That the EU has an interesting definition of democracy is well-known, but it also has a knack for not actually caring about the money it spends. Like more countries in the Balkan Region, Bulgaria hasn’t got the strongest economy and a fifty-year Communist hangover has left some issues with corruption. What it also has, is literally thousands of years of history and a landscape littered with the ruins of long lost civilisations. One of these sites, Krakra Fortress, has now gained some notoriety for all the wrong reasons.

On 11 December Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf published an article on the newest documentary by Marijn Poels, who went to Bulgaria with MEP Olaf Stuger of the Dutch Party for Freedom to find out what has happened to €90 million of EU subsidies for regional development ‘invested‘ in the country. Every year, De Telegraaf writes, Brussels spends billions on regional development, the highest amount apart from agricultural subsidies. For that amount of money, you get quality, right? Or, alternatively – the money coming from Brussels after all – no one actually knows how the money is used. De Telegraaf writes it could not ascertain how much money was spent on the partial renovation of Krakra Fortress, but another source claims it is about €2.5 million.

Stuger mocks the Bulgarian project, claiming:

The lady at the desk was scared stiff. The ticket was handwritten. You’d think a tourist attraction has printed ticket. (…) The castle looked like it was there for at least 25 years and had never been maintained. It’s only there for three.

The MEP further claims that his ticket had visitor’s number 01. During his visit, there was nobody else and when asking after the fortress at the desks of major hotels, he was told staff had heard of it, but nobody had ever asked for it.

Present remains of Krakra Fortress – barring the plastic-fantastic add-ons – date from 809 AD. The fortress is named in honour of Krakra of Pernik, who stopped two Byzantine excursions into the region in 1004 and 1016 by Emperor Basil II. The importance of the fortress waned after those years and it attracted little attention until 2013. Then the Pernik municipality used its grant from Brussels to ‘regionally develop‘ the ruins:

Unfortunately, the builders used “alternative” materials for some of the restoration giving the restored fortress wall and gate a ‘plastic’ look. Thus, the restoration of the Krakra Fortress has become notorious among Bulgaria’s archaeological restorations, with critics claiming that the EU money was likely embezzled by local politicians and/or construction entrepreneurs who used cheap plastic instead of proper materials. Bulgaria’s some 6,000 ancient and medieval fortresses were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century AD, and archaeological restorations are seen today as a means of restoring the national memory and promoting cultural tourism. However, the notorious restoration of the Krakra Fortress and some other archaeological sites such as the Yailata Fortress on the Black Sea coast have made archaeological restorations a highly controversial public issue over alleged embezzlement and clientelism.

Tourism is a substantial source of income for Bulgaria. It is perhaps lucky, that most of its tourist attractions have not yet been given an unhealthy dose of EU money to ruin them. An important part of European history that is little known outside the region, the monuments of European civilisation on its Eastern border deserve some respect. As do the European taxpayers.