Notes from the Balkans: A Mini-Guide to Bulgaria
When people find out I toured Bulgaria for over two weeks a few years ago, their first response is usually surprise and then confusion. Surprise in that few people know anything about Bulgaria, including the fact that it is even accessible for tourists. Secondly, confusion, as the first question most people ask is “Where, exactly, is Bulgaria?” Well, Bulgaria is, exactly, in Eastern Europe, bordered by Romania on the north, the Black Sea on the east, and Turkey and Greece to the south. Most of that surprise comes as a result of Bulgaria’s recent sorted history, rendering this rapidly changing country far off from the tourist map. For the traveler willing to brave a still developing free economy, a distinct lack of English-speakers, and a hit-or-miss tourist infrastructure, Bulgaria offers some of the most welcoming natives in the region and a wealth of ancient and recent history. Bulgaria’s varied geography also means the country has some of the best hiking and beach destinations in Europe, and on the cheap to boot.
Traveling through Bulgaria, you’ll see gypsy families traveling the highway (or what passes for a highway) in horse-drawn wagons and cities of crumbling faded glory built right on top of ancient civilizations, all coupled with the kinetic energy of a free-for-all scramble to revitalize the recently freed economy. You might have a tough time getting around or finding someone who speaks English, but you’ll have your pick of European style clubs and neon restaurants in the bigger cities. All this is set against a backdrop of a mountainous interior, foggy valleys inset with tiny villages, and idyllic beaches. Sometimes touring is easy, sometimes it’s not, but there’s little that compares with experiencing a country that is still moving through its age-old cycle of rise and decline when so many developed countries present a static and homogenized veneer to tourists.
Poor Bulgaria – her history is marked by legendary conquests, bloodshed, and contrasting downfalls, but their more recent past has left them relatively forgotten and embroiled in a difficult transition from cCommunist rule. The “Bulgars”, war-like nomads from central Asia, gave dramatic rise to the first Bulgarian kingdom that lasted between the 7th and 8th centuries. Bulgaria later fell under Ottoman rule for five centuries, a dark age for traditional Bulgaria culture, lasting until their Russian-aided liberation in 1878. In efforts to reclaim Macedonia and some of their long-lost glory, the newly independent country quickly became involved in a series of devastating wars, three alone in the 20th century (The Balkan Wars, WWI, and WWII). After a brief period of wavering, the Bulgarians ended up siding with their Russian liberators in the Second World War, and became one of Russia’s most stalwart communist allies until the fall of Communism in 1989.
The fall led to a period of political confusion, economic instability, inflation, and rampant unemployment that has been marked by the disillusioning forces of corruption, organized crime, and the uncontrolled wealth of sanctioned criminals. As a result, their transition to a free-economy has been slow and marked by controversy, and tourists may find themselves running into proverbial walls where the old and new are disharmoniously attempting to co-exist (although they must be making progress, as they are slated for EU entry in 2007). An understanding, or at least recognition, of the natives’ mixed feelings towards their decade and a half of freedom and of the rocky path the country still faces in trying to find their feet is crucial in being an informed tourist.
Finally, don’t let their struggling appearance deceive you, as Bulgarians are a cultured, knowledgeable, and worldly society, with a healthy and typically eastern European appreciation for the fine arts, although some of their most talented and visionary writers were imprisoned or killed during social upheavals throughout the 20th century.
The country’s climate is a mix of Mediterranean and Eastern European weather, with cold and gray winters and warm and sunny summers. When you should go is largely dependant on what you want to do, as “high tourist” seasons don’t really affect anyone outside of beach resort package tourists. That said, accommodation and transportation prices may fluctuate, but often those fluctuations are based more on complex internal calculations on the part of the operator (that tourists couldn’t possibly comprehend) than on actual market determinants. The mountains offer skiing in the winter and excellent hiking the rest of the year, while the beaches offer cheap roasting on the Black Sea. The various cities and traditional villages offer layers of ancient and startlingly recent history anytime of the year, though they are probably more pleasant in the warmer months.
The easiest way to get to Bulgaria is by plane flying into Sofia, the largest of the four international airports-Lufthansa is one of the airlines that provides service from the USA. Most EU natives are admitted without a visa for up to 90 days, while USA, UK, New Zealand, and Australia natives have a limit of 30 days without a visa.
Crossing into Bulgaria by bus, train, or car can be a long and drawn-out process, with lines, luggage searches, and complex document scrutiny. The following website provides a list of crossings as well as crossing rules and tips.
All the charm and friendliness of Bulgaria is easily forgotten when trying to arrange transportation around the country, and all the difficulties of moving around in a changing economy come to the forefront. Unless you are renting a car, undoubtedly both your biggest expenses and largest sources of frustration will come from trying to get around. That said, the only way to really see both the complex geography and traditional side of Bulgaria is to get out of the main cities. Your national driver’s license is valid in Bulgaria, but an international license is required in all neighboring countries – you’ll also need proof of third party insurance. AVIS, Budget Europcar, and Hertz rent cars in Bulgaria and rentals are available in travel agencies and large hotel lobbies, or company offices in the larger cities.
The state-run network of buses is sadly diminished from communist days and is slow and unreliable, but cheap. Private bus companies have taken up some of the slack on major routes, but again, these companies and their routes are subject to constant change. To complicate matters, timetables, if there are any, will be in Cyrillic. Most road signs are also in Cyrillic, but then again, there are only so many roads connecting different destinations, so with a good map and a readiness to ask for directions, you’ll usually end up where you wanted to go without too many set-backs. Bulgarian State Railways connects major tourist destinations, but is similarly slow and unreliable. Reservations are recommended, and you should always take the “rapid” line – all but the most backwater villages will have a “rapid” option. Sleepers are available for long-distance rides, and at $15 a pop for a Sofia to Varna (popular coast town) trip, they are a pretty good deal if you’re trying to cut down on hotel costs. Check out the European Rail Services website for more information on coming into Bulgaria by train, rail passes, and costs.
BALKAN flights offers routes between Sofia and popular coastal resorts for around $65 one-way. This could definitely put a dent in a frugal backpacker budget, but considering the hours lost on the unreliable transportation network (the same trips would be 6-8 hours by bus or train), the flights may be worth it, although you would still miss out on actually seeing the country.
The website for the US embassy in Bulgaria is a good source of practical information for tourists. If you require a doctor, your best bet is to head to the nearest health center or Poliklinika, where you’ll likely find professionals who speak at least one western European language (if not English). Although doctors are very well-trained, facilities are limited even in the larger cities, so it’s recommended that you head home before undergoing any major medical procedures. Internet cafes are widespread in any city or tourist destination, and international phone cards can be used to phone home.
The Bulgarian currency is the lev, or leva plural, and is worth approximately $1 US = 2 Lv. Banks, exchange bureaus, hotel reception desks, and tourist offices can all change money. Credit cards can be used for car rentals and at top restaurants and hotels; aside from that, credit cards are most useful for getting cash out of ATMs, as cash should be used for most day-to-day expenses. Bulgaria is cheap by most standards – a tourist can comfortably travel around the country, eat out, and stay in hotels for about $40/day. Foreigners are often subjected to an informal “non-native” tax at many attractions, museums, etc. that is up to five times the cost for a Bulgarian. It usually amounts to a difference of a few dollars. My suggestion would be to swallow your protests and simply pay the inflated fee, keeping in mind the fact that Bulgarians have suffered in the switch to a market economy. The cheap costs don’t seem quite so reasonable when many full-time Bulgarian workers earn less than $50/week, and what you may consider being taken advantage of, they see as a legitimate price differentiation.
Places to Go
Sofia: Sofia is Bulgaria’s capital city, and usually a tourists’ first stop. It feels reassuringly similar to other major European cities, albeit one with its own distinct Bulgarian character. The city isn’t really a tourist playground, so it seems almost surprisingly functional, especially considering the run-down and ill-repaired feel of many neighborhoods. Grand tree-lined boulevards are greatly dilapidated and the city’s center is a mish-mash of different architectural types, largely due to the extensive rebuilding that occurred after WWII. The outskirts, especially coming in from the airport, are drearily foreboding and in stark contrast to the shady parks, busy pavement cafes, and frenetic squares of the city center. The easiest way to get around is by foot, although many lodging options are located just outside of the city – a well-liked hostel (and art gallery) with an English-speaking staff is the Art Hostel.
- Zhenski Pazar: This is a central market (that extends to rows upon rows of outdoor souvenir stands) where you can buy typical market fare as well as pretty much anything else you could possibly want. It’s a great place for buying nesting dolls (my personal favorite), grabbing a snack, and people watching.
- Mt. Vitosha: This alluring mountain getaway is literally a few miles from Sofia’s city center, and is an integral part of the capital for city dwellers. The mountain provides a wooded oasis with stunning views, countless picnic spots, and winter skiing. The Cherni Vrah peak is a strenuous enough hike to make it a bragging point for urban warriors.
Nesebar: No self-respecting journey in Bulgaria is complete without a trip to the Black Sea coast. Though gaining popularity with the package resort crowd and more overtly touristy than the rest of the country, the Black Sea nevertheless boasts plenty of charming fishing villages and deserted white-sand beaches. And no tourist can hide the relaxed lifestyle or the mild climate perfect for lazing around in the sun. Forget the competition for pricey beach chaises or the stress of comparing with the jet-setting beautiful people found at other beach resort towns, here your only worry will be finding the motivation to head to your next destination.
Nesebar is a tiny fortified town set out on a rocky peninsular on the southeastern coast of Bulgaria, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Founded by the Greeks in 510 B.C., the town has been an important port since antiquity. It is filled with medieval churches in various states of disrepair as well as souvenir stands and tourist-trap restaurants complete with competitive English-speaking menu hawkers at the entrances. The lingering fishing village feel and historical interest, however, make the walk over well worth your time. And walk you should, as public beaches, restaurants, and accommodation abound on the mainland side of the causeway, in the town of Sunny Beach. If you have access to a car, I highly recommend exploring the surrounding coast for unmarked and unnamed beaches. Traveling just a few miles (and don’t forget a baguette, some Bulgarian cheese, cold beer, and a few ripe tomatoes) could set you up with the type of private beach paradise one would assume you’d have to be shipwrecked and stranded to find.
Rila Mountains and Monastery: The Rila Mountain range is easily accessible from Sofia, and is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Eastern Europe. The Borovets ski resort, popular in winter, also provides access to Musala Peak, the highest peak in the Balkan Peninsula. The resort is a good starting (and snacking) point for day hikes in the mountains.
The Rila Monastery is a colorful conglomeration looking something like a medieval castle crossed with a candy-striped gingerbread house, all covered with fire-and-brimstone Bosch-like murals. Founded in 927 by Ivan Rilski, Rila is still a functioning monastery and was a crucial respite for Bulgarian culture during the centuries-long period of Turkish rule. It is a popular destination/oasis for intrepid mountain hikers. Although one of the most visited sites in Bulgaria, you get the feeling of having stumbled back into older times, with monks bustling about and countless monastery cats glaring out from under old wooden eaves.
Etar: Etar, in the vicinity of Gabrovo, is an open-air exhibition village, set up like a traditional 18th or 19th century Bulgarian town. The ethnographical museum contains many hydro-powered machines and farming implements, as well as countless museum workshops and public buildings. The village as museum concept seems far-less stagy than similar destinations in the US or Western Europe, possibly due to the fact that some villages in Bulgaria are still pretty similar in appearance to the museum. The entrance fee allows for free-rein wandering and self-guided tours through the different artisan workshops and farming exhibits. The village is open for business from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. May-October and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. November-April.
Plovdiv: If Sofia is the “big city” of Bulgaria, Plovdiv is the typical tourist city, with plenty of ancient history, beautiful hilly views, and an Old Quarter made for wandering walking tours. Locals are quick to recommend the charms of their city over those of Sofia, and it’s hard to disagree. Founded by Alexander the Great’s father in 360 B.C., the city houses the ruins of a recently discovered Roman theater (part of the acropolis of Trimontium) – a site providing an incredible vista over the city and surprisingly little tourist ceremony for such an important archeological find. The city center, almost completely closed to traffic, is filled with restaurants and cafes and bustling crowds, giving Plovdiv the simultaneously laid-back and happening feel of a vacation city. The Old Quarter is the major tourist draw, with many of the ornate National-Revival style houses designated as walk-through museums, complete with preserved traditional interiors. The cobbled hilly streets and alleyways make brisk navigation an impossibility-plan on spending an afternoon getting lost. The Blue Heaven Inn is a centrally located and cozy hostel with plenty of free perks – you’ll have to email them at email@example.com for reservations.
Shipka Pass: This pass straight through the Balkan Mountain range has been a site of strategic significance since the days of Alexander the Great. In more recent history, the pass houses a memorial commemorating an important 1877 Russian/Turkish battle in Bulgaria’s fight for freedom from Turkish rule. The aptly-named freedom monument is quite literally up in the sky, and the view from the top of the six-story edifice provides a panorama of the Valley of Roses and the surrounding mountains. The ghosts of Bulgaria’s battle-worn past almost fade into view when looking down from the windy and foggy pass onto the savage Balkan range. The pass is due east from Sofia, about halfway between Sofia and the coast; Turnovo is a good city to explore nearby.
Trigrad Gorge: Hidden within the Rhodope Mountains is the Trigrad gorge, a primal gash of sheer walls overhanging the River Trigradska. The thundering waterfall crashes into the Devil’s Throat cave, where hourly tours are available 9-5, Wednesday through Sunday. For those willing to brave crude stairways and bats flying around the mossy shafts bringing in daylight, the 150 meter tunnel lets visitors see the water descending into the depths of the earth – legend has it that the throat was Orpheus’ entrance to the underworld. The nearby sleepy village of Trigrad has several small hotels.
Tips for Eating and Sleeping
Your diet while traveling in Bulgaria will most likely revolve around a variety of grilled meats, so vegetarians beware. The omnipresent menu dominator is kebapcheta, a sausage type mix of lamb, pork, and veal. Kyufte is the same but in a meatball-like patty form. While usually pretty delicious, especially at a better restaurant or homemade, the dish is also greasy and heavy. Fresh vegetables and fruit are another stable and are widely available, so most meals consist entirely of raw vegetable salads and greasy meats – prepare for some typical traveling dietary adjustments. I took to ranking restaurants based on the quality of their shopska salad – a mix of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, roasted peppers, and a soft grated white cheese, usually a Bulgarian feta. Top-notch or trendy restaurants will rarely cost over $10/ person.
For lighter snack fare, sidewalk cafes abound. They usually have a variety of sandwich and cheese (another heavy Bulgarian stable) options, although you should definitely stay away from the proliferation of western-influenced options like pizza and hamburgers. Caffeine addicts are in luck, as espresso could constitute its own food group based on its widespread availability. Watching my Dad (the trip’s designated driver) doggedly try to order drip coffee everywhere we stopped and continually receive a shot of espresso in larger and larger mugs (he would mime a large coffee mug in attempts at explaining “drip”) was a large source of entertainment for the whole party. Small shops offering pastries and breads are also good for breakfast or snacks, though the fried and dense pastries stuffed with a thick cheese or chocolate are, once again, very heavy. Salads and fresh fruit are generally safe and tap water is safe to drink, although fancy restaurants make a big show of leaving plastic bottles of water on the table to demonstrate that you’re not drinking tap water.
Going out to eat in Bulgaria is often a big event, so restaurants generally have live (and loud) singers and music and expect their guests to make a night of it. Trying to get the check at a nicer establishment, especially if you haven’t yet stayed the requisite two hours or more is an exercise in comic futility, as “dropping the check” is probably considered extremely rude to Bulgarian patrons. This is yet another way in which Bulgaria shows its true colors to tourists, so why not take the server’s suggestion of another round and watch the parade of thug-like men (relics from Bulgaria’s recent corrupt past) in snappy suits wine and dine their associates.
Your best bet for sleeping is to stay in smaller, family-run hotel establishments, as the large formerly state-run hotels often charge five-star prices for no-star service. Accommodations standards vary widely even among seemingly similar hotels in similar areas, so word-of-mouth recommendations or a trusted guidebook will make your sleeping digs less of a shot in the dark. Hostels generally charge around $3-6 a bed and many monasteries open rooms to tourists for $5-15. Just remember that you’re paying for the unique experience, not hotel amenities. For those who’ve come to hike, there’s a network of mountain huts through popular ranges that charge similar rates to those of hostels.
Helpful Hint: The most useful information you need to know about communicating while in Bulgaria is that nodding up and down means “no” and shaking your head left to right means “yes” – the exact opposite of what westerners are used to! To complicate matters, tourism industry workers who immediately peg you as uninformed tourists may assume you don’t know the custom and will misinterpret your head shakes. This usually results in ridiculous diagonal head-bobbing by both parties. When in doubt, use your words, preferably in Bulgarian, and while you’re at it, learn a few other basics – for all of you who already speak Russian, you should have no problem.
The Bulgaria travel website is the country’s official tourism website and provides plenty of information on different attractions as well as crucial details for planning a trip (including a conversation guide for communicating in Bulgarian). The website for the Bulgarian embassy in the US provides practical information as well as news links for travelers who want to know what’s going on.
Bulgaria is a wonderful Balkan destination, and their varied tourist infrastructure, rather than being a hindrance, allows the intrepid backpacker to fit right in with the locals. The best way to see the country is to do a little bit of everything – visit some of the cities, do some beach-hopping, take advantage of their prime mountain hiking spots, and indulge in a little history – Bulgaria’s got it all. There are few places where an easy-going travel philosophy will be as rewarded as in Bulgaria, and now is the time to visit this rapidly changing country.