EU-funded restoration project turned Bulgarian castles into laughing stocks: ‘Like cheese’

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Bulgaria has entered a period of political uncertainty after last month’s election. For the second time in three months, no party was in a position to form a stable coalition. However, the conservative Boyko Borisov, who led the Balkan nation for the best part of 12 years, is not back in power.

None of the other parties are willing to work with his centre-right Gerb party and, for that alone, Bulgarians and Europeans have reason to rejoice.

Mr Borisov presided over a period of graft that made the Balkan country a blot on the EU’s reputation for upholding the rule of law, putting it on a par with Hungary and Poland.

Rampant corruption and misuse of EU funds have held back the bloc’s poorest country.

In 2018, the Bulgarian government was shamed after it spent tens of millions of EU money on botched restoration jobs on medieval castles.

The Balkan nation spent £80million of the EU’s Regional Development Fund to restore ancient castles and fortresses.

However, instead of returning them to their former glory, restoration work left them as laughing stocks.

Conservationists criticised the efforts to rebuild the medieval fort of Krakra and the Roman fort of Trayanovi Vrata, among others, after they were rebuilt using polymer concrete.

Both the EU and Bulgarian government privately admitted that lessons should have been learnt from the debacle, according to an investigation by Balkan Insight reported by The Telegraph.

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Conservation architect Stella Duleva said of the Trayanovi Vrata fort in an interview with the news website: “It’s weeping – a weeping fortress.

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

Restoration of the Krakra fort, which is now known locally as “cardboard castle”, was also so poorly received that local authorities vowed to dismantle the additions.

On the other hand, the Byzantine fort of Yaylata was dubbed “cheese fortress” after it was rebuilt with smooth white blocks that clash with its weather-worn facade.

The forts and castles in Bulgaria were also a major source of embarrassment for former culture minister Vezhdi Rashidov, who claimed in 2015 that “a little bit of fakery will do a lot for tourism”.

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Dr Elka Dogramadjieva, an assistant professor of tourism at Sofia University, said at the time: “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.

“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.”

She added: “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.”

A European Commission source said: “Under Bulgaria’s ‘Regional Development’ programme, around €138.5million (£118m) were set aside for investments in sustainable tourism projects in the 2007-2013 funding period.

“More than 70 cultural heritage sites benefited from these investments.

“All these were made in close cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and in consultation with experts and were thoroughly monitored by the responsible Managing Authority.”

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