“There are the massive steel fists, but I don’t see the UFO anywhere,” Jess declared.

“Maybe we need to drive a little further?” I suggested, uncertain of how much further the road actually went. The steel fists were supposed to be our road marker, about a half hour into this journey off the main road. How hard could it be to find a large, concrete UFO in the Bulgarian mountains, anyway?

Steel fists and morning fog

We were about to get back into the car and continue down the pockmarked road, when a final glance at the mountaintop stopped us in our tracks. The dense morning cloud cover had thinned just enough to reveal the outline of the UFO, perched atop the mountain peak.

It had already been a long and winding path to this point. Like Hansel and Gretel, we ventured in our red Clio through the thick, foggy Balkan forest in search of this UFO – in reality, a Cold War era socialist conference center, the Buzludzha, that sits perched atop the Central Balkan mountains near the Shipka pass in Bulgaria. The Buzludzha has been abandoned since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and from the state of the roads, apparently they had been left to crumble along with Bulgarian socialism.

As we scrambled up the old stone path, past blooming wild flowers and rusted, broken remnants of an old lighting system, the Buzludzha came into fuller view. It is impressive both in size and scale, and it truly resembles a UFO. While locals debate what to do with the hulking, brutalist construction that stares down on the valleys below – should it be dismantled? restored as a museum? fixed up and readied for flight to a galaxy far, far away? – it has continued to crumble. We heard warnings of broken glass and falling concrete, smashed mosaics and collapsed staircases, and one guidebook urged visitors to stay away altogether. Advice heard but not heeded.

And, what if this was all a ruse? A plot by the government to keep people away from a Bulgarian Area 51, where decades ago to everyone’s surprise, an alien ship had landed in the highlands of central Bulgaria? Not knowing what to do with their recently acquired UFO, the cash-strapped communists did the only thing they could: launch a disinformation campaign to keep people away from the ship until they had time to process their unique guest. Perhaps this ship held for me the possibility of time travel or unbridled space adventure? If it was true, would I go? For a minute I imagine myself at the console, readying for takeoff when I look down and realize that… the instructions and button labels are all in Bulgarian Cyrillic. Dammit.

When we get there, the mountaintop is still covered in dense fog, and the wind has picked up. It all adds to the eerie first up close encounter with the UFO.

The stairs empty into a parking lot overgrown by grass and weeds and guarded by two crumbling masses of concrete and twisted steel. Upon approach, it’s clear that the Buzludzha is now home to hundred of birds. And it leaks – a lot. The roof is still framed but has largely collapsed. The exterior is covered in graffiti. Piles of stone and charred wood lay all around, testament to the continued attraction of this piece of Bulgarian brutalism.

We approach the front doors. They are closed – and locked. There is an official notice on the left side door from the 31st of May, only two weeks ago. I can’t read it, but a guard appears from around the side and summarizes it for us.

“Monument closed.” He pulls out a cigarette and walks away. For a moment I consider offering him some money to unlock the door, to give us an opportunity to see the mosaics, crumbling interior, and, yes, possibly the flight console. But he doesn’t look friendly, and a pair of handcuffs dangle from his hip. Probably not worth the chance of a poor bribe reaction (PBR), and we definitely don’t have time for Bulgarian prison on this trip.

So, after a few photos and the requisite UFO selfie, we head back down the path to the car.

What will become of the Buzludzha? Maybe it will disappear one night. Locals will say it faded and finally collapsed, like the communism it represented. Others will rumor that it once more took flight, shooting off into outer space. The reason it took the aliens so long to leave, they’ll say, is because the instructions were written in Bulgarian.