On a recent road trip through Bulgaria, I found myself in Kazanlak which is a sleepy town nestled in the Rose Valleys of the Bulgarian mountains and the home of the country’s largest, oldest, and most infamous Kalashnikov manufacturer: Arsenal AD *Insert Guns N’ Roses pun here*. My hotel in the town was a glorious example of foreboding and sinister Communist architecture that I love. Little did I know that Mikhail Kalashnikov himself was rumored to have stayed at the same hotel. This is my story of living it up at the Hotel Kalashnikov.
”A Communist Nightmare!” exclaimed one Tripadvisor review for Hotel Kazanlak. ”If you want to experience terrible service from the Soviet Union, stay here!” read another from a former guest to ignorant to realize that Communist Bulgaria was never part of the Soviet Union. For weirdos like me who get a kick out of timewarp hotels with a weird vibe that leaves you with a story to tell, reviews like this encourage me to try them out.
But on arrival at the Hotel Kazanlak, which was almost deserted due to the impact of Coronavirus, I was greeted by one of the friendliest and helpful receptionists I’ve been fortunate enough to come across on my travels. Check-in was seamless and she was even kind enough to upgrade me to a luxury suite due to the fact the hotel was practically empty. It goes to show, don’t believe all the garbage you read on Tripadvisor.
Living it up in my enormous 1980s aesthetic suite that had three balconies, two bathrooms, and a huge lounge, I couldn’t help but imagine how many high ranking Communist Party members or Soviet delegates had spent time in this suite during the Cold War and of course, how many arms dealers had done the same when the town of Kazanlak became a mecca for gun runners in the wild years of the post-communist 1990s. Viktor Bout, the infamous Russian arms dealer Nicholas Cage’s character in Lord of War was based on, began his career in Bulgaria.
The town of Kazanlak revolves around Arsenal AD and the production of Rose Oil. The latter is the more “in your face” theme of the town and the Rose Festival of Kazanlak is a big tourist attraction each year. The town’s production of Kalashnikovs isn’t widely advertised, although the Arsenal logo discreetly sponsors everything from sports facilities to cultural centers. When Kalashnikov visited Kazanlak in 1996, he lamented that Bulgarian Arsenal Kalashnikov is the best quality production of the Kalashnikov ever made outside of Russia.
Mementos and photos of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s visit to Kazanlak aren’t widely covered outside of the Arsenal Museum which is located on the grounds of the weapons factory and only opened to the public on special occasions. The museum is home to a Saiga 410 smoothbore rifle that is engraved with the signature of Mikhail Kalashnikov, a memento of his visit to the town. This picture was provided by Za Kazanlak.
So I went to the locals of the town, old enough to remember the visit, to tell me about it. One resident, who chose to remain anonymous, told me that Mikhail Kalashnikov came to town with a Russian entourage and spent a night in a luxury suite at the Hotel Kazanlak before touring the Arsenal Plant. He then relocated to a rural retreat in the surrounding mountains where he was wined and dined with local dignitaries and was living it up with local Kalashnikov manufacturing heads.
Mikhail Kalashnikov had stayed in a luxury suite at this hotel. I was also living it up in a luxury suite. But when I asked the hotel staff about the controversial guest, I was told that they ”didn’t remember” Kalashnikov ever coming. But apparently Todor Zhivkov, the former leader of Communist Bulgaria, stayed here also.
Alas, I couldn’t confirm if I was staying in the Kalashnikov suite or not. Whilst the hotel didn’t, various locals confirmed that this was the hotel used to briefly host Mikhail Kalashnikov. Nonetheless, this quirky Communist-era hotel undoubtedly accommodated various arms dealing figures of both state and underworld levels who visited the arms manufacturing town on business. For me, it will be fondly remembered as the Hotel Kalashnikov and one I highly recommend if you’re ever in the area.