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6 February 2024

The Skeleton Hotel Bulgaria And The Picture That Never Was

Waking up covered completely with a fluffy, white duvet in a cosy, warm flat I groaned and pulled the cover over my face and tried to flick the alarm off with as little effort as possible. It was 7am and the phone case prevented stopping the alarm that penetrated my sleep and shot me into the waking world with little remorse. I had no excuse, I was supposed to be up to catch the best snow and enjoy whatever powder lines were still intact from the previous night’s snow.
I was in Bulgaria’s winter sports heartland, Bansko to the south of the country in the Perin mountain range. Bansko is a modest ski resort that can only really cater to the more experienced winter sports enthusiasts. The steep peaks are challenging for a beginner and the poorly groomed runs can be perilous for anybody who is not completely focused. Clipping an edge or flying into an undisturbed ice patch is not uncommon and by mid-afternoon in March it’s almost a guarantee on the lower runs.
When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 the country received millions of EU funds to bring the roads and infrastructure up to scratch, or at least close to European standards. The money flow sent hundreds of government employed workers up and down the country repairing pot hole riddled roads and creating new tarmacked super highways between the capital Sophia and Bulgarian holiday destinations like Bansko and Sunny beach. One of the problems, or benefits, depending on how you view the Bulgarian tourist industry is that thousands are employed in catering to European tourists who flock to Bulgaria for cheap ski runs in the winter or cheap alcohol and music in the summer. Sunny beach is hailed as the new up and coming Magaluf, Ibiza or Zante. The beach streets are lined with bars, food vendors and gift shops all aiming at a sun burnt, drunken European audience. It’s an interesting thing that many who work the winter season in Bansko will migrate to the coast to work at Sunny beach in the summer.
The EU membership provided Bulgaria with what was perceived as exciting new opportunities for business investors and the work opportunities for thousands. A new era in Bulgaria was dawning and the tourist sector was anticipated to be an ever expanding industry. Bulgaria does have it all, beautiful sandy beaches on the black sea, good ski conditions and rural retreats in abundance. Anybody from an 18 year old student to a 60 year old retiree could find something for them in this Balkan gem.
The idea that Bansko would flourish as a winter sports paradise like those in France or Switzerland never really materialised. The development of a second mountain opening up for ski runs was more difficult to implement than originally hoped. The offshoot of these failed hopes was that all these hotels remained unfinished, the property boom turned out to be a bubble that popped. The hotels that were meant to house thousands of eager tourists never got finished and are left standing in the snow. These derelict shells are outside of the tourist’s view and can only be seen on the outskirts. Few people venture out to these skeleton hotels with their exposed brick work and half-finished facades. I visited many of these shells during the day and only found stray dogs and saw a member of the Roma minority herding a cow near empty buildings. Another stumbling block for Bansko was a few years’ bad snow fall. I managed to get some interesting pictures one day when the snow had melted just before the nightly snow fall painted everything white. The skeleton hotels were eerily beautiful in their derelict state but served as a reminder that regardless of an investors’ hubris and good intentions sometimes things just don’t go to plan.
One evening on the walk home, after the sun had set, I could see signs of life in one of the skeleton hotels. From the edge of my building the dim glow of camp fires casting ghost like silhouettes on the walls that flicked and danced at random intervals could be seen from time to time. The silhouettes had captured my imagination and I was curious to see what the people were doing in the dead of night in the abandoned half-finished hotel complex. Was there some kind of spiritual ritual that I was unaware of? Or was it just some people enjoying each other’s company around a fire and talking the night away?
Curiosity got the better of me and after a quick breakfast I headed across the field behind my hotel to inspect the derelict hotel compound. The clouds had dispersed and the sunlight was beginning to slowly melt the previous night’s snow. The footsteps I made sunk straight to the sodden earth beneath and left an imprint clearly visible. I knew if anybody had seen these prints they would know someone had taken a look inside the building and might wonder what for? The field or land in-between was not a flat field but more a complicated array of discarded building material, large rocks and the occasional breeze block tangled in rotting thorn bushes. I took my camera and knelt down taking a few shots as I approached the outer exterior of the hotel. It looked to me so beautifully eastern that it could be part of the Winter Palace or a prop from the Dr Zhazago movie, with tiled minarets pointing upwards at the corner the building. I entered through one of the open doorways and gently kicked a breeze block off to the side as I passed through what was meant to be a corridor to the courtyard.
The court yard was spectacular. One could imagine how grand a hotel this would have been if the dream had come true and the flocks of tourists had arrived. Four separate buildings, each four stories high formed together around a huge central square. The only person there to see this was myself and a stray dog that angrily barked at me from the other side of the square. The evidence I was looking for was there, or some of it at least. There were signs of a fire just two meters away from the hotel wall in the square, a few vodka bottles strewn here and there and an empty gasoline canister with laceration marks, lay half melted and with the snow now dripping from the edges. I ascended the stair case making sure not to disturb any object as I went. When I reached the top I approached the edge of the building towards the square and saw the charred remains only a few metres from the building. The foolish idea shot into my head. If I were to sneak up here at night, making sure the flash was off, the settings correct and the silent mode on, I could capture an interesting image of the Bulgarian gypsy community socialising. The only reason I assumed the people congregated in the empty building would be the Roma was that I had heard rumours. A taxi driver told me the empty buildings were only used for cattle not tourists. Another that they were Roma hotels. Rumours and small talk are one thing but why would anybody be there at night. All the Bulgarians in Bansko are employed in the tourist industry and wake when the sun rises to be ready for the early opening of the ski lift and hotel breakfasts. The Roma work in this area, but in their own way and seem less restrained by lift opening times and tourist time schedules. It must be them relaxing in the night and enjoying a fire in the dry wind protected courtyard of this building I thought.
The only problem was how to sneak in and out without being detected and indeed was it even worth the effort. I had previously had dealings with the gypsy community and found them to be nice people. Very different to the British and in some ways Bulgarians but friendly and settled in their own ways of life. They lived traditional lives, heavily dependent on the family unit, agriculture and livestock farming. They live on the peripherals of Bulgarian society not being seen as Bulgarian but just as gypsy.
The edge of the building had varied pieces of small debris, mostly just small stones and chipped corners of bricks which had been modified for the internal construction of the hotel walls. I noted to myself that under no circumstances should I allow my foot to knock any of the rubble off from the edge or it would alert anyone in the court yard of my presence. Strangely enough I thought it best to leave the rubble mostly undisturbed so as to show no sign of anybody having been there. Kicking a small stone from the floor sent it plummeting to the court yard below and landing with a thunderous sound that echoed around the entire compound. Clearing away a patch around the edge I knelt down on the dusty floor and practised what I thought would be the position I would take. Steady footing and gradually peaking the camera over the ledge was the best course of action. Sneak in, get the picture, sneak out again, simple.
At the end of the top floor where the large eastern style dome was constructed it had a narrow open door way with walls either side large enough to hide if one needed to. Looking up you could see the Bulgarian craftsmanship in all its glory and the view cast out all over the open field and the tip of the mountain range. The luxury hotels and flats were visible but only off in the distance and there was a large open expanse of land between my flat and the hotel shell.
I made my way back across the open ground towards my flat, carefully following my own footsteps to delude any curious viewer that the trip had been bizarrely one way. The lifts were just about to open at 8am and I was able to be one of the first up the mountain. The slopes were empty in comparison to January or December when they are heaving and difficult to choose a line. A nice thing about Bansko is that sometimes you don’t want to get up early and hit the slopes so the price of a day pass is often wasted. However, in Bansko from 11am onwards there are locals selling day passes from others who have already left for half the price, making a half days skiing more affordable.
The previous night’s snow had brought decent powder down and despite the spring sun beaming down there were plenty of undisturbed lines within the trees and on the side of runs. After a couple of hours when confidence is at a high then comes the inevitable crash. I had done the line dozens of times and it was simple enough. Off the top lift, to the right side, in and out of the bumps and round the burn and then through the two trees a narrow distance apart landing on the groomed slope. This time I had got too confident and nature was going to put me in my place. Over the bumps and round the burn while gaining more speed was fine but I was off course and far too fast to make it through the tree gap. With a loud crack and a bang, I clipped the tree, dislodging my knee and sent of plume of snow up as I ploughed through the slushy snow on my face. Looking down and seeing my knee out of joint the inevitable shot of pain spread through my body and quick as lightning my right leg snapped back in place. Embarrassed, dazed and winded I carefully made my way to the side of the nearest run and covered my knee cap with snow for the next 30 minuets. Many people forget that icing an injury within the first 10 minutes can reduce the damage by 70%, well that’s what somebody once told me.
The day was done and I slowly took myself off down the mountain and back to my flat where I spent the next 8 hours with my leg in an unnatural elevated position, encased with frozen peas. The evening was drawing in and I knew I only had two nights left if I was going to capture the interesting or pointless images I had set out to get. If the silhouettes appeared this evening I must take the chance and seize the moment. The leg will be fine, I can walk and hobble at a decent pace, I might not be as nimble as I would hope but the plan is set.
The sun began to set about 5pm and an icy cold descended, accompanied by a light dusting of snow from the low hanging clouds. I had kept an eye on the abandoned hotel anticipating the silhouettes but nothing was there. Finally, around 11pm the clouds cleared and the bright moon cast a blue tinted light across the snow covered ground. Peering over my balcony I caught a faint glimmer of a silhouette and knew this was my last opportunity. My leg felt better, a little stiff but it would be ok, I wouldn’t need to make any sudden movements, everything was planned out. Gathering my thoughts and putting on the warmest jacket I went to the balcony and switched off the light. Adjusting the settings for my surroundings was the best option and hopefully I could avoid being caught in a position where I would have to fumble around with settings in the abandoned hotel. I took a few test shots, made the necessary adjustments and decided now was the time.
Slowly I crept across the open ground between my flat and the silhouettes. Every now and then the figures casting shadows onto the wall would veer up or jitter to the side. My previous footprints had been covered by the snow but I was unable to disguise the current route. Approaching the door, I could see the silhouettes more clearly now, maybe five or six people around a fire. Carefully I snuck to the door and like a mouse crept up the stairs making great effort to remain silent. By the time I got to the fourth floor it was clear there were six people judging by their voices, all men, presumably anywhere from 20-40 years of age.
Before approaching my pre made position I took a glance at my surroundings. The blue coloured light cast by the moon was reflected upwards off the snow and created an eerie scene. It was a full moon that night and it beamed through the top floor open exteriors letting rectangular sections of blue light flood in the top floor at distanced intervals along the corridor. There were four open sides and then the hidden spot under the eastern dome at the end of the corridor. The light came in from the right side of the building cutting through the blackened background it contrasted with. It was bright in the exposed parts but the eastern dome section was concealed in darkness. Nervously I crouched down away from the ledge listening to the raised voiced socialising below and enjoying the warm fire. The Bulgarian gypsy dialect is difficult to understand for some Bulgarians let alone an Englishman with only a modest understanding of Bulgarian.
The cold was starting to niggle at my leg and I could feel the tinge of cramp beginning to take hold. Gradually I readied myself and slowly approached the ledge with my camera ready. As I knelt down and put my second foot into position I accidentally knocked the smallest round stone, no bigger than half a penny in size. The stone rolled and disappeared off the edge. Perched in a crouching position I waited for the inevitable sound. It felt like ten seconds but in reality was less than two. The stone had hit the concrete floor below, releasing a sound that echoed around the courtyard and immediately disturbed the men around the fire. The conversation had been in full flow but now ceased. The movement of eyes could be felt even from hidden on a raised platform invisible to those bellow. The voices went silent and then started again but two voices were not audible. I had heard that if you open your mouth you can hear more with your ears than listening normally. So there I was mouth open, blue knee cap, clutching a camera in the cold listening for any sign of approaching people in a skeleton hotel. Then all of a sudden the crunching of small pebbles and dust underfoot hit my ears and the two missing voices of the group could be heard again. The two men were coming up the stairs, probably on the first floor by now. I could hear them talking and then the flick of a cigarette lighter crackled as though it scorched the threaded finger of a glove.
I silently scurried down the corridor through the intervals of moon light and hid behind the wall of the door under the eastern tower. Crouching down and covering my mouth with a scarf to stop the mist from my breath being visible I readied myself for whatever might happen. The reality is perhaps I was being a bit silly. The two Bulgarian gypsy men if they found me would be as shocked to see me in an abandoned hotel as I was to find them there and maybe would invite me to join them. However, I didn’t fancy a night around the camp fire and having failed to get the photograph I just wanted to be back in my flat with my leg up.
Eventually the voices and footsteps got nearer and nearer. They were on the fourth floor and mockingly kicking rubble down at the men below who shrieked with laughter and insults back up and them. One of the voices came closer and I could tell he was just behind the door next to where I was in hiding. I fixed my attention on the moon light that shone through the open window and slightly onto the door frame, ending just above my head. My breath was not visible and I was ducked away from the light, if he came into the small room he might not see me hidden in the corner but I wasn’t sure.
I listened to him speaking to his friend, feet away from me behind the other side of the wall. Then last part of a plume of cigarette smoke floated through the door way and was instantly brightened by the moon light making it clearly visible. He was looking directly into the room but had not entered. They were talking and one the one nearest me was smoking while causally looking around the top floor. They had no idea I was there, silently listening in on a conversation I couldn’t understand and smelling their tobacco smoke as it wafted through the door way. My leg was beginning to get cramp and spasms of discomfort wouldn’t leave my mind. Silent, still, patient, I told myself over and over.
Then as quick as they came, they were gone, the voices faded gradually as they made their way down the stairs. They must have been curious as to what had caused the stone to fall, it was a windless night and nobody else was there as far as they knew. The chance to get the picture was gone. If I tried again and dislodged any debris then the game would be up and they would know there was somebody watching them.
I waited in the corner for a good ten minutes before creeping from the darkness. The top floor was empty and the voices could be heard in full swing below. The man’s cigarette had been discarded and the cherry was almost extinguished with a trickle of smoke escaping the tip. Slowly I made my way back down the corridor and towards the stairs. Each step I took was quieter than the last and I listened to their voices below to time my steps in accordance with their raised voices or occasional sing song. The stairs were the most difficult to navigate because the rubble was spread across every step and there was no way of quietly clearing a path. Finally, I made it to the ground floor and the door was in sight. All that was left was to go through the door and across the open ground. I waited for a rise in the volume of the conversation and then gracefully went for the door, stepped outside and instantly tweaked my leg on a breeze block half covered in snow.
The pain struck me and brought sweat to my face immediately, I had to bite my hand to stop any sound coming from my mouth. I could see the path I had made and decided to throw caution to the wind and go as fast as possible across the open ground and back to my flat. Wearing a baggy ski jacket with an injured leg and a camera flung over the shoulder I hobbled at a reasonable pace across the blue tinted snowy ground. If anybody had seen me they must have thought I was a mad man, in the middle of the night running like the elephant man, dragging a leg through the snow. The footprints left behind looked as though somebody had walked in a peculiar way and as though on purpose left a dragged foot print here and there.
After arriving back at my building I slowly made my way upstairs and retrieved the bag of peas from the freezer. The Silhouettes were still there in the distance. They hadn’t seen me and in reality I hadn’t seen them. Like ships that pass in the night we never saw each other’s faces and I never got the picture I was after. The skeleton hotel for me had only voices in the distance enjoying a scene I was never able to see or fully experience.
I flew home two days later but will always take some lessons from this cold night in the southern Bulgaria. One is that sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Another more important is that sometimes it’s better to be amongst people than observing them, better to be in and around the story, than just seeing it from the side lines.
Edward Crawford