NYT: Breathing New Life Into Bulgaria’s Cold War Bunkers

Society | May 31, 2018, Thursday // 16:30
Bulgaria: NYT: Breathing New Life Into Bulgaria’s Cold War Bunkers

Klek, or squat, shops, in former basement bunkers in Bulgaria’s capital are evolving with the times, transforming into modern shops, artist studios and speakeasies.

Every day for the past 20 years, Lyudmil Kutev has lumbered three stories down the crumbling concrete steps of his Sofia apartment, descended into a basement Cold War bunker packed floor to ceiling with shoes, and swung open a rusty window panel just inches from the sidewalk.

“My father hid here during the Allied bombing,” Mr. Kutev said, polishing a pair of loafers in the cramped space and peering up at the feet of those passing by outside. “And in the last years of Communism, he hid this shoe-repair business down here, too.”

Below Sofia’s Ottoman mosques, Red Army monuments, and onion-domed churches, some of the most intriguing relics of this city’s tangled past are lurking just below the sidewalk — and you’ll have to crouch down and peer through tiny windows to find them.

Known as klek, or squat shops, these knee-high ateliers and stores are nestled in former storage cellars and bomb shelters, and they’re only found in Bulgaria’s capital. Today, as a record number of tourists visit Sofia, these squat shops are emerging as some of the city’s most creative underground spaces.

Klek shop that has been closed for some time, with potential to become a creative space considering the art gallery upstairs (on the left), Hipster bar named after Spanish poet Lorca that can be hard to find (on the right)

“Visually, kleks are incredibly unusual, interesting spaces,” said Iara Boubnova, the director of Sofia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “The fact that they force you to bend down and shift your perspective offers so much artistic potential.” In recent years, the institute has put on two pop-up exhibits inside kleks, and Ms. Boubnova is showing a new klek-inspired video installation through May 31 underneath Sofia’s Eagle Bridge.

Before World War II and during the Cold War, Bulgarians and Soviets designed bomb shelters in the basements of apartment buildings throughout Sofia, with separate spaces for each family. The rooms lining the perimeter often had a small window just above street level.

Huge store for household goods

As Communism unraveled in the late 1980s, many residents lacked money to open independent shops, so entrepreneurs started illicitly selling extra appliances and household goods while craftsmen offered shoe repair, tailoring, and other services to pedestrians from their dimly lit bunkers. By the 1990s, there were underground squat shops on most every street in Sofia.

Shoe repair shop located in the periphery of the Sofia center


“These ‘kleks’ were actually among the first private businesses in Bulgaria,” said Angel Bondov, an urban planner who conducted the first government-funded study of Sofia’s kleks with the nonprofit #soSofia this January. “They symbolize our creative shift from communism to capitalism.”

Yet, as more chains and supermarkets have opened downtown in recent years, these reminders of Sofia’s early can-do capitalist spirit are vanishing. According to Mr. Bondov, more than half of the city’s kleks have disappeared since 2012, with only 27 remaining today.

In their place, a wave of artists and entrepreneurs are transforming these spaces into studios or speakeasies, while some surviving kleks are evolving from hole-in-the-wall convenience stores selling cigarettes and lotto tickets to incorporate a modern, locavore twist with local, natural food and drink.

Gift shops/galleries

Wander through central Sofia today and you’ll see elderly shoppers in flappy Russian ushanka caps and post-Cold War cool kids crouching to buy Bulgarian chocolates, bold-red wines from the Thracian Valley, and hand-painted cooking pots from Troyan. Merchants often display their inventory in glass-covered shelves where the sidewalk meets the building, while others bump upbeat Bulgarian pop folk chalgra songs from their spaces to draw the attention of those above.

Across from the National Palace of Culture park, visitors peek down at Petranka Pedrova’s bustling klek bakery, which like most of the other kleks has no formal name and is known to locals as Fornetti. Customers can choose from 32 freshly squeezed fruit juices — from local apricots to imported kiwis -— to pair with her flaky banitsa phyllo dough pastries.

Near the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Radoslav Alexandrov tops the toasted ground-beef and kashkaval cheese princessa sandwiches at his klek known as Filiite, with chopped chubritza savory herbs from his garden. Thirsty? Ask for minty tea made from a boiled bouquet of plants Alexandrov picks from Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains.

“Here, my monthly rent is 200 lev” (or 5), Mr. Alexandrov told me as I squatted on the sidewalk looking in. “Above ground, it might be 2,000.” He generously slid a stool up through the window as my knees started to buckle.

One of the last VHS stores in Sofia, currently not functioning


After leading me on a three-hour tour of squat shops, Kristian Mitov, the founder of Sofia’s Balkan Bites tour, pointed down a flight of stairs from the sidewalk into a building cellar. “Young people have started adding entrances to convert former kleks into basement galleries,” he said.

Down the steps, 29-year-old designer Elena Shemtova displays jewelry, paintings and textiles from more than 50 Bulgarian artists in the 236 square feet of her two-year-old shop, Zelena. (Think: stone and driftwood necklaces, embroidered clutches, and computer-chip earrings.)

Perhaps nowhere better exemplifies the trend of breathing new life into Sofia’s bunkers than 5L, which became Bulgaria’s first speakeasy when it opened in February 2017 just off the increasingly trendy Shishman street.

After selecting the right key to open a hidden door, patrons lower two floors into a cavernous vault enforced with two-foot-wide stone walls and a concrete ceiling. A menu mapping an “Evacuation Plan” nods to the space’s former use as a bunker and highlights an encyclopedia of fruity Balkan rakia brandies and ouzos that mixologist Darko Angeleski blends into cocktails.

Kleks, basement businesses, and speakeasies all started as these hidden, illegal things,” Mr. Angeleski said, shaking homemade vanilla and fig syrup into aged grape brandy, “I want to show locals something familiar, and then surprise them.”



Article by Eliot Stein, New York Times, 





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