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Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom

After Bulgaria funnelled 90 million euros from the EU into restoration projects that critics have slated, conservationists dread the results of the next spending spree – and the expected tourist boom has yet to materialise.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
The medieval fort of Krakra near Pernik has been dubbed the “cardboard castle” because of its Polymer concrete
additions [Credit: New Life for the Past, a contemporary art project by Dimitar Solakov, 2015-2016]
“It’s weeping – a weeping fortress,” conservation architect Stella Duleva told BIRN, describing the white substance leaking from the newly-restored walls of the 4th-century Roman fort of Trayanovi Vrata in Bulgaria.

“It had survived 16 centuries, and now it’s been ruined by 2 million euros,” she added.

Sitting atop a mountain pass between ancient Thrace and Macedonia, the fort is one of 120 heritage sites that Bulgaria’s government chose to restore as tourist attractions between 2011 and 2015, using its own money and nearly 90 million euros from the EU’s Regional Development Fund, ERDF.

While some sites, like the Roman villa of Armira, near Ivaylovgrad, are praised for their careful restoration, many others have provoked ridicule for their overblown reconstruction work and kitschy appearance, earning nicknames such as “cardboard castle” and “cheese fortress”.

Conservationists warn that much of the “restoration” work has damaged rather than preserved centuries-old landmarks, without attracting the hoped-for tourism boom. Even one of the scheme’s cheerleaders has suggested that funds have been misused.

Now another tranche of European funding, known in Bulgaria as “Operational programme ‘Regions in Growth’”, is due to become available this year. Under it, at least 100 million euros will be allocated to develop more tourist attractions.

The EU and Bulgarian authorities have conceded to BIRN that lessons need to be learned from the earlier programme, but are still backing the latest spending spree.

Expert groups, including the International Council of Monuments and Sites, ICOMOS, warn that the urge to absorb more EU money and make new additions to historic ruins, is “forging history” and “irreversibly destroying heritage sites”.

Minister justified ‘fakery’ as help for tourism

Back in 2011, the government’s plan was advertised as part of a new, “sustainable tourism” policy, which would bring thousands of visitors to the country and provide an economic uplift.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
The Byzantine fort of Yaylata, near the remote village of Kamen Bryag, has been mocked as “the cheese fortress”
thanks to its smooth new Ytong-style white blocks [Credit: Vladimir Rumenov, March 2018]
Though mostly funded from the EU, the scheme itself was designed by the government, and operated by the Ministry of Regional Development.

One of the most controversial results from the investment plan is the fort of Krakra at Pernik.

Visitors have been puzzled to see newly added polymer concrete, earning it the nickname “the cardboard castle”.

The local municipality has already announced plans to dismantle the additions in 2019, as soon as the minimum five years of operation required by the funding scheme are up.

The Byzantine fort of Yaylata, near the remote village of Kamen Briag, has meanwhile been dubbed “the cheese fortress”, thanks to its smooth new Ytong-style white blocks.

Its glass fence and signs, introduced as part of the 1-million-euro facelift, have been shattered for more than a year.

A much-contested 11-million-euro restoration of the ruins of ancient Serdica, the Roman city under the capital, Sofia, is also already falling apart.

Inaugurated in early 2015, amid protests that the bricks and mortars used did not meet the standards for restoration, its “underground museum” has yet to open.

The Ministry of Culture, which once fiercely defended the project, is now suing the building contractor for “improper execution” of the restoration work.

Even one of the key advocates of the restorations, Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, the late former director of the National History Museum of Bulgaria, suggested last year that money from the programme had been embezzled.

“The fourth failure [of the programme], was of course, theft,” he said in an interview with the daily Dnevnik.

“A little bit of fakery will do a lot for tourism,” Vezhdi Rashidov, then Minister of Culture, famously remarked in parliament in 2015, responding to detractors who had accused him of constructing a historical Disneyland and the “Skopje-visation” of Bulgarian heritage, referencing the widely derided makeover of the Macedonian capital.

‘Fake’ castles dismissed as serious attractions

Not everyone agrees that “fakery” has helped the tourist industry. Tourist sector leaders and analysts told BIRN the programme was having little to no effect.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
The medieval fort of Krakra near Pernik has been dubbed the “cardboard castle” because of its Polymer concrete
additions [Credit: New Life for the Past, a contemporary art project by Dimitar Solakov, 2015-2016]
“To believe that a couple of concrete blocks on top of a metre of original stones will attract foreign tourists, who have all of Greece and Turkey, and furthermore medieval Europe, at their disposal, is not serious,” said Dimitar Popov, the Bulgarian owner of Danish based Penguin Travel, which operates tours in Bulgaria and worldwide.

“These ‘fake castles’ are of absolutely no significance to our business. At best, they are suitable for the entertainment of local schoolchildren,” he scoffed.

Popov said the programme was designed without regard for actual tourist demands and its goal was simply “the absorption of EU money”.

Dr Elka Dogramadjieva agrees. An assistant professor of tourism at Sofia University, who last year co-authored a paper on the effects of ERDF funds on the tourism sector, she said: “The initial goal of the programme wasn’t to sponsor kitsch. Unfortunately, in many cases this is exactly what happened, which has compromised the idea of developing tourist attractions.”

She and her colleagues said heritage sites should be developed, but that the existing funding scheme had failed “qualitatively”: it had absorbed the largest sum of money that Bulgarian heritage had seen in decades, but the government had failed to invest it wisely.

“Instead of focusing on strategic sites, funds were scattered among many similar projects that are of modest interest to visitors, and in some cases, of little scientific importance,” Dr Dogramadjieva said.

“You need more than nice alleyways and a signpost to attract people. In general, it seems the primary goal of municipalities has been the absorption of European money, rather than the actual effect on tourism.”

The impact of the scheme is difficult to measure, as the only source of information is the tourist attractions’ own reports - a source that a 2015 audit of the programme deemed unreliable.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
Experts fear that the "weeping" walls of the recently restored Trayanovi Vrata castle
are the result of poor quality material [Credit: jana Punkina]
Data obtained via the Freedom of Information Act showed Trayanovi Vrata had about 40,000 tourists in two-and-a-half years – nearly twice the projected numbers.

However, it reported only 50,000 euro in turnover from ticket sales, guided tours and souvenurs, which was 15,000 euros short of their business plan, seen by BIRN.

The fort at Krakra welcomed 15,412 people in 2016, but made only 8,000 euros from ticket sales and tours.

However, the average ticket price is 2 euros, so the income does not tally with the footfall figures.

One of the advocates of the castle boom, Professor Dimitrov, said the most expensive restoration project, the medieval Bulgarian capital of Pliska, drew 250,000 tourists in 2016.

Data obtained by BIRN, however, shows that the entire Museum of Shumen, which operates Pliska and three other reserves, recorded 150,000 visitors that year – far fewer than 250,000.

In Veliko Tarnovo, the newly restored sites of Trapezitsa and Nikopolis ad Istrum drew 8,778 and 7,092  visitors for 2017, respectively.

Two more sites, including the popular destination of Perperikon, ignored BIRN’s request for visitor numbers.

A tourist poll, conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, suggest that visitors have been spending less, not more, on cultural activities between 2013 to 2015 – the years when most sites were opened.

Historical sites left “damaged” by restoration

Kitsch designs and a failure to impress tourists are not the worst outcomes of the programme, according to heritage experts, who argue that shoddy work has damaged some historic sites. Gabriela Semova-Koleva, of the Bulgarian branch International Council on Monuments and Sites, told BIRN that the use of cement and other improper materials has made these interventions irreversible.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
The brand new ruins of ancient Serdica in Sofia are already in ruins
[Credit: Aneliya Nikolova/Dnevnik]
One site causing particular concern is Trayanovi Vrata, where the ruins were reconstructed to nearly twice their previous size in 2015.

When BIRN visited in January, a soft, white, mould-like substance appeared to be leaking from its new walls.

Elsewhere, layers of bricks appeared to have fallen off, leaving the original structure exposed. Two amphorae could barely be seen under the glass of poorly placed display cases.

Stella Duleva, the architect of the project, resigned in protest at the way the work was carried out.

She lodged complaints with the authorities, believing the builders used cheaper materials than the specifications she had set, including cement.

The Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Regional Development, which supervised ERDF programmes, found no wrongdoing on the site, however.

Duleva pointed to entire parts of the original structure, which were left unprotected after her company quit, and were visibly degrading under the elements. Her team believes that the white leaks from the walls are clear signs that the contractors did not use the right mortar.

Two experts consulted by BIRN – the head of the Association of Restorers Ivan Vanev and Ivan Rostovski, an expert in the field of construction materials and head of the testing lab at the University of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Sofia – said the white stains are probably a result of “a defect associated with the improper selection and application of construction materials, especially when exposed to cold and wet atmospheric conditions”.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
The brand new ruins of ancient Serdica in Sofia. Apart from the fact that the new bricks are visibly
  ruined, the ancient Roman walls are also damaged in many places under the new construction
Credit: New Life for the Past, a contemporary art project by Dimitar Solakov, 2015-2016]
Eurobuild Bulgaria, which was the lead contractor on the project, pointed out it that had changed ownership since the Trayanovi Vrata contract, and that it could not establish contact with any of its former partners, including its manager at the time.

It pointed out also the actual construction was conducted by a smaller company, Dano R, and that the work was approved by Bulgarian institutions.

The use of this type of consortium is one of the faults of the programme, Duleva says, as it was often far from clear who was carrying out the work.

Dano-R has denied wrongdoing. It claimed sections of the fort were left “without intervention” on the advice of a restoration expert, so that visitors could see the “authentic parts” of the structure, a claim dismissed as “preposterous” by Duleva.

Duleva argues that the countrywide restoration programme was poorly planned and there were not enough restoration experts to complete so many projects in such a short time.

“In most cases, the tender process was weighed in favour of finding the cheapest builder rather than the quality of the work,” she added.

Officials claim extra cash will deal with problems

The Ministry of Culture did not respond to requests for comment for this article; the Ministry of Regional Development declined to respond to questions about past failures, but insisted that the new 100 million euros would be allocated differently.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
The Archaeological Part 'New Life for the Past' in the town of Radnevo which abuts with a prefab
neighbourhood and a monument from socialist times 
[Credit: New Life for the Past,
a contemporary art project by Dimitar Solakov, 2015-2016]
It explained that the new cash would be provided in the form of loans and grants, to ensure that “the program funds economically viable projects which will attract enough tourists ... so that the project is financially sustainable and will return a part of the investment in the long term”.

Public hearings about project designs will  “address the comments … regarding ‘fake restorations’ and the destruction of authentic monuments received regarding the projects completed under the Regional Development Programme 2007-2013,” the ministry added.

A European Commission source told BIRN the restoration projects were “contributing to local and regional growth in the country”, adding that “in the few cases where the end result was not according to the contract, corrections were carried out”.

“The Commission works closely with Bulgaria on learning the lessons from the 2007-2013 period and on making sure the funds are used in the best possible way,” the source added.

 These assurances, however do not address the concerns of experts like Dr Dogramadjieva, who told BIRN that the new programme is suffering from the same design flaws by failing to prioritise strategic sites and address real demand.

And, with all of Bulgaria’s 165 sites of national and world importance eligible to apply, conservationists fear that more sites of European heritage importance are about to turn into “brand new ruins”.

Bulgaria’s ‘fake’ castles fail to inspire tourist boom
Mannequines guard the medieval fort of Neutzikon near the village of Mezzek thanks to EU funds [Credit: New Life for the Past, a contemporary art project by Dimitar Solakov, 2015-2016]
Calls for the government to halt controversial projects, such as the state-funded restoration of the Great Basilica of Pliska into a fully functional church, have so far failed.

“We are offering our help, our expertise, but no one seems to hear,” Semova-Koleva of ICOMOS told BIRN. “We’re seen as a hurdle in the projects’ way.”

For more images see New Life for the Past, a contemporary art project by Dimitar Solakov, 2015-2016.

This story was produced as part of the BIRN Summer School of Investigative Reporting programme.

Author: Ana Blagova | Source: BIRN via Balkan Insight [September 06, 2018]


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