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, 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.
Smell the roses!
It turns out that Bulgaria is actually the country of roses! More specifically the Damascena Rose, which contains oil so it’s suitable to make rose oil and other products from roses. It’s also famous for its 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 their 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!
My 6 top tips for Bulgaria
- Eat typical food, such as the yogurt made from buffalo milk (very healthy!) and eat in traditional restaurants. A very good and traditional one in Sofia is 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.
- Go in June/July and smell the sweet 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, because I know it makes your skin very soft. 🙂
- Visit the capital Sofia, what a beautiful name for a city! See my dedicated article!
Here are some images to get you dreaming…
Bulgaria is much more than the Black Sea coast alone!
You can take a train to the historic city of Plovdiv from Sofia (dedicated article), we did it by minivan. Green fields as far as the eye can see along the road! Here you should definitely visit the old town.
- The Ancient Theatre, accidentally rediscovered after construction work and nowadays being used for concerts and other cultural performances.
- Get lost between the traditional houses in the narrow streets: new surprises behind every corner, so nice to walk around here.
- Shop in the pedestrian shopping street Rayko Daskalov.
- Relax in the park after you had an ice cream at Afreddo’s,
right at the end of the shopping street.
- 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! 😉
On the Black Sea coast you will find the towns Nesebar and Sozopol. We visited Nesebar, with its beautiful old houses and (ruins of) churches, with lots of shops where you can buy everything you (don’t really) need 😉 Nice, just too bad the many tourists make it less authentic. But it was nice to walk around in this old town. Sozopol is supposed to still have the traditional feel to it and you can take a boat to get there.
The Black Sea coast has a very nice climate, that’s why most tourists stay at their all-inclusive hotel and only visit Nesebar on a day trip. 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 go hiking in the mountains and visit the Rila monastery, the 7 lakes of Rila and so much more.
Aah, the sweet smell of Bulgarian roses!
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