The newest member of the European Union, Bulgaria is still struggling to shed its communist past, but is determined to adapt in the face of social and economic chaos. This Balkan country is emerging as a new bargain skiing destination, offering the resorts on the Black sea, which used to be the once-in-a-lifetime holiday destination of families trapped behind the Iron Curtain. A great place to visit if you want to shock yourself with the worst a former bankrupt communist country has to show off.
Alexander Nevski Memorial Church: in Sofia was built to celebrate Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turks in the Russo-Turkish War.
Rila Monastery: features the 14th century Khrelio’s Tower and offers fine accommodation in the monastery and at a nearby hotel.
Batchkovo Monastery: is home to some rare frescoes, icons, manuscripts and wonderful gold Thracian objects.
Turnova: boasts houses built in the National Revival style, which appear to grow out of the steep slopes flanking the river.
Rose Valley: in bloom is a major spectacle, especially if you’re here to catch the Festival of Roses.
Black Sea: has half the salt content of the Mediterranean and its shores are lined with fine beaches and health resorts.
One week is the least you can get away with to enjoy some of the major attractions.
Two or three days to see the capital’s highlights, museums and Turkish baths.
One or two days in a museum town, which are full of life, harmony and traditions.
Two or three days on the Black Sea Riviera, with fine beaches, attractive resorts and health spas.
A day or two in the Rose Valley featuring splendid blooms in May and early June, when the Festival of Roses is held in various towns of the region.
Two days at Rila Monastery, home to a huge collection of murals, woodcarvings, old weapons, coins, manuals and bibles written on parchment.
Two days hiking in the majestic Rila Mountains south of Sofia.
You’re more likely to step into a manhole than being manhandled, but beware of walking around suburbs of major cities. Black Sea resorts are hunting grounds for pickpockets. Tap water is safe to drink, but why not enjoy the abundant and excellent bottled waters. Facilities in Bulgarian hospitals can be old-fashioned.
Sofia is the main air hub and domestic flights are quite cheap. The railway network is extensive but suffers from illogical timetabling and mysterious cancellations. There is a good network of cheap and convenient buses, also with somewhat erratic timetabling, and road quality can vary. Regular boat and hydrofoil services along the Bulgarian bank of the Danube link many towns and cities. Buses, tramways and a metro operate in Sofia.
What’s cool: It’s in the EU, Sofia’s architectural wealth, yoghurt, loads of national parks, nine UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites, swimming in the Black Sea, World Cup skiing venues, 21,749 miles of signposted hiking paths, traditional horseback riding, cruising the Danube River and mineral water spas.
What’s not: Fake cops, extortionate taxi drivers, bad roads, signs in Cyrillic script, ‘yes’ means ‘no’ and ‘no’ means ‘yes’, crowded Sunny Beach, chained dancing bears and it’s in the EU!
The Stara Planina Mountain range divides Bulgaria into two climatic zones.
Summers (May to August) are warm with some rainfall, with the south influenced by the Aegean Sea.
Autumn (September to November) is mild and pleasant with the most rain.
Winter (December to February) is cold in northern Bulgaria, but much milder in the Southern part.
Spring (March to April) is fine along the Black Sea and in the south.
With a series of festivals dating back to the ages when men tried to pacify the natural elements with offerings, Bulgaria has some centuries-old celebrations.
February: Trifon Zarezan on 14th February is the ancient festival of the wine growers. Lots of fun when combined with Valentine’s Day!
March: people give each other Martenitas, red and white tasseled threads, signifying health and happiness at the arrival of spring.
June: Festival of Roses in the Rose Valley features song and dance and a Queen Rose beauty contest.
August: Bourgas International Folk Fest features performances by international folk and dance troupes.
Cultural sightseeing: is a must, with all the lovely museum towns and landmarks, beautiful scenery and intriguing Ottoman history.
Skiing: in Borovets, Vitosha or Bansko on white slopes at World Cup venues.
Hiking: along well-marked paths in the many national parks with guides and accommodation in mountain chalets.
Spas and health treatments: get pampered Bulgarian style at one of the many mineral water spas, whose curative properties have been known and used for centuries.
Horse-drawn carting: is the traditional Bulgarian means of transport. If this is too slow for you, ditch the cart and steer your stallion through the Danube Valley or the Valley of Roses.
Bulgarian cuisine is spicy, hearty and first-rate, while dinner is a social occasion with dancing in many restaurants. The yoghurt is out of this world and rakia, the national drink, will set your heart on fire. Accommodation standards are still trying to catch up with Western Europe, but progress is being made. Rooms for rent in private homes are good value and a charming experience.