Residents split as Bulgaria town averts UNESCO downgrade

Once one of the most important Byzantine cities on the western shores of the Black Sea, residents of Nesebar say life these days in Bulgaria’s UNESCO-listed ancient town is far from idyllic.

The UN’s cultural organisation UNESCO had been mulling labelling Nesebar an at-risk site, citing inadequate protection since it was given World Heritage status 40 years ago.

But at a meeting late Thursday, the body stopped short of downgrading the town.

While Venetians breathed a sigh of relief after escaping a heritage downgrade, many in Nesebar would prefer to be delisted altogether.

“People are angry, they want to be taken off of any UNESCO lists,” said 48-year-old fisherman Veselin Maksimov.

“They only tell us what we are not allowed to do,” he added, resentful of having to wait over a year to get the permission to fix his leaking roof.

“We’re like some low-paid employee who’s forced to drive a Mercedes and maintain it.”

– Illegal construction –
A former Thracian settlement nestled on a rocky peninsula, Nesebar became a Greek colony and nowadays features the remains of Hellenistic architecture, medieval churches and typical 19th-century wooden houses.

In recent years, a number of new buildings have been sprouting up in the town of 1,700 inhabitants, threatening the integrity of its traditional architecture.

In the past, UNESCO has warned that “illegal interventions” on 19th-century structures were also endangering its status.

Critics say illegal construction in Nesebar is linked to corruption, endemic in many areas of public life in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest country.

On Thursday, UNESCO expressed its concern over Nesebar’s new development plan adopted in 2021, which favours tourism over preserving the site.

Contacted by AFP, the municipality declined to comment.

Defying the scorching September heat, large groups of mostly day-tourists have made their way to the archeological monuments, passing by stalls of cheap souvenirs and snacks that line the cobbled streets.

Marie Hruba, a 20-year-old Czech tourist, said she took a last-minute flight to Bulgaria, and that contrary to her expectations, she was astonished by Nesebar’s beauty.

– Downgrade ‘inevitable’? –
But the picture-perfect facade is fragile.

“Historical houses are falling apart, repairs cost a fortune and there’s no help from anywhere,” said Maksimov, accusing politicians of embezzling funds. “Politicians don’t care about anything but stealing.”

“Everything the municipality makes looks cheap, while millions were paid for it,” said café owner Georgy Shishmanidov, 55, who also runs an association representing the old town’s residents.

He believes that a downgrading of Nesebar is “inevitable”, deploring corruption and what he called the “grave incompetence” of national bodies charged with preserving the country’s cultural heritage — though he hopes it is not too late to save the town.

Local restaurant owner Nikolay Balevski, 38, fears that a potential downgrade could result in a sharp decline in tourists.

“If Nesebar is not in UNESCO, tourists just won’t come,” he said. “There is no other reason to come here — we have no beaches or any other attractions, only its cultural heritage.”

Agence France-Presse