Bulgaria — a perfect vacation destination


We are extremely interested in history and enjoy visiting different cultures. In August ’04 we visited Bulgaria. After spending 10 days in this largely unknown jewel of the Balkans, we wanted to tell our friends that Bulgaria has everything anyone would expect for a perfect vacation.

Customized tour

Our trip was planned by Balkan Travel & Tours in New York City (phone 888/763-4288 or 212/594-9000 or visit www.balkan-travel.com). It cost $1,115 per person, with additional airfare from LOT Polish Airlines of about $740.

Due to our interest in history, I requested a guide who would be knowledgeable about the fascinating 7,000-year history of the Balkans. Also, since I had read a book about the Bulgarian Jews who were saved during the Holocaust by King Boris III, I asked for a guide who would be familiar with Jewish history. We could not have been more pleased with the choice of Dimiter Kostov (phone 359 2 832 02 15 or e-mail dimnel@bgnet.bg). He is a university graduate with a degree in history and specializes in taking around the many Israelis who have ancestry in Bulgaria.

We were fortunate to be the only two people who signed up for that week, so we had a private tour which Dimiter customized for us, allowing us to see sites not included on the itinerary, like Pliska. The first capital during the seventh to ninth centuries until being devastated by the Byzantines, Pliska is currently being excavated, as is the huge “Madara Rider,” the oldest manmade rock relief in Europe (it also appears on many Bulgarian coins).

The itinerary can be found on Balkan Travel’s website, so I will not go through it day by day but will describe the highlights of the trip and why we consider Bulgaria to be one of our favorite countries of the more than 70 we have visited.

Sofia

All of our accommodations were superior to what I had expected. In Sofia we stayed at the 5-star Radisson SAS Grand Hotel and on our last night had a very lovely room overlooking a large square with, in the distance, Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, considered by many to be the finest piece of architecture in the Balkans.

On our walking tour of this interesting capital city, we enjoyed the fourth-century St. George Rotunda, enclosed by the Sheraton Sofia; The Great Synagogue, the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe; St. Sofia Church; the ruins of the Roman baths; the changing of the guard at the presidential palace, and the flea market.

As with all the towns we visited, it was safe to walk around, even at night, and everything was exceptionally clean. We noticed women out early every morning sweeping streets and sidewalks. We have had our pockets picked in Barcelona and (almost) in Paris, but there was no time in Bulgaria that we felt threatened.

We had heard that Bulgaria is known for excellent winter skiing as well as summer hiking and thoroughly enjoyed the long drive through the mountains, where we saw fertile farms growing everything from berries and vegetables to cotton and grapes. The tomatoes were even better than those in Turkey, and the strawberries, blackberries and blueberries we bought at roadside stands were absolutely delicious! And everywhere we looked, there were wildflowers of white, purple, pink, yellow and red.

However, one of the more unusual sights along the road was the occasional young “working” woman who waved or even did a little dance for us. Unfortunately, this is a sign of an economy still struggling almost 20 years after the demise of Communism.

Rila Monastery

Before arriving at our charming chalet in Bansko, we stopped to visit the 10th-century Rila Monastery. It is said to be one of the most impressive on the Continent in size, setting and architecture, with a plethora of frescoes and museum treasures.

We were lucky to arrive during a service. If you have never been to an Eastern Orthodox service, it is beautiful in its music, tradition and pageantry.

At one time, there were hundreds of monks living there; there are now only about a dozen. Although the rooms are all preserved, we were not allowed to enter them.

For lunch, we stopped for delicious fresh trout in Velingrad and watched as happy families pedaled boats around the lake. Here, as during the entire time we were in Bulgaria, the weather could not have been better, with clear skies and temperatures that did not get much over the low 80s until the last two days.

Plovdiv

Plovdiv was our favorite place. We stayed at the very elegant Trimontium Princess Hotel and had a room on a high floor with a large terrace overlooking the wide pedestrian walkway and quiet, flowered park. We know that Italians have their passeggiatas in the evenings after dinner, but the Bulgarians seem to stroll on large, wide boulevards and café-lined streets all the time.

We were impressed with how young the population appeared to be. There were parks all over with rides and activities for children. And we learned not to be surprised when a ruin from Roman times appeared right in the middle of a street or pedestrian path.

Plovdiv is not only the second-largest city in Bulgaria, it is one of the most ancient settlements on the planet, with over 8,500 years of documented history. And I thought that Rome, Athens and Carthage were old — not even close! Plovdiv is built upon layers of towns, and the culture has developed over time upon layers of older cultures.

On our walking tour of the Old City, we learned that Plovdiv was once made up of seven hills, like Rome. Now there are just three hills left of the ancient Trimontium (one of the old names of Plovdiv).

Along the cobblestone streets, we also saw the lovely National Revival homes of the 19th century, built after the 500-year-long “Turkish bondage” period that began in the 14th century.

A special treat was the functioning Zion Synagogue. We were shown around by Albert Behar, whose grandfather was the last resident rabbi in Plovdiv. He told us that there used to be four synagogues in Plovdiv, with about 6,000 Jews living there until 1948, when many Bulgarian Jews immigrated to Israel. Now the Jewish population numbers about 500, and services are still held every Friday night.

The Black Sea

After grudgingly leaving Plovdiv, we drove about four hours to reach the Black Sea coast. The last time we had been to the Black Sea was during our trip to eastern Turkey, when we found the beaches dirty and empty and the sea itself dark and uninviting. However, as we approached the Roman town of Nessebur (built on an earlier Thracian site), there were thousands of people strolling along the coast.

We found the remains of at least 10 of the 40 churches which once existed there, plus a plethora of shops, restaurants and tourists. Again, we enjoyed fresh fish while overlooking the beautiful Black Sea.

Our only complaint was in regard to the hordes of people and dozens of souvenir shops. This was not the peaceful Bulgaria we had grown to cherish.

Varna

Fortunately, our accommodations were not in touristy Nessebur but farther along the coast in Varna. Upon entering Varna, its communist-style condominiums did not give us a great first impression. But when Dimiter parked the car in the rear of the Hotel Odessos and we went up to our room and stepped out onto our terrace, the view that greeted us immediately dispelled any concerns.

Again, we were looking down on lively outdoor cafés and a clean, wide pedestrian walkway that wandered down to a thriving beach area on one end and to the town center on the other. We watched as people strolled by or sat at these cafés until all hours of the day and night.

All of our hotels (except Hotel Bansko, which is high in the mountains) had air-conditioning, which worked much better than that which we found in Western Europe. (How often have you been told at a hotel in Paris that they indeed did have air-conditioning but it was just not working at the moment?) There was also always cable TV with many stations, including always some in English, so we could keep up with the Olympics and other world events.

Although the highlight of Varna was the Archaeological Museum with its incredible 7,000-year-old gold collection, we also were amazed by the hundreds of crowded restaurants and clubs that were behind the miles-long beach. As we reluctantly walked back to our hotel near midnight, throngs of young people were just on their way down! It was even impossible to find a seat at a single café lining the pedestrian area from our hotel to the town square, lit up by the Varna Cathedral. Bulgarians really know how to party!

The next day, Dimiter showed us the Roman baths and the synagogue, which is in ruins. We spent the rest of the beautiful day on the beach along with thousands of vacationers, including many topless women.

Veliko Turnovo

Our last stop was Veliko Turnovo (Veliko Târnovo), a university town with a glorious historical past which serves as a symbol of Bulgarian statehood and a source of pride for every Bulgarian. The town is situated on three hills, the Trapezitsa Hill having traces of civilizations dating back to the first half of the third millennium B.C.! Remnants on Tsarevets Hill date back to the end of the Bronze Age (11th century B.C.), while the oldest settlements were inhabited by Thracians.

What was known as the “golden” era in the history of the town began in the 12th century, when the Bulgarian State reached the heights of its development. Along with Byzantium, it was one of the great powers in Eurasia. Magnificent palaces, monasteries, churches, fortifications, bridges and big houses were built there. However, this all came to an end in 1393 when, after a 3-month siege, Veliko Turnovo — and gradually the whole of Bulgaria — succumbed to Ottoman rule.

Centuries were to pass before the town was able to recuperate. By 1877 Veliko Turnovo was free of Turkish rule. Although Sofia became the capital after the liberation, Veliko Turnovo continued to be a bastion of Bulgarian national spirit and self-awareness.

We stayed near the famous tower and citadel at the charming, small Hotel Gurko on the picturesque street from which it takes its name. Again we had a terrace, which looked out on a large memorial and up a hill where there were rows of houses piled on top of each other, reminiscent of Italian hill towns.

Dimiter took us on a walking tour to see the 13th- to 14th-century fortifications plus the ancient tower, cathedral and palace and finally the main part of town, overlooking the Yantra River, with its well-preserved craft shops and National Revival houses. We had a chance to sample a pizza, which turned out to be one of the best we have had.

Of course, we visited other towns, including the open-air museum town of Etura and charming Arbanassi with its impressive architecture, elaborately decorated “Christmas” church and well-preserved museum houses.

Our wonder-filled 10 days revealed to us that Bulgaria has fascinating history, magnificent scenery, wonderful food (you can even drink tap water), beautiful beaches, excellent accommodations, good roads, colorful wildflowers, outdoor cafés and good roads. It is safe and clean and will never cease to surprise visitors with its limitless treasures.