Around ten million tourists visit Bulgaria every year, but for many of us in the UK it’s a country defined by cheap alcohol, sun, sand and debauchery. In a country that offers a huge range of holiday experiences – from skiing to city breaks to backpacking to wine tours – those willing to look beyond the sunny beaches can find any type of holiday they want in Bulgaria.
While Sunny Beach doesn’t exhibit the qualities of Bulgarian culture,
cuisine or hospitality at its best, you don’t need to travel far to escape the gaudy excess of the seaside hotspot. If you travel down the coast you can reach the gorgeous ancient seaside town of Sozopol. Just 35 kilometers South of Burgas, this old town on the Black Sea dates back to the Bronze Age. The Southern Walls of Sozopol offer stunning views of the bay as well as a maze of passages and paths to explore. While the restaurants on the wall might offer great views, they’re more expensive and of poorer quality than those you can find off the beaten path. After you explore some of the rocky, narrow stairways round the perimeter of the wall, you should head a few streets inwards and find a quiet local place to order some Tzatza (whitebait) and Rakia (strong fruit brandy).
If you’re looking for more of a city break, the capital Sofia is the most modern and European destination in the country.
It’s more expensive than the rest of Bulgaria, but still very reasonable in comparison with the rest of Europe. The museums are well maintained and centrally located, with The National Archaeological Museum showcasing the richness of Bulgaria’s historical legacy. The massive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral meanwhile is an essential visit. After you explore one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, there are plenty of nice cafes and bars nearby. Buy yourself a fresh watermelon juice or Aryan (cool yoghurt drink) and watch the stylish Sofian’s rush back and forth through the city.
While Sofia is a great place to visit, for me the real hidden gem of Bulgaria is Plovdiv. If you’re interested in history, archeology or museums, it’s one of the finest cities to visit in the world. The people of Plovdiv joke that you can’t dig a hole in your garden without coming across ancient ruins or fossils and although it’s an exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth. Even the main street of Plovdiv’s city centre sits atop a finding of major historical relevance. The partially exposed Stadium of Trimontium was built in the beginning of 2nd century AD during the reign Emperor Hadrian, and the residents of Plovdiv walk past and over it every day as they travel through the city centre. You can buy a banitsa (soft, flaky pastry with sirene cheese) from nearby food stalls and sit on the steps to daydream about gladiator battles and ancient empires.
You should also visit the Roman Amphitheatre in the old town of Plovdiv.
It’s not only stunningly well preserved and beautiful in its own right, but also offers great views of the city. The old town itself meanwhile is made up of winding, steep cobbled paths and stunning Bulgarian Renaissance style mansions. It’s like stepping back in time, and if you travel through it to the top of the hill, you’ll get a stunning panorama of the whole city and the surrounding area. There are perhaps only one or two things in the whole world prettier than the views of the Bulgarian sunset you can see there while sitting on the bare rocks.
There are many amazing places to visit as you travel between the cities too. Etara is a water powered craft village and open air museum East of Sofia and visiting is like travelling back in time. Meanwhile, 12 km away from Rousse, Ivanovo (Cut – in – the – Rock) Monastery is exactly what it sounds like: a monastery cut directly into the surface of the mountainside. The monastery was inhabited by monks during the period 13 -17th century. Now, it contains more than forty separate churches and as many steep drops and secret passageways as you can handle.
Whether you travel to Sozopol, Sofia or even Plovdiv, you’ll find food in Bulgaria cheap and of a generally high quality. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal in Bulgaria. Most restaurants offer large, laminated menus with pictures of the dishes, and you’ll be able to find the same staples everywhere you go, while each place might also have a few specialties of their own.
There’s a huge number of choices and Bulgarians typically scoff at our small, single-page UK menus. Almost everything is made fresh, which is great but means you can be waiting a long time if you order large meat skewers or a Sač (a large ceramic dish filled with mixed sizzling meats and vegetables). Each dish will come as and when it’s prepared, so it’s a good idea to order a salad if you’re very hungry and can’t wait. Shopska salata is a basic salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and a Bulgarian soft white cheese called sirene. While it may not sound like the most exciting dish in the world, the freshness of the ingredients make it worth ordering. Many UK visitors will be amazed at the quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables in Bulgaria, and it’s common to feel a twinge of nostalgia when you eat a really delicious tomato and remember that ours once tasted this good.
Similarly alcohol is cheap, so you should feel no particular guilt about ordering a Kamenitsa or two with your meal. Most of the major Bulgarian brands of lager are of a good quality, with the fruity Kamentisa Fresh offering a sweet alternative for those who want to experiment with fruit beers. Rakia – while also cheap – should be ordered in moderation. Bulgarian measures are a lot less scientific and precise than in the UK and the drink itself can exceed 40% ABV. I’ll never forget (or perhaps I should say “struggle to remember”) the night my Bulgarian friend Petar took me out for Rakia, beer and a hearty meal at 4am and left thirty lev (about 12 pounds) to cover the meal and a tip.
And while Bulgarian food is a highlight, it’s the hospitality of Bulgarian people that makes.
Brits fall in love with the country. If you’ve ever been invited to a Bulgarians house, you’ll be familiar with the sheer volume of food and drink you’ll be offered. Friendly and generous, Bulgarian’s will offer you every morsel from their kitchen before running out to buy you an extra watermelon (for 80 stotinki, or about 30p). You’ll be offered home-brewed rakia so strong it could anaesthetize a horse, and your hosts will entertain you into the small hours of the morning.
Bulgarian’s don’t do anything quickly (with the possible exception of queuing, where they will swiftly form an amorphous blob of pushing and bumping). If you take a Bulgarian out for dinner in the UK, they are likely to balk at the idea of “tables back by 9”. The very concept of being rushed while eating dinner would seem abhorrent. For a Bulgarian family or group of friends dining out, the purpose of the experience is to gather around, talk and laugh and argue about politics and drink and eat, for exactly as long as they chose to. A Bulgarian is never late, a Bulgarian arrives (or departs) precisely when he or she decides to.
It can take a little while to identify exactly why Bulgaria feels both so similar to the UK, and at the same time utterly different. You might have heard this refrain before, but the pace of life is what sets this part of Europe apart from the UK. Walking on the main street of a sleepy city like Rousse, everyone is moving just that little bit slower. Drinking just a little slower. Shopping a little slower. And eating…. well a lot slower.
There’s a peculiar shuffle to commuters in Bulgaria and it can take a while to adjust. After you spend a while there though, you come to realise that when you’re under a gentle (or scorching) sun and you don’t need to get to bars or shops before they close (they never seem to close), a lugubrious pace makes much more sense. For someone hoping to escape the breakneck pace of British city living, every aspect of Bulgarian culture seems designed to help your holiday be a relaxing one.
Nightlife in Bulgaria starts later and finishes later. You can go out and find bars open well past 12, with food and drink available, while nightclubs open around 11 and often don’t close till 6am. Outside of Sunny Beach though, you might find the music and atmosphere a little different to what you find in the rest of Europe. Most Bulgarian nightclubs are chalga clubs.
Bulgarian food, culture, music and people aren’t well understood in the UK yet, but that’s starting to change. More and more people from the UK are exploring more of the country. Bulgarians don’t visit the Britain and stay in Blackpool, so it’s time we Brits travelled beyond Sunny Beach.
Bulgaria. It’s just sunny beaches. And snow-capped mountains. And endless rose valleys. And medieval hillside fortresses. And Roman Amphitheaters. And clear night skies filled with stars. And fields of sunflowers that stretch to the horizon.
Author: Thomas Welsh