Exploring an eerie abandoned villa in Gabrovo, Bulgaria
Gabrovo, a small city in central Bulgaria, was on our radar because we were looking for an early 1970s statue of Yuri Gagarin, the famous Soviet cosmonaut. We knew from prior research that the monument had recently been moved from its original location but we didn’t know where to and so enlisted the help of the local tourist board to help us find it. Initially, the two women working in the information centre said that they didn’t recognise the monument as being in their town. But, after further investigation and a couple of phone calls, they revoked their initial statement and said they knew where it might. Sure thing, they managed to locate it on Google Maps but then proceeded to drive us crazy because neither of them knew how to message us the coordinates. In the end, we had to take over their computer and do it ourselves!
Still, we were grateful for their assistance and twenty minutes or so later, we were face to face with yet another of Bulgaria’s numerous, and often neglected, vestiges of its socialist past.
Monument to Yuri Gagarin on the outskirts of Gabrovo, Bulgaria (1971, sculptor Evgeni Kuzmanov)
When we were done admiring and photographing Yuri, our attention turned to an abandoned villa that was not much more than a stones-throw from the monument. The exterior of the building was in a dilapidated state but still looked impressive and we went over to take a closer look.
Accessing the interior was easy given that both the side and main entrance were completely wide open. We walked around each of the four storeys, explored the overgrown rooftop and discovered, what would have once been, a lovely balcony overlooking the back garden but, overall, it didn’t take us too long to see what the building had to offer and soon we were back in the car and on our way to our next destination of the day.
The entrance to the former summer villa of Pencho Semov
When we are travelling at full speed and trying to see as much as possible, as we were on this particular 10-day Bulgarian road trip in the summer of 2109, we tend not to do very much in the evenings because we are exhausted. Eating and sleeping are our main ‘activities’ but, however knackered we are, we do normally try and export that day’s photos from our camera to label them correctly and ensure that they are backed up. The former normally involves a quick search on the Internet to confirm the correct spelling etc. and while trying to figure out what to call this particular building, I came across some of the history attached to it.
What’s left of the interior of the former summer villa of Pencho Semov
The story behind Pencho Semov’s abandoned villa
The mansion was constructed in the mid-1930s as a summer villa for a Bulgarian tycoon named Pencho Semov (1873–1945). Semov was born into a working-class family in a village near Gabrovo. He attended junior school but had to drop out thereafter in order to work and put food on the family table. A gifted entrepreneur from an early age, he formed a trading company of his own in the early 1900s that focused on the production of wool and eventually he established himself as one of the most influential textile manufacturers in the country. A shareholder in twenty-eight joint-stock companies, including a couple of banks and insurance companies, Semov became a very rich man by the end of his life and, in the press, acquired the nickname “the Bulgarian Rockefeller”.
Another thing that Semov had in common with the original J D Rockefeller, who died in 1937, was that, once he had made his fortune, he acquired an interest in philanthropy and, along with setting up numerous charities, he became one of Gabrovo’s most generous benefactors, supporting hospitals, schools, libraries and the like. He also made financial contributions further afield, donating a sizeable chunk of cash to Sofia University, for example, so that they could build an Agrarian Faculty. He also funded research into the fight against tuberculosis and assisted struggling writers and journalists.
Although the villa was originally built for Semov and his family to use as a summer residence, he made it clear that, upon his death, he wanted the building to be converted into a charitable dwelling/almshouse for some of the less fortunate workers (and their families) employed in his factories (*). Semov died in 1945 but the wishes of his last will and testament never materialised because, in 1946, the Bulgarian Communist Party took control of the country and very soon thereafter, began the process of nationalisation. By the end of 1948 more than 90 percent of Bulgaria’s industrial production was either state-controlled (the bulk of it) or part of cooperative organisations and this included factories, as well as other properties and assets that were once part of Semov’s commercial empire. This government monopoly in Bulgaria was to last until the collapse of communism, which happened in the early days of the year 1990.
(*) This is one version. There are also reports that he wished the villa to be turned into a retirement home and/or a boarding school for girls from underprivileged backgrounds.
Not long after nationalisation was initiated, Semov’s summer villa was seized and closed up. It didn’t reopen again until 1954 when it was allocated to the hospital in Gabrovo and used as a ward for infectious diseases. According to one of my sources (see below), it remained a medical facility until the turn of the 20th century and fell into a state of abandonment not long after that. But I’m wondering if it was earlier than that and its demise is linked to the fall of socialism in Bulgaria a decade earlier. Either way, a fire, that was possibly started by local youths who used to use the old villa as a place to hang out, wrecked the building even more and today the only life to be found in this once-glorious 1930s mansion is the heavy foliage that covers what’s left of the roof and also the back side of the structure that looks across towards the Monument to Yuri Gagarin.
Backside view of the former summer villa of Pencho Semov
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