A stroll around Bulgaria

Plovdiv ©T. Joly
In the past few years Bulgaria has attracted a growing number of European tourists. Nice beaches, modern seaside resorts, numerous historical monuments and moderate prices explain this success.

[ Practical ]

- Getting there
Regular flights from Paris to Sofia with Air France and Bulgaria Air
Charter flights to Varna from May to September
- Formalities
ID or passport
- Currency
Lev, 1 € = 1,95 lev
- Time difference
+ 1 h
- Best season
May – end of September for tours, June – mid September for beach stays
- Going around
There are bus routes between all Bulgarian cities. Trains are slow. Hiring a car is the best way to discover the country in depth but off the beaten track road signs are sometimes only in Cyrillic.
- Good to know
Cost of life is much lower than in Western Europe, in particular outside the seaside resort
Tape water is not drinkable
- Tour operators
Marsans, Thomas Cook, Look Voyages, Nouvelles Frontières, Fram.
Prices can vary greatly from one hotel to another and depending on the season.
Allow from €500 to €950 per person for a half board, full board or all inclusive 8 days / 7 nights stay in a seaside resort and €650 to €1000 € per person for a 8 days / 7 nights full board tour.
- Information
Only 3 hours by air from France, Bulgaria’s 380 km Black Sea coastline and its sandy beaches have been a leisure spot for centuries. Today, seaside resorts with new or recently renovated hotels offer excellent services for an
economic price. Three are located to the North of Varna. The biggest is Golden Sands, a town renowned for its long beach and its numerous night activities where there are more than 100 hotels.

Albena © T.Joly
 Seaside resorts
But make sure to choose one located on the waterfront, otherwise you can end up with a room offering a view on a car park or on a building under construction. More quiet, Albena is a private estate which possesses 43 hotels situated close to the sea, along a beautiful beach, or in a vast wooded park. A very pleasant and safe place that is perfectly convenient for families, seniors or persons in search of a peaceful atmosphere. The last one is Riviera, a complex of 5 hotels situated in front of a small beach where all rooms have view on the sea. To the South of Varna, halfway from Bourgas, another seaside resort is developing near Ozbor. A city that still keeps its typical atmosphere. It is not anymore the case for Sunny Beach, further South, near Bourgas, where the climate is normally 2°C warmer than in Varna. This resort extending along a 7 km long beach is today only a succession of hotels, more than 100, restaurants, bars, discotheques and shops. A place dedicated to sunbathing and fun where the majority of the tourists are English and German.

Veliko Tarnovo © T.Joly
 A tumultuous history
These stays can be embellished with various excursions giving an overview of Bulgarian tradition, folk life and heritage. Bulgaria indeed has everything necessary to please people looking for more cultural vacations and it is also possible to make there one week tours allowing to discover in depth its historic heritage. Standing at the crossroad of the Slavic, European and Islamic worlds, the country has experienced a bright and tumultuous history.
From the 4th millennium to the 6th century BC one of the first great European civilisations flourished here : the Thracians, whose royal tombs and astonishing gold objects and jewels can still be seen in Varna’s museum. During the middle ages, the Bulgarian Empire matched the Byzantine one both artistically and militarily, a power illustrated by the huge fortress overlooking Veliko Tarnovo. Like a stony sentinel, it still looks after the medieval churches and the wooden houses nested at the bottom of the gorges of the river Iantra and on the surrounding crests.

Nessebar © T.Joly
 A spectacular site
Seat of an important university, endowed with modern neighbourhoods equally pleasant to live, this city occupies a spectacular site and has many bars and restaurants. It makes it a vacation spot highly appreciated by the political and intellectual elites who also like the charming small village-museum of Arbanassi, located right next door.
But these times of glory have alternated with Greek, Roman and Byzantine invasions, all of which have also contributed their share of monuments to the country. The coastal town of Nessebar is a perfect example with its numerous Byzantine churches. Some mosques also remind us of the five centuries of Ottoman occupation from 1396 to 1878. Except for the Bulgarian National Revival in the early 19th century, this was a dark period characterized by persecutions. To such an extent that very often Bulgarian identity and culture were only able to survive behind the thick walls of the most remote Orthodox monasteries where resistance was organised.

Bachkovo © T.Joly
 Artistic treasure
Given back to the cult after the fall of Communism, they are one of the artistic treasures of the rural areas and two are a must to see : Rila and Bachkovo. Respectively situated near Sofia and Plovdiv, they are the country two most important spiritual centres. Both surrounded by mountains and decorated with magnificent frescoes, they are built around a church and a vast inner courtyard. And along the perimeter of this courtyard there are buildings housing refectory, kitchen, studying rooms as well as monk cells spread over several floors. If Rila is the most impressive, the most spectacular, it is also the most touristic. The religious fervour is more perceptible in Bachkovo where pilgrims come to kiss a miraculous icon of the Virgin. In many areas are also found small villages full of traditional wooden houses that didn’t changed since centuries and look like open-air museums.

Bulgaria © T.Joly
 Paradise for ecotourism
Sparsely inhabited considering its size, Bulgaria is also a real paradise for ecotourism. Trekkers and bikers have the choice between peaceful countryside, deep forests and mountain ranges criss-crossed by numerous paths. In winter time lovers of alpine and cross-country skiing will find there newly modernised resorts like Borovets or Bansko. After a day of sport, the picturesque and peaceful villages offer the opportunity to meet and socialise with the locals who are always ready to help travellers confused
by the Cyrillic alphabet. Meetings that sometimes end around bottles
of local spirits or wine. Occasions not to be missed because the quality
of Bulgarian wines has improved a lot since the cellars were privatised. An evolution common to the whole Bulgarian agriculture which is famous for two productions, yoghourt and essence of roses, these flowers finding a convenient climate to their blooming in the central valley of the country.

Plovdiv © T.Joly
 A thrilling contrast
If some fine examples of Stalinist architecture still stand in Sofia, everywhere else remains of Communist times are rare. The most visible ones
are the aging industrial complexes and grey and monotonous suburbs lying on the outskirts of big cities. A thrilling contrast with the city centres of Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna which are currently changing at huge speed. Pedestrian streets lined up with trendy shops, restaurants and cafés terraces, youngsters walking around with stylish clothes and up to date cell phones,…. Consumerism and the Western way of life are already in the air. Luckily, the golden bulbs of Orthodox cathedrals and old neighbourhoods with wooden houses are there to remind us of the Slavic world.

May 30, 2016
Thierry Joly 

[ Editor’s pick ]

An antique town founded several millennia ago, Plovdiv shelters a perfectly preserved roman Theater. Nevertheless, its highlight is the old quarter whose appearance hasn’t changed since the French writer Lamartine strolled around in 1833 during his “Voyage en Orient”. Nested on a hill, criss-crossed by paved streets, it hosts dozens of wooden houses built in the 18th century at the time of the National Revival. All perfectly restored and sometimes hiding art galleries, certain of them are open to the public and unveil rich and precious interiors.