By Joseph Francis
Ranging from the snow-mantled ridges of the Carpathian Mountains to the scintillating stretches of the Black Sea, where party resorts now cluster around the shoreline and tanned tourists flock by their thousands, Bulgaria remains one of the most popular destinations in all of Eastern Europe. And why not? It’s got sand, oodles of sun, one seriously hearty national cuisine, buzzing cityscapes like Sofia and Plovdiv, and some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in the world.
A wild and hedonistic ride is in store for travellers who make their way to the much-trodden party town of Sunny Beach. Curving its way in one golden arch of shimmering sand around the coastline of the Black Sea, this bustling resort town just north of Burgas is a haven for Brits and Aussies, Dutch and Germans, who want to let the hair down during the summer. Of course, the eponymous beach is one of the major draws, and offers up sun-splashed sands that are well-served by the cafes, bars and hotels that line the shore-side Boulevard, while night time is when Sunny Beach really kicks into action, with strips of thumping clubs churning out dance and hosting pub crawls well into the early hours.
Something of the thinking man’s Sunny Beach, this lively Black Sea city is where local Bulgarians retreat to when the metropolitan heat of Sofia or Plovdiv gets just a little too much. The town itself is a criss-crossing array of wide streets, where cafes and bars spill out onto the pavements, all anchored on the onion-domed magnificence of the Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral (the second largest church of its kind in the country!).
Varna’s history runs back far deeper than many other seaside resorts here too, with Varna tour guides on hand to showcase tales of the Delian League and the excellent Archaeological Museum revealing Roman bathhouses and the like.
A veritable staple on the line-up of musts in any Bulgaria tour guide, the country’s capital at Sofia is one of Eastern Europe’s most enthralling cities. Travellers are invited to explore a patchwork of districts that belie everything from Stalin-esque sprawl to refined Orthodox Christian architecture. Check out the impossibly gorgeous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, done out in onyx marble and tipped with shimmering golden domes, or the impeccable classicism of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, standing tall and proud over the central parks.
Sofia tour guide services also offer trips to the great Vitosha Mountain from the city, which looms to the south in a medley of fir forests, hiking trails and – in the winter – ski resorts!
Talking of ski resorts…go to Bansko! Yes sir, the rise of this unlikely ski field in the midst of Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains has been nothing short of startling. Spread over two major ski areas – the Chalin Valog and Shiligarnika - the resort comes complete with 70 kilometers of groomed alpine piste and five kilometers of cross-country trails, along with a smattering of accomplished ski schools and rental facilities. In addition, the town has garnered something of a reputation for wild après, with countless taverns and Balkan restaurants now nestled between its charming cobbled roadways, serving up traditional treats (a regional kebab with rice is just perfect after a long day on the slopes!) and frothy Balkan beers. And to top it all off, ski passes remain amongst the cheapest for all the big resorts in Europe, allowing Bulgaria to rival the likes of Austria and France when it comes to winter sports these days!
Raised primarily by the Byzantines as a strategic outpost commanding the trading routes of the Black Sea, Burgas has grown and grown since the Middle Ages and is now one of the largest port towns in Bulgaria. It’s from here that boats connect travellers with Turkey, the Crimea and the rest of the Black Sea basin, and while that’s not enough on its own to warrant a visit, Burgas is also famed for its quad of top-quality lakes: Atanaskovsko, Pomorie, Mandrensko and Vaya. These are hotspots for campers and walkers, bird watchers and nature lovers, most of whom use Burgas as their base. Finally, the exquisite Renaissance town of Sozopol is also on the menu, and many a Burgas tour guide now offers daily trips to this one just down the coast.
Don’t underestimate Bulgaria’s second city! Not when there’s more than 7,500 years of history buried beneath its streets, moments of which pop out sporadically at places like the Ancient Theatre of Plovdiv or the Roman Odeon, or become evident in the crumbling remains of an aqueduct here, the weathered marble steps of a gladiators’ stadium there. Walkable and welcoming, Plovdiv tour guides happily point out of the juxtaposition of the old with the new, as artist studios and galleries pop up endlessly on the corners, hidden behind beautifully resorted buildings dating back almost 300 years. But it’s Plovdiv’s student vibe that informs of the bustling bars and the boho eateries that line the cobbled streets of its Old Town, under facades of painted timber houses with oriel windows.
Set deep in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria, Pamporovo is a testimony to the skiing boom that has taken this Eastern European nation by storm in recent years. Complete with top-of-the-range lifts and all new hotels, sparkling spas and chic cocktail bars, it’s an all-in-one outdoors destination for both the summer and the winter. However, it’s when the snows fall that the biggest crowds come, with the resort’s 55 kilometers of groomed piste proving one hefty pull. In the summer, hiking trails and biking tracks open up in the surrounding mountains, weaving their way through the pines to the heights of Perelik Mountain close to the border with Greece.
Pirin National Park
Bulgaria tour guides can often be found extolling the natural wonders and beauties of the Pirin National Park, which soars up to 3,300 metres and covers a whopping 403 square kilometers of south-western Bulgaria. Wild, untouched and crumpled by mountains for its entirety, this breathtaking area goes from sub-alpine fir forests to looming Bosnian pine trees, high mountain lakes to craggy summits that overlook the pistes of Bansko to the north. Bearing a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage tag, it offers up unquestionably some of the best hiking in the country as a whole, along with a host of other adventure pursuits to boot.
Travellers to the heights of the Balkan Mountains should prepare to laugh it up, because this remote river town shrouded by the forests is famed for its sense of humour. In fact, Gabrovo tour guides have happily proclaimed the town as the capital of satire; its House of Humour and Satire well chronicles the rise of its unique blend of sarcasm through its collections of art and satirical productions. However it’s not all about jokes in Gabrovo.
The town also has the Ethnographic Village of Bozhentsi - another UNESCO spot that showcases the traditions of the Bulgarian highlands. And then there’s the monasteries of Sokolski and Dryanovo in the hills, along with a smattering of charming half-timbered boutiques, churches and homes in the heart of the town itself.
Koprivshtitsa is a town that could have been conjured out of Tolkien’s imagination, with its wild hedgerows, real-stone walls and colourful array of half-timbered homes constructed in the Bulgarian revival style. Nestled between the Gora Mountains some 100 kilometers from the capital at Sofia, this protected little settlement now draws crowds with the promise of bona fide 19th century architecture.
The place is a veritable treasure trove for the history buff or culture vulture; a town where visitors can flit between collections of old weapons, ethnographic museums and exhibitions showcasing regional embroidery and crafts. What’s more, Koprivshtitsa now plays host to a clutch of fantastic heritage festivals right throughout the year, bringing Bulgarian folk music and traditional dancing to the fore. Don’t miss the gorgeous house of Todor Kableshkov, which is just one of the museums dedicated to the April Uprising in the town.
A fascinating city of churches and palatial complexes touched by Byzantine and Ottoman styles alike, Veliko Turnovo commands the meanders of the Yantra River from its series of hills. Visited by many, the town is famed as the onetime epicentre of the medieval Second Bulgarian Empire, which spread its tendrils outwards from the historic streets here to the Black Sea basin and the Adriatic during the 12th century.
Today, Veliko Turnovo tour guides have plenty up their sleeve: the historic cobbled streets of Trapezitza, the bustling archways of the Samovodskata Charshiya marketplace, Roman ruins and countless old Bulgarian churches from the Middle Ages, all of which hint at tales of history and culture from every crack, crevice and pore.
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
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