Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The (Un)Usual Suspects: Bulgaria’s Top 100 Tourist Sites – Communist and Contemporary

Text by Ekaterina Petrova   
If you thought that tourism under socialism was irreconcilably different from that in developed democratic countries, the latest travellers' mania in Bulgaria will come as a surprise. A popular trend there nowadays is the collecting of special stamps in a booklet containing a list of 100 not-to-be-missed destinations, which originates back to the 1960s. Some of the former attractions, such as the museum of Bulgarian-Soviet friendship, a petrol refinery and an outstanding agricultural co-operative have been dropped as must-see landmarks. But the idea of collecting 100 stamps in something like a traveller's passport turns out to be irresistible to modern travellers with its old-fashioned bureaucratic charm.

Get your list of top 100 sites in English from and plan your route to explore the treasures of this exciting Balkan country.

The idea of the booklet 100 National Tourist Sites: Bulgaria – That is my Homeland emerged in 1966 as an initiative of the Get to Know Bulgaria movement. Its main aim was to encourage Bulgarians to visit and get familiar with their country’s most significant sites.

Dozens of places - from cultural, historical, geographical, archaeological and architectural monuments, to industrial plants, exemplary agricultural co-operatives, partisans’ hiding places and graves, communist leaders’ monuments, museums of the friendship among (socialist) nations and revolutionary committees, were armed with specially designed stamps and included in the state-approved list.

The selection had to be long - the megalomania of the regime was particularly visible when it came to the richness of national history and heritage.

But apart from giving a good idea of local history's abundance horn, the list had to show off Bulgaria’s technical and social progress as a member of the Eastern Bloc. The country’s great industrial strides were not to be missed – the Petrochemical Plant in the city of Burgas and the Metallurgic Plant in the town of Kremikovtsi were included, while the town of Dimitrovgrad boasted the Museum of Socialist Construction and the Nitric Fertilisers Plant.

Bulgaria’s partisans and their lives were also celebrated, as testified by the town of Gabrovo’s House Museum Mitko Palauzov, who was a child partisan figure much revered during communist times. Political leaders, both national and Soviet ones, were also present on the list of landmarks, which included the Museum House of Georgi Dimitrov in the village of Kovachevtsi, where Dimitrov (Bulgaria’s first communist leader) was born, and the Lenin Park in the town of Stara Zagora.

The old version of the list even left space for the traveller to show some creativity, as testified by its 100th, and perhaps most entertaining and simultaneously indicative entry, which reads: “A choice of an exemplary labour-cooperative agricultural farm.” This farm, known under the abbreviation TKZS in Bulgarian, served as the chief mode of agricultural organisation and production during communism, following the nationalisation of all private land.

Once set up, the initiative had to be popularised. Schools were obliged to take their pupils in groups around the country and make them buy the booklets and start collecting stamps. So in the late 1970s, there was almost no child in Bulgaria who didn’t posses the yellow-paged document with at least a couple of marks.

After the end of socialism the initiative was forgotten, only to surface a decade later with a refreshed image, and a revised list of tourist attractions. After all, it is just a local, post-socialist version of what is popular all around Western Europe, where one can purchase a one-euro collector's coin with the image of the monument he is visiting for two euros.

A comparison of listing from 1966-1989 with the current one is not only entertaining, but can also serve as a good peek into how Bulgarians have changed their interpretation and presentation of history.

The pre-1989 selection contained a number of monuments linked to the former regime, most of them of dubious historical significance and an even more so aesthetic value. The monasteries, churches and museums, which replaced them in the current selection, speak of different modes of national self-identification and changes in collective memory.

While communist Kurdzhali’s pride, for instance, was its Lead and Zinc Plant and the Kurdzhali Dam – both examples of the industrial progress and development drive typical of the era, the town’s landmarks now are the Regional History Museum and the nearby ancient site of Perperikon, a significant archaeological find.

A similar modification can be observed with the town of Batak – whose importance to Bulgarian history was recently claimed by some nationalists to be similar to that of Kosovo to Serbia’s history. During communism a main attraction of the town was a partisan camp under the name of Teheran. It has subsequently been dropped, with only the town’s Museum of History left in the contemporary selection.

The current selection is mostly, though not entirely free of communist-era landmarks. The museums of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Sofia, the Friendship among (Socialist) Nations in Varna and Bulgaria’s First Regional Revolutionary Committee in Golyam Izvor were excluded, though it would be exceedingly interesting to see the artefacts they displayed. The National Palace of Culture in Sofia – a monstrosity of a building epitomising the early-1980s communist taste for massive, marble-and-steel constructions, however, has been added as an important site.

Either way, the list seems to be set for the time being, although – as historical interpretations and perceptions of what’s important change, it may be adapted to include new landmarks. It would not come as a surprise if, in a few years, shopping malls – which are springing up like mushrooms and becoming a significant factor in the organisation of Bulgarians’ social life, get added to the list. Shopping has become the new farming, in a manner of speaking. So, with the increasing decline of rural regions and the continuous migration to urban areas, instead of the TKZS, stamp collectors may have to choose an exemplary shopping mall from which to get a stamp in the not too distant future.

In actuality, the inventory now contains mostly well-known and uncontroversial tourist attractions. Even though it lists very few off-the-beaten track destinations, it can occasionally surprise the traveller with an otherwise forgotten or overlooked suggestion.

The small-sized booklets available for purchase by visitors at all of the sites are perhaps the only practical extension of the list. Each site has its own individual seal which is stamped in a specially designated space on its pages, as proof of one’s visit and a fun way to keep a neat record of one’s trips.

Since the booklets are only issued in Bulgarian, offers the current selection of the 100 Bulgarian landmarks in English.

So, next time you are travelling around the country, buy the booklet, bring our translated list with you and start collecting the stamps. But don’t take the selection for granted. When you get the chance, also have a look at the now discredited sites, many of which still stand. Because – though linked to an era of communist oppression and propaganda, they are nevertheless a part of the country’s history.

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