Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.
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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.
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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

A Smelly Investigation

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“Let’s go for a walk.”

It’s a hot, sunny day in Nikolaevo the day after we arrive. There’s not a cloud in the sky, excepting a haze in the northwest. Lela Stanka has mentioned walking trails and Roman ruins on the hill nearby and I have no interest in staying inside. The three of us pull on our shoes and head out into the afternoon sun.

We walk northeast to the river at the edge of town, where men are sluicing for gold flecks. The air stings slightly and smells vaguely of burning milk jugs and we can see smoke in the distance. “What is that smell?” I ask. Stoytcho translates as Lela Stanka replies, “The next town over, Gurkovo. The terrible smell has been drifting from their town into Nikolaevo all summer. We complained about it, but the mayor there says they’re just burning lavender husks, but who knows what they’re actually burning.”

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This definitely does not smell like lavender husks. “Let’s go find out what it is!” I reply. It’s time for us to do some investigative journalism in this small-town dispute.

We turn north and walk the dirt footpath along the river toward Gurkovo, passing alternating dense, tangled summer underbrush and neatly-planted rows of grapevines. We stop to admire the flowers and gather rose hips, which Lela Stanka says we can make into jam or tea.

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Most of the time the air smells of humid greens and plant matter, but when the wind shifts we catch whiffs of bitter chemicals. As we close in on Gurkovo, our trail breaks away from the river and onto the edge of a barren field. Here, we can clearly see waves of blue-gray smoke drifting toward us, the source obscured by a low hill of brush.

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The trail around the field is long, but the ‘electric fence’ strung up along its edge presents us with no other choice. We hike to its eastward corner and continue north into increasingly frequent plumes of smoke. The smell is stifling and oppressive, and not breathing is the only way to keep from gagging. The fields on either side of us are strewn with refuse, from torn-apart shoes to empty cigarette packets.

We round the final corner to behold the smoldering source of the stench and it is most certainly not lavender husks.

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There’s discarded food, broken children’s toys, torn clothes, plastic wrappers, rags, and a variety of chemicals of questionable origin that probably burn quite noxiously. And burning the are.

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It appears that the Gurkovo dump caught fire sometime this summer and is now in a slow, continuous process of burning, fed by an ever-present stream of waste. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that summer of 2017 in Bulgaria has been unseasonably hot and dry. The trees both in cities and in the countryside break scorch marks and browning leaves, and people talk of drought. Gurkovo’s burning rubbish heaps are merely one more sign of the times.   We beat a hasty retreat back from Gurkovo’s dump, eager to escape the noxious fumes and probable carcinogens floating freely about us.

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Back at the apartment, my hair and clothes reek and it takes two showers and washes to clear everything of the burnt plastic smell. Part of me wants to write an angry letter to Gurkovo’s mayor over the health hazard he created that’s now drifting through Nikolaevo. But I also only know about fifteen words in Bulgarian, and most of them relate to food. For now all I can do is publish this article and hope someone can do something about it.

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Exploring an abandoned building.

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Bulgaria has a bit of a reputation for abandoned buildings – it makes sense when so much was built by different regimes and left to rot when the next one took over, or built during a precocious boom and abandoned for the bust, or just left to the elements due to a declining population.

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Our up close encountered was in Stara Zagora – it’s where my mom is from and also the city I’ve spent the most time in and know the best. One of my favorite sites in the city is The Ayazmo – a large hill on the north end of town that’s mostly for recreation and exercise, a retreat to nature. At the top of this park used to be a little shop and a picnic area – it’s probably still there, but we didn’t get all the way there. Instead, we spent our time exploring this old decaying building near-ish to the top. It was apparently a restaurant, and a very fancy one. It wasn’t particularly well run from what our hotel friends told us, and after it went under the owners just.. left it.

IMG_1718 This was our first clue that something interesting might be up here – what’s behind this fence? IMG_2071
Clearly an entrance for the local teenagers.. and us!
IMG_1719 All we knew so far was one, this place was clearly abandoned, and two, it was very round from the outside. IMG_1721
Peeking into the main structure now..
IMG_1724 We were thinking an old hotel? IMG_1742
Just wandering around.
IMG_1743 Piles of bricks? Was this place ever even finished? IMG_1754
IMG_1727 Very creepy dark holes. IMG_1730
This is an area lower than the rest of the building, a round room.
IMG_1734 Looking into one of the holes. IMG_1736
Even deeper.
IMG_1739 Ceiling decay. Probably wasn’t super safe. IMG_1740
IMG_1750 It reads “Ne” – ‘no’. IMG_1757
A bathroom?
IMG_1763 More no’s. We’re heading up the stairs now to the second floor. IMG_1767
The upstairs. Lovely patch of mold growing right in the middle.
IMG_1773 Lots of curves in this building. IMG_1785
I’m not entirely sure those round holes in the walls are natural decay.
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Plenty of sunlight for mold and plants.
IMG_1806 This was part of a dumbwaiter. IMG_1811
A patio outside.
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This whole place felt like a video game level.
IMG_1865 Up the ladder she went. IMG_1860
To no reward. Not much of interest on the roof.
IMG_1916 And now we go to the basement.
IMG_1930 One of those holes from upstairs. IMG_1933
And the other one too.
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Bathrooms? Or storage rooms maybe?
IMG_1948 The hallway was very dark and very creepy. IMG_1967
Finally, fresh air.
IMG_1970 And lots of beautiful nature. IMG_1979
IMG_1991 Really cool curved architecture. IMG_2005
We were definitely not the first visitors here.
IMG_2011 Peeking into the bathroom from outside. IMG_2020
Round where we entered.
IMG_2026 And the front entrance. IMG_2054
The water’s still running even.
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And a last shot of the building materials.

We never did figure out if this was once completed and now decayed, or never even finished in the first place. The materials lying around and the exposed rebar made it seem like it was never even in business. The hotel staff told us it was just a bad business? Either way it was fun to explore. It’s also a local hangout spot for kids to drink and smoke from the trash we found. At night this place would be downright scary and dangerous to explore, so that’s probably someone’s idea of a good time too.

As a disclaimer – we felt ok poking around in this abandoned building, if you get a chance to explore a similar one trust your gut and stay safe.