08-1984 / 01-2011
Five centuries subjugated to the Ottoman rule and four decades locked very firmly behind the Iron Curtain turned Bulgaria into a distant, enigmatic country in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Images of cheap wine downed at student house parties and budget ski holidays were my impressions about Bulgaria but all this belongs to the past. Today it’s a different country from what it was even ten years ago.
As you can see from the dates on the top left corner, my first visit was before the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident in April 2006. I went back for a really short visit after many years so many things have changed dramatically after that big gap. For most foreign holiday-makers, Bulgaria’s main attraction is its long, sandy Black Sea Coast, which still boasts stunning beaches and picturesque bays despite the expansive construction work.
But for me there’s so much more to this country. So much of it remains largely untouched and unvisited by tourists that follow the tourist trail. Hiking trails and horse-riding routes allow you to discover Bulgaria’s lush mountainous and forested landscapes, especially around the mountains that are still inhabited by bears, lynx, rare birds and other kinds of wildlife.
Getting around the country is easy, with cheap and efficient public transport to get you between the cities and everywhere in between where the traditional, slow pace of life continues much as it has done for centuries. Here you’ll come across monasteries, filled with fabulous icons, as well as old ladies and their curious grandchildren that still stare in wonderment at the arrival of outsiders.
The cosmopolitan city of Sofia with its lovely parks, sociable alfresco bars and fascinating museums can keep you busy. On the other hand, you have the Revival architectural treasures and Roman remains of Plovdiv, and the youthful maritime cockiness of the seaside town Varna.
Bulgaria still tries to have the feel of a nation at a very important crossroads. Massive foreign investment has created a construction boom, not just around the larger beach and mountain tourist resorts, but in the cities, too. At the same time, the Bulgarian population is declining faster than almost anywhere else, with their wages being amongst the lowest on the continent. As a result of all this, there are increasingly long and bitter strikes everyday. The environmental damage caused by overdevelopment has been a particular cause for public alarm over recent years. There are several national and international organizations campaigning to bring some of these issues to wider world attention. However Bulgarians are a patriotic bunch. When they ask you, as they often will, if you like their country, they genuinely care that you leave with good impressions.
Prices have certainly risen since Bulgaria became a member of the European Union, but compared with countries in Western Europe, travellers will find it a cheap destination and an easy one to travel around, once you’ve mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and enough Bulgarian to buy a bus ticket. If you manage to bring your own transport like I did, the whole country is yours to explore.
Bulgaria isn’t one of my top destinations but it’s still an interesting blend between the past and the future. For people that are interested to explore just that, it can be quite a site.
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