Much of Bulgaria offers remnants of its cultural past; with a number of preserved rustic villages, old houses and a collection of beautifully decorated Byzantine churches, just waiting to be explored.
Until recently, Bulgaria has always been less popular than its neighbouring countries of Greece and Turkey, but now tourism is really beginning to take off. Just about all the towns across the Black Sea Coast are home to newly acquired and part built apartment blocks and hotels. Property is cheap here and is considered to be a worthwhile investment for the future. However, a short drive away from the tourist traps is the mountainous interior, which will take you back in time into what feels like undiscovered territory.
The Black Sea coast offers a 230-mile long coastline of fine sandy, blue flag beaches. All the resorts offer water sports and some entertainment; although in the quieter resorts entertainment is mainly in the hotels. The largest and liveliest resort is Sunny Beach, which has entertainment all day and evening. As well as many shops and bars, it has an abundance of hotels spread along the beach. Some of the resorts along the coast are self-contained, such as Duni; others are quiet and relaxing like Nessebar.
It is certainly worth sampling some of the wines whilst in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians love red wine and after France, Spain, Italy and Greece, Bulgaria is one of the largest producers of wine and exports over 200 million litres every year.
Bulgarian cuisine is offered in the hotels as well as in the restaurants, and some of the traditional Bulgarian recipes include meat specialities, such as Kebapcheta (minced meat rolls) and Kyufteta (meatballs). Grilled meats on skewers, steaks, salami, potato and meat stew; dried sausage and Banitsa (cheese pie) are all equally delicious.
This amazing country probably has more history than most, which is probably due to the number of different inhabitants from various races and cultures who descended there many years ago. Many of the remains of their handiwork still lives on in Bulgaria and is quite possibly, apart from the soaring summer temperatures, one of the reasons that it now attracts so many visitors.
Neolithic Tribes settled on the Black Sea Coast before 6000 BC, where they built their homes on piles of wood sighted on the water. The water became the focal point of their way of life and fishing was their prime source of food and income.
From 6000 to 2000 BC the Thracian Tribes arrived on the scene; they were skilled craftsmen and held a curiosity for the afterlife. Although many places have now been destroyed and events forgotten, many of the legends still live on. Two of the more famous being Orpheus – a mythical singer and writer, who lived in the Rhodope Mountains – and Spartacus, who led a slave revolt against the Romans in the Macedonian region.
The Greeks began to colonize the Black Sea coast from around 600 BC, forming trade links with the Thracians. Eventually new settlements were formed, and Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, later took control of the area around 345 BC. They then helped to open up its interior with trade and cultural ideas.
The Romans decided to make their mark on the region around 168 BC, by defeating the Thracians in Macedonia - although it took about two hundred years to finally control the area and incorporate it into the Roman Empire. This area then became part of the Byzantine Empire.
During the period of Roman rule, around 300 – 600 AD, other races raided the area, most notably the Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs and the Proto Bulgarians. These races were settling in the area almost at will and it was only a matter of time before they became the dominant force.
The first Bulgarian Kingdom was established in 681 with Khan Asparuh as Head of State. He had a following of around 250,000 and they set up their capital at Pliska, which is generally known as the “First Kingdom”.
Slowly over the years the majority race of Bulgarians incorporated the Slavs into its ranks. A treaty formed with the Byzantine Empire, which brought peace, and Orthodox Christianity took a hold and became the official religion of Bulgaria.
Brothers, St. Cyril and St. Methodius created the Slavonic alphabet, which is still in use today in various forms. Treaties were later forgotten and wars became an all too regular occurrence, allowing the Byzantines to take control in 1014 and dominate the area for many years. After many uprisings the Byzantine forces were eventually pushed back and Bulgaria was finally given independence, which became known as the “Second Kingdom”.
During this time period many raids took place from the North, which affected the security of the region – not to mention its wealth and treasures. All links to Rome were eventually lost, paving the way for the Ottoman Turks, who raided the country and took over eventual control in 1393.
Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria suffered both religious and economical suppression for many centuries. It made numerous attempts to regain control, but these were all sadly defeated. Finally, during the Bulgarian National Revival period in the 19th Century, along with help from Russia, Britain, France and Austria, Bulgaria became liberated from its Turkish Rulers and became a principality in 1878.
The Balkan Wars and the First and Second World Wars came and went, during which time the Monarchy survived. However, in 1946 the population voted, turning Bulgaria into a Republic. It remained a People’s Republic until 1989, when the Communist Government fell. It has since been ruled by different parties, all wishing to bring Bulgaria into the “World’s Eye”. Membership of NATO and the EU became a priority.
For such a small territory, Bulgaria offers so many attractions of historical and natural origin. UNESCO has rated nine places to be of cultural and national interest with treasures of World Heritage.
Bulgaria now has a population of around 7.5 million, with about 85% being made up of Bulgarians who speak the official language of Bulgarian and practise the Orthodox Christian faith. In addition to this, there are a number of Muslims and gypsies (Roma) who make up the poorest portion of the population.
Religion plays an important role in the life of the Bulgarian people and all the churches and monasteries have a patron saint day, where special services are held for all those who wish to attend. Bulgarians also enjoy many public and religious holidays where they love to indulge in the celebration of numerous festivals, which are held mainly during the summer months.
Traditional folk music is very popular and is kept very much alive by being celebrated at all the festivals. Many local celebrations involve the preparation of particular foods and, in some cases, symbolic figures. Many villages hold a fair day where the whole village comes out to celebrate. There is a lively funfair to enjoy and the streets are lined with stalls.
There are obviously many interesting places to visit along the Black Sea coast, all of which are fairly assessable. Some of the roads are not particularly good – particularly those heading north up the coast. Those heading south are much smoother.
An interesting and very pleasant excursion is that of a boat trip up the Ropotamo River. Trips here can be organised by booking with a travel agent in the nearby town of Sozopol, or you can just go along and wait until a boat becomes available. If you go early in the day, you should find it fairly quiet. It obviously tends to be busiest when coach trips have arrived.
The Ropotamo River is a designated nature reserve and is home to many flora and fauna. Large Water lilies adorn the passage either side of the river and a number of birds, fish and dragonflies can be viewed from the comfort of your seat in a covered boat, which is much appreciated during the heat of the summer.
As you look to either side of the boat you will see that there are many unusual rock formations - one collection of rocks is considered to resemble a lion. The boat eventually meets the mouth of the Black Sea, which offers a stunning view of the distant coastline. It then turns around and heads back the same way.
The whole trip lasts about an hour and costs twelve Levs for adults and six Levs for children. Boats appear to wait until there are enough people waiting to go on them – usually a minimum of around twelve. There is an adequate restaurant situated next to the river where you can get relatively inexpensive refreshments; snacks for around three Levs, beer and wine by the glass from around one Lev. Otherwise, you can travel into Sozopol where you will find an abundance of restaurants to choose from.
If you are not afraid of heights, then why not take a breathtaking trip into the Blue Mountains at Sliven – named after a visible blue hue seen in the early morning and late afternoon in the translucent light. This can be reached by bus or car using good, smooth roads accompanied by a refreshing route. During the summertime there are fields and fields of sunflowers. Fresh fruit is sold in abundance at the roadsides and old pheasant farmers on their horse-drawn carts can often be seen plodding up the road – making you feel like you have just stepped back in time.
The summit of the Blue Mountains can be reached by chair lift or on foot. The chair lift opens about 8am and runs throughout the day. You can use the lift on a return basis or just go up one way and walk the other. It takes about twenty minutes to reach the summit by chair lift.
This rocky terrain is home to birds of prey, butterflies, boar, foxes and deer. The slopes are covered with trees, shrubs and a profusion of streams. It certainly attracts many walkers, but the view from the chair lift is truly breathtaking. Once you reach the summit you can get off and walk further along good paths, which eventually lead up to the TV tower, Mt Tyulbeto – which only blights the landscape a little. The views from the top are even more magnificent and this is definitely a trip that will have lasting memories. During the summer months it is as hot at the top as it is at the bottom, so they will definitely be no need for a fleece or jacket. There is a café at the base of the chair lift, but it only offers very basic refreshments.
Somewhere not to be missed during a trip to the Black Sea coast is the town of Nessebar. This picturesque ancient town is about thirty-eight kilometres north east of Bourgas and is one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria. The town is divided into an old and new quarter, but the old is far more than just a trip round the local shops. It is situated on a small rocky peninsula and is linked to the mainland by a narrow strip of land.
The old town of Nessebar has a number of historical remains, along with a museum and the best of the coast’s nineteen-century wooden architecture. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As you approach the peninsula you will pass a large wooden windmill. These were once very common and were found in every coastal town.
Beggars and street traders are very prevalent in the town and can be quite persistent. An abundance of stalls line the cobbled streets in front of the beautiful wooden houses, which sell all the local crafts. You can buy carved wooden snakes, paintings, jewellery, leather goods, clothes and many other trinkets. Restaurants are plentiful, as are the pleas for you to go and eat in them all! The streets can be very packed during high season and browsing at gifts can be very difficult without feeling the pressure to buy. Although there is parking available next to the town it can become very congested, particularly during high season, and there doesn’t appear to be any fixed prices for parking either - allowing the attendants to ask whatever they wish.
You can easily get into Nessebar on the local bus or get a taxi. There is also a “water taxi”, which runs regularly to and from Sunny Beach. If you are mobile and staying nearby it might be easier to walk in.
Shopping in Bulgaria is very easy on the pocket. You can buy designer clothes from the large towns, where all the streets are pedestrianised and shops never seem to close for a siesta. There are plenty of souvenirs available to buy and the streets of the large resorts are lined with stalls, brimming over with traditional crafts. Pottery, jewellery, handmade lace, tablecloths, knitwear, wooden items, paintings, sports clothes, shoes, children’s toys and games are all on offer. There are many CDs, DVDs and perfumes on sale too, but beware as some of them may be fake.
As well as numerous souvenir stalls, there are a number of talented artists who will happily produce a wonderful portrait of you and your family – you can even have it framed! It is worth remembering that although some of the shops do accept credit cards, they do charge a commission rate. It is better to deal in cash as much as possible to get the best value for money.
Getting around in Bulgaria, like most things in the country, is relatively cheap. Some parts of Bulgaria, such as Sophia, offer a tram and metro service. Getting around the Black Sea coast is best done by bus, car or taxi - buses being the cheapest option. All the towns have a public transport network and a bus station – the long distant routes being run by private bus companies. Local buses may not always run to time, but they are frequent; so if you miss one you can always catch another. They can cost less than one Lev, but can become very hot and packet during high season.
For reaching those less assessable areas taxis are a reasonably priced option, but do take care as some seem to charge what they wish and there can be a huge difference in price. All taxis are yellow in Bulgaria and each driver has a licence and registration number within the taxi.
The Black Sea coast also offers a choice of two international airports – Varna in the north and Bourgas in the south. Having a choice of two airports allows you to choose the nearest one to your resort, which helps to cut down on transfer times.
Bulgaria has between 2200 and 2500 hours of sunshine per year. The average temperature between April and September is +23°C and the average yearly temperature is 14.7°C. The average temperature range in Bulgaria is much greater than that of its neighbouring countries. The temperatures vary across Bulgaria, but generally the summers are long and hot - particularly on the Black Sea coast. The temperature in this area resembles that of the Mediterranean, giving rise to the occasional thunderstorm with heavy rain. Winters tend to be much colder and after severe droughts in the summer months, the addition of frost, wind and hail often leads to many damaged crops by the end of the year.
Bulgaria, like most countries, has its good and bad points, but it is certainly a country worth visiting. With its diverse landscape, array of activities, sight seeing options and beautiful beaches, it has something to offer everyone form the single person to the family group. The price of a holiday here has remained inexpensive up to now, but now they have joined the EU, that could all too soon begin to change.
This article was written for Paul's Place by Jane Grimshaw.