PLOVDIV-SOFIA-MELNIK-KAZANLAK-BURGOS AND BLACK SEA COAST: SOZOPOL, SUNNY BEACH, GOLDEN SANDS, VARNA – VELIKO TARNOVO-RUSE
Bulgaria maybe is not on your bucket list but it is a surprisingly nice mellow country which is extremely affordable since it didn’t convert to Euro yet. Except for some architecture, it feels very European almost without any remnants of ever being a part of the Soviet Block.
The intercity transportation is very good, there are numerous bus companies. However I didn’t find a centralized data base with schedules, so we ended up just going to the bus station and getting the first available bus or a minivan going to our destination.
Our first stop was Plovdiv where we arrived on a night train from Istanbul. More on Plovdiv check out my blog: soniastravelblog.com/2017/07/18/bulgaria-itinerary-plovdiv/
From Plovdiv we took a bus to Sofia, the capital. The city dates back to 8th century BC, but was in its zenith during the Roman period around 4th century AD. It suffered greatly under the Ottoman Empire for about 500 years from the 14th century till liberated in 1878 with the help of the Russian Imperial Army led by the Emperor Alexander II, hence called the Tsar Liberator of Bulgaria and Russia. Much of the city was destroyed during WII and rebuilt with the Soviet style Brutalist architecture. But some remnants of the Roman and the Ottoman traces are still present. Sofia has many historical sites and several good museums. Sofia’s manageable pedestrian center is full of shops bars and restaurants.
As usual we started with a free walking tour which was very professional and extensive. Notable sites are: the Royal Palace, home of the National Art Gallery, National Gallery for Foreign Art and Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church commemorating 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s liberation (1877-1878). The church is named after a Russian Prince worrier who lived in the 13th century. I am not completely clear why it was not named after Alexander the II, the Tsar who liberated them instead of a different Alexander who has no connection to their liberation…
Our room at the Scotty’s Boutique Hotel was centrally and conveniently located across from Sofia’s synagogue which was also on our “to-do list”. For Bulgarian cuisine we tried the Manastriska Magernitsa serving traditional food recipes collected from old monasteries including various rabbit and other meat dishes. Otherwise we had drinks on the main pedestrian street and just walked a lot covering the entire center by foot. We were very lucky because there was a free rock concert in the park and it was a lot of fun not just because of the music but we also got a chance to observe the Bulgarian crowd-very civilized and well- behaved youth.
PIRIN MOUNTAINS & MELNIK
We rented a car for 2 days and drove south to Melnik. On the way we made a little detour to a ski resort Borovets. Even though it was July, we wanted to check out the facilities as potential ski destination. The lift was operating and we were able to take it up and to walk down amid beautiful mountain views.
Another attraction in the area is an impressive Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, next down Blagoevgrad can be skipped.
Our destination, Melnik, is a tiny (1km) village known for its wine production. It is really cute and is worth an overnight stay even though the wine is overrated, to say the least semi-sweet red). Nevertheless we enjoyed the setting in the Mitko Manolev winery, a cellar carved into the rocks but difficult to find. The village is located on two banks of a tiny river/canal, has plenty of accommodations, restaurants and bars.
From Sofia we took a bus to Kazanlak, a town that can be skipped…Unfortunately, I already booked a nonrefundable room when we realized that so we did our best to explore this dusty hot and unmemorable town. The best attraction is the Museum of the Roses. Bulgaria is a major producer and exporter of roses and rose related products like shampoos, lotions, tea, liquors etc. The museum doubles as a research institute for roses and now we know everything there is no know about those romantic flowers.
Another attraction is Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, a UNESCO Heritage site, a 4th Century BC burial site has beautiful frescos. If there is time (which we had), you can take a taxi or a bus to a very impressive 32m- high Freedom Monument, a Russo-Turkish war memorial paying tribute to 7,000 Russian troops who died defending the Shipka Pass on which it is located.
BURGAS AND THE BLACK SEA COST
We took a bus from Kazanlak to Burgas and immediately realized that we need a car to go up and down the Black sea coast if we want to cover most of the towns along the coast. If you just want to stay in one place then public transportation is fine.
First we explored the towns going south from Burgos. We drove all the way to Sinemoretz and on the way back up stopped over night in Kitten. Its two beaches, Atliman and Morski are worth a visit to relax and to swim.
The most charming of the beach towns south of Burgas is definitely an ancient Sozopol. The old town with its narrow cobbled streets, restaurants and bars hanging on to the cliffs is reminiscent of Venice Beach in Mykonos but way cheaper. Sozopol has couple of decent beaches but they are not as good as the ones in Kitten.
On the way north we passed Burgas once again but without stopping and ended up in Sunny Beach (Slanchev Bryag) for three nights. Sunny Beach is an enormous stretch of gold sand, numerous entertainment venues, Luna park attractions and mega night clubs. It’s a Las Vegas in the 70s sans gambling. The place attracts both, families with children and young adults who can party all night. We have friends there who actually own summer homes and spend every summer there. There is endless choice of bars and restaurants on a pedestrian street adjacent to the beach.
The best thing to do there is to take a ferry boat across the bay to small, charming and rocky UNESCO designated Nesebar. Stroll around this historic town and have fabulous seafood in one of the restaurants overlooking the sea.
Our next stop north was Golden Sands (Zlatni Pyasats), a smaller scale and mellower version of Sunny Beach. And the next town up is a quiet Balchik, but we just drove thru it without stopping.
Our last stop on the Black Sea coast was Varna on the way back south. I really liked Varna for several reasons. It is small enough to be able to walk everywhere but it has a city vibe. While we were there Varna had numerous cultural events such as summer concerts and operas in the open Roman Theater and ancient Roman amphitheater. Additionally, it had a lovely organized beach with chairs, bar and a restaurant. We stayed on the beach all day and went out at night. We attended two classical concerts and one opera, Carmen.
We returned the car in Varna and took a bus to Veliko Tarnovo, a main town of the Bulgaria’s heartland and the Central Mountains and a capital of medieval Bulgarian Tsars. The city is comprised of a lower town and two mountains divided by a river.
Even though the city is in the mountains it’s was very hot there in the middle of July. Nevertheless, we immediately embarked on a free walking tour. The city is very beautiful and rich in history and dramatic views including but not limited to a well restored, 6th century BC fortress. At night at the fortress there was a performance of…Cats (yes! surprise), the show was sold out but we managed to talk our way in (without speaking any Bulgarian). The quality of the show was questionable but the views were spectacular and the musical was followed by an amazing sound and light show telling the story of the town, which we didn’t understand, but nevertheless admired.
There are plenty of restaurants with amazing views. Veliko Tarnovo is definitely worth an overnight visit.
Our last stop before crossing the border to Romania was Ruse located on the Danube River and is reminiscent more of Vienna then medieval or Ottoman Bulgaria. Its focal point is Pl. Svoboda, (Freedom square) flanked by belle époque buildings and fountains and a small pedestrian street where you can buy an abundance of rose made products.
We were extremely disappointed by the banks of the Danube as we imagined a fancy promenade with restaurants and/or at least a marina offering river boat cruises, none of which was offered. The banks of the Danube were bare, no promenade or anything of that sort and looked more like an industrial area then anything.
Our hotel City Art Hotel is worth mentioning, a centrally located renovated 19th century building was one of the more upscale hotels on our journey. For dinner, an old world themed Chiflika offers traditional Bulgarian fare and atmosphere to match. Even though it was Saturday night we didn’t find any worthwhile entertainment of live music, maybe due to an extreme heat…
The next day we planned to take a bus to Bucharest across the border but were late by few minutes getting somewhat confused at the bus station. We had to wait for few hours for the next one, but instead and to our big surprise, they arranged a private car to drive us out of town where the missed bus (actually a minivan) was waiting for us. We were extremely impressed by this level of service and the speed of this happening taking into account that we don’t speak Bulgarian and by the way they didn’t charge extra for the service. Bulgaria is indeed a nice country to visit!!