What comes to mind when you think about Bulgaria, a mysterious country in the eastern part of Europe? The former Soviet Union? Balkan mountains? Corruption?
Or even drunk tourists seeking fun & sun on the golden coasts of the Black Sea?
Well… I didn’t know much about it, but I heard that the country was far more beautiful than most people think, so I booked a round trip to Bulgaria, inspired by the BBC series of ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys’, season 4, episode 1 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06jdqt7), where host Michael Portillo travels east through the Balkans along the most exotic section of the Orient Express and visits the capital Sofia, the Rose valley and Plovdiv.
After my trip, it turns out, that Bulgaria is actually the country of roses (the Damascena Rose, which contains oil so it is suitable to make rose oil and other products from roses), healthy yogurt, amazingly green nature, hills and mountains, a complex and intriguing history of suppression together with friendly but quiet people who are enormously proud of the Bulgarian culture and Cyrillic writing, and last but never least for me: great food! What a pleasant surprise and what a great trip it was. Downside: I got to stay there for just one week (working traveler you know), but we saw plenty. First of all, a big thanks to the Bulgarian guide, Lydia, for telling so many stories about her country during the sometimes long rides between sights.
Throughout the course of history, starting with the Thracians, Bulgaria has been through lots of changes, more about that here. And there have been golden days, rough times, difficult years, blossoming periods and the country has to find the right balance, but all countries face challenges. I was surprised to hear that there are actually many similarities between Bulgaria and Belgium. Enough about politics: what do you have to do when in this amazing country? Easy: go and explore (un)familiar paths!
- Eat typical food, such as the yogurt made of buffalo milk (very healthy!) and eat in traditional restaurants (a very good one in Sofia: Hadjidraganovite Izbi)
- Visit the open air museum ‘Etar’ near Gabrovo: Lovely houses and traditional craftsmanship (and I’m the proud owner of a brand new leather belt)
- Walk around in the towns of Veliko Tarnovo, Tryavna and Arbanassi, they are small but very nice.
- Our plane landed and departed from Varna, the European Youth Capital in 2017, it has a nice shopping area (loved the fact that there are so many shopping streets where no cars are allowed!) and very nice buildings
- Smell the scent of thousands of roses in the Rose Valley, close to Kazanlak and visit a distillery. I bought 1 ml of rose oil and a bottle of 250 ml of rose water for my skin, because I know it makes your skin very soft 🙂
- Visit the capital Sofia (what a beautiful name for a city!): if you are short on time, there is one big long street you can follow where all the major buildings are located. I usually find my way in a new place quickly and the center of Sofia is very easy to get around by foot, so we were able to see the most in just one day (without visiting museums of course). You can also take the tram to go up to the base of the Vitosha mountains (if you want to visit the Boyana church and residential area, you have to go that direction), the place where the people of Sofia go to relax and enjoy nature. I didn’t have the time, but it has to be great to take long walks there and go for a pick nick!
Other tips for Sofia:
- relax nearby the fountains at the National Palace of Culture
- drink fresh orange juice from the Central Market Hall
- visit the famous Alexander Nevski cathedral, preferably during service and take pictures of the building when the sun is shining (gold & copper domes!)
- stay at hotel BudaPest if you don’t mind being a bit further away from the city center
- drink Melnik wine
- visit thé most feminine statue ever: the statue of Sofia herself, in black & gold
- You can take a train to the historic city of Plovdiv from Sofia, we did it by minivan. Green fields as far as the eye can see along the road! Here, you should definitely go to the old town.
- the Ancient Theatre, accidentally rediscovered after construction work and still in use today (e.g. concerts, performances, …)
- the traditional houses
- get lost in the little streets: new surprises behind every corner, so nice to walk around here
- shop in the pedestrian shopping street
- relax in the park after you had an ice cream at Afreddo’s at the end of the shopping street Rayko Daskalov
- Plovdiv will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019, so it will become a top destination in the coming years, I’m sure of it! 😉
- Nesebar / Sozopol: Beautiful old houses and (ruins of) churches, with lots of shops where you can buy everything you (don’t really) need 😉 Nice, but too bad the many tourists make it less authentic then it used to be. Sozopol is supposed to still have the traditional feel to it (you can take a boat to get there), but it was nice to walk around.
The Black Sea has a very nice climate, that’s why most tourists just stick around and only visit Nesebar. But I was glad I got to explore a big part of the country 🙂 If I ever have the chance, I would love to go back there to walk around in the mountains and visit the Rila monastery, the 7 lakes of Rila and so much more.
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