but I can see why so many travelers wish to see it. It has an air of mystery to it and that helps that its quite far away, making it feel almost inaccessible to the faint hearted.

Despite Bulgaria’s UFO hardly enjoying pride of place in tourism brochures, its reputation for otherworldly atmosphere is drawing visitors.

It’s easy to see why: inside the hall, mosaic portraits glow in shades of bronze and maroon. Some, like the face of ousted leader Zhivkov, have been scraped away entirely. Modern graffiti sit alongside these huge mosaic faces; ‘Lurkers of the world, unite’ has been daubed on one wall.

Panels have fallen away from the dome, allowing light to dapple the dirty floor. Still intact is the central motif: hammer and sickle. Clouds of dust hang thick in the air, pierced by beams of sunlight. This place is haunting and you can see why people are pulled to visit here, its like nothing you’ve ever seen!

After couple of cheeky yoga poses of me near the exterior of Buzludzha we ventured back to my mum’s home for our last couple of days in Veliko Tarnovo.

The first time I visited Bulgaria was when I was about six or seven and my mum took us to Borovets for Christmas. It was during that time that she fell in love with Bulgaria and dreamed of returning, she never believed she’d ever own a house out there though! (We are from what people would call ‘poor’, working class family, my mum is a single parent trying to raise two daughters and working full time, so the odds of her owning a property abroad were slim, but she did it!) By the time I was 18 my mum became a manager of a furniture store and a property owner/landlady of three other properties in the UK which enabled her to sell up and buy her Bulgarian house. In my late 20’s she moved out there for what she wanted to be her retirement and I managed to visit her three times with Jon in order to enjoy the Bulgarian culture and my mum’s dream that she manifested. Sadly this dream wasn’t meant to last but she did it and i’m grateful for that because she’s taught me to never give up on a dream and to always be a free spirit wanting adventure in life!

Bulgaria is beautiful and interesting, it stole my mum’s heart- not so much mine, I feel more pulled towards other destinations but then I am a different person to my mum. I’ve really enjoyed exploring central Bulgaria and I would love to travel to other areas, perhaps in the future though. I do hope you enjoyed this journey around central Bulgaria, keep on reading for more articles about traveling!

Missed previous posts about Bulgaria? Click on the links below:
Day Trip to Lovech & The Devetashka Cave
Two days in Plovdiv
Day trip to Arbanasi
Day trip to Hotnitsa Falls
Day trip to the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration of God
Two days in Sofia
Day trip to Krushuna Falls
Living in & Visiting Veliko Tarnovo
Day trip to Emen Gorge
Day trip to: Etar Living Museum

Want to read other travel blog posts? Click on the links below:
3 weeks backpacking around Nepal
10 days traveling up the Dalmatian coast of Croatia & Montenegro
16 days touring around Morocco
4 day mini break in the Algarve, Portugal
5 days in Budapest and Vienna
Day trips and mini breaks around the UK

1 thought on “Bulgaria: Buzludzha and Shipka Church

  1. Pingback: Bulgaria: Veliko Tarnovo - SunflowerTeeth Blog

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