Mihovil Pirnat was still in high school when he began exploring the abandoned ruins of former Yugoslavia. Together with friends Josip Kovač Levantin, and Matija Pucak, Pirnat now uses film to capture disintegrating landscapes as part of a growing community of urban explorers: uncovering everything from Soviet train graveyards to Bosnia’s modernist spomeniks.
As well as this exclusive look at his team’s tour of Ark D-0 — the secret bunker designed to protect Yugoslavia’s top brass in the event of a nuclear war — here, Pirnat shares his tips for anyone looking to roam the Balkans away from the beaten path.
What got you interested in urban exploration?
I was in high school at the time. It was summer and all my friends were away on the coast. I was bored and started searching for interesting locations in Zagreb I could visit. During this time I found an incomplete map and some photos of an abandoned Second World War tunnel complex. All the clues pointed to it being at the base of Sljeme mountain — a popular hiking destination. So I decided to make a day of it: I took my bike and went exploring. I found [the tunnels] after a few hours and even managed to get inside.
After that, I kept taking my friends to find and explore other deserted monuments. We started Croatia Infiltration as a blog in 2008 to share our exploits. But as the only urban explorers in Croatia to actively post online, we began attracting attention. Brands started getting in touch to ask if we could help them set up events at different abandoned locations. Companies like HTC and Canon would ask us to arrange press trips for journalists, so that they could show off their latest camera’s low-light sensitivity or the signal they could get on their new mobile phone. We realised we could make a business just by being onsite and knowing everything about a particular place. Now, we also offer professional location services for film crews and photographers who want to shoot these places. We’ll organise everything: permits, logistics, camera equipment, people on set. At one point we worked on a multi-million dollar, four-day shoot for Mazda, with 150 people on location.
We’ve explored tens of different locations, but the most thrilling was probably the Žrnovnica Command Centre (Object – 182). Getting in is a real feat of courage as you need to pass by a field that’s supposedly mined. First, you need to find your way through the thicket, which is like a jungle. Then, you need to climb down a 60m vertical escape tunnel, which is the only way in. The last time we were there — just two weeks ago — it took us almost four hours to find the tunnel, and another two to get everyone inside. It’s a special experience which always takes over 12 hours of work.
What was special about exploring Tito’s Bunker?
Almost all of the military locations we’ve visited in Croatia are connected as part of an intricate surveillance system. In Žrnovnica, we found an old map with code names for every hidden base in former Yugoslavia. Each country had their own D-0 bunker to be used in a worst case scenario: nuclear warfare. Now, all of them are abandoned and destroyed, except for Tito’s Bunker in Bosnia.
It’s an unforgettable feeling, walking inside one of these bunkers and seeing that everything is still running (water, power, AC, etc.) I’m surprised that more people haven’t visited Tito’s Bunker, especially as this military-designed fallout shelter has since been turned into an art gallery. It reminds you of how bizarre and pointless the whole Cold War era was, and how close we were to total annihilation.
What advice would you have for tourists who want to explore similar locations in Eastern Europe?
Taking a risk and visiting somewhere not many people go offers a unique experience. As for objects such as the spomeniks across the former Yugoslavia, they are finally being recognised as works of art. A lot of them are now getting funding and are being cared for — for that reason alone, they are well worth the visit.
Eastern Europe offers spectacular cultural experiences, as well as scenic beauty. If you’re doing a regular tour, you should have no worries, but if you’re going to any abandoned locations or anything that’s off the beaten path [in the former Yugoslavia], you need to be a bit more careful of any explosives leftover from the war. A lot of information is available online, so I would recommend doing a bit of research before venturing out to these places.
In the world of urban exploration, once a location gets popular, there’s no way of limiting the the numbers of visitors (and the possible damage). What Eastern Europe offers is still relatively untouched compared to other western parts of Europe, but it’s getting more and more popular.
Is there a certain location or monument you’ve got your eye on investigating next?
Right now, we’re expanding our production skills. We’ve always helped other filmmakers to achieve their visions, and now we’ve decided it’s time to do the same for ourselves.We’re aiming to post a new video every two weeks, which means regular stints of exploring and filming. We’re going to Portugal next month and have a few more countries planned for the future. We’re really excited to visit Kazakhstan and the famous Baikonur cosmodrome. There are still a few Soviet-era Buran space shuttles rotting away in an abandoned hangar, which has become a really popular expedition for modern urban explorers. It’s certainly going to be an adventure!
To see more of Croatia Infiltration, visit their YouTube channel here.