For many travellers Bulgaria hardly even exists on the tourist map and I was no exception. Being an intrepid and restless adventurer, I still decided to take the plunge, find where Bulgaria is (Eastern Europe by the way), and delve into this largely unknown world. One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival was the country’s eclectic mix of architecture, people and cuisine. For centuries South-eastern Europe and Bulgaria in particular has been the crossroads where East and West met. The Thracians, Romans, Byzantines and not least the Ottomans shaped the country in their own unique way and left many marks on Bulgaria that are still visible today.
Probably the best way to explore the real Bulgaria off the beaten track is by car (beware of fake policemen on your travels though, no joke!). It’s safe to say my travels from the mountains in the West to the shores of the Black Sea in the East were almost like a journey through time … albeit a bumpy one, as I mostly had to go along pothole-riddled country roads. You come across speeding nouveaux riches in their shiny SUVs and rickety horse or donkey-drawn carriages with Roma families, swanky luxury hotels and ramshackle prefabricated houses, hoisted EU flags and post socialist decline … it’s a country full of contrasts.
One of the things that often springs to mind when you first hear about Bulgaria is the party scene along Sunny Beach and Golden Sands on the Black Sea Coast. It’s well-known as a low price party destination and occasionally referred to as the ‘Ballermann of the Balkans’ in reference to the party zone of Mallorca … the German-speakers amongst you will know what I’m talking about! I have to admit, however, this part of the country isn’t quite my scene. The area has been concreted over and is built up with hotels that line the seafront … and it all seems to have happened in a rather willy-nilly fashion. Cheap drinks (beers cost less than a euro), cheap girls (no comment on prices there!) and binge-drinking teenagers weren’t exactly what I’d associated with Bulgaria and what I’d hoped for!
There’s so much more to Bulgaria that can make your stay memorable. I’d recommend the interior of the country around Plovdiv and Asenovgrad, not to mention the capital city Sofia as well as the mountainous region in the West. It boasts millennia-old history, stunning UNESCO heritage sites and an inexhaustible supply of natural and cultural assets … all with a pinch of oriental features. Sofia is the perfect starting point for any Bulgaria adventure. In order to get a feel for the city you shouldn’t only visit the main monuments and shops but also the Zhenski Pazar market not far from the centre. It’s a very typical Bulgarian market with an oriental flair, vivid haggling and exuberant yelling … just make sure you keep an eye on your belongings as pickpockets roam the streets in many areas! Just a casual wander will lead you past churches, mosques and synagogues that are testament to the city’s eventful past. Make sure you swing by the Alexander-Nevsky Cathedral and Bojanska CerkvaChurch to see their stunning fresco paintings which date back to the 13th century; they’re well worth a visit! Another must see is the ancient amphitheatre of Plovdiv which hosts wallet-friendly theatrical plays, musical shows and choir performances in a particularly mystic setting. Generally I was quite amazed at the fact that many monuments (e.g. the Orpheus Temple near Kardzhali) were found to be older than the pyramids of Egypt and other historic sites in Greece or Italy!
However, if you’re aiming to get to know a slightly different side of Bulgaria you should head there in the winter. Surprisingly enough, Bulgaria boasts a number of fantastic ski resorts that largely measure up to its Alpine counterparts! Bansko ranks among the country’s most popular resorts and is just a two-hour drive from Sofia. Good value for money, skiing until midnight thanks to floodlights and a season that generally ends in May make for perfect conditions for any avid skier or snowboarder. In this small town the 15th century old buildings with impressive wood carvings and fresco paintings sit side by side with lavish hotels and thus form a very quirky contrast. If you want to eat out in Bulgaria, cosy traditional taverns and restaurants that offer regional delicacies are the perfect haunt for foodies! Make sure you also swing by some of Bansko’s ‘mechanas’, traditional inns which provide the perfect setting for any après-ski session … open fires, plenty of beer and chanting and yummy local delicacies, what more can you ask for?
By Rob Melau
Rob Melau, decided to study tourism management to combine his professional career with his passion for travel. He lived in England and France for a while and is already on the lookout for the next adventure somewhere in Asia or South America. Enjoys writing, sports and any type of outdoor activity
Have you ever considered Bulgaria as an adventure travel destination? Have you been there? I know I loved the food, and there are great beaches too…what did you like best? And least?