Pictures of Bulgaria - Bulgaria Tours and Hotels - Bulgaria Travel Guide

Home   About Bulgaria   Regions   Settlements A-Z   Sightseeing A-Z   Useful Info   Travel Tips   Articles
Bulgaria Hotels   Bulgaria Tours   Bulgaria Car Rentals   Hot Offers   Maps of Towns   Free Wallpapers   Forum
Sea Tourism
Mountain Tourism
Rural Tourism
Ski Resorts
Spa Resorts
Natural Parks & Reserves
UNESCO Heritage
Culture Tourism
Wine Tourism
Hot Offers - Hotel and Tour Discounts
Most Popular Destinations
User Contributed Pictures
Sitemap by Category
Sitemap by Region
Sitemap by Pictures
Sitemap by Hotels
Login / Logout

Bulgaria: The Sweet Taste of the Black Sea

Source: By Adrian Bridge, The Daily Telegraph
Published Date: 07 Nov 2009

Within 10 minutes of getting into the car that is going to take me from the border town of Ruse to the Black Sea resort of Varna, I am reminded of what is still universally considered by Bulgarians to be the single most important date in their history.

Svilen, my driver, doesn't speak much English but he can use a mobile phone. He keys in four digits and passes it my way: 1878. The year the Bulgarians were finally liberated from Ottoman rule.

Forty-five years of communism? Pah! The Bulgarians spent 500 years under what they term the Turkish yoke, and they never let you forget it. What happened in 1989 is all very well, but 1878 is still the year that really matters here: it is how Bulgarians define themselves. It's also sometimes how they excuse themselves. A hotel lift doesn't work? "Ah well, you know we were a very long time under the Turkish yoke"

There are reminders of that Ottoman legacy as we speed away from the border with Romania and get deeper into the lush, sparsely populated countryside of north-east Bulgaria. I spot the occasional minaret and see lorries with Turkish number plates. I catch snatches of music that conjure up the spirit of Asia Minor. This is the last leg of my journey; I am deep into the Balkans and feel I am approaching the edge of Europe the real edge of Europe, not the brutal, barbed wire one that disfigured the continent for so long.

Poor old Bulgaria. Of all the days to have their revolution in 1989, they chose November 10 just one day after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As far as the revolutions of that autumn went, theirs was a fairly modest affair. After growing protests from green pressure groups and trade unions, reform-minded members of the all-powerful Communist Party forced the country's long standing dictator, Todor Zhivkov, to resign and had him arrested. He was charged with inciting racial hatred (against the ethnic Turks) and, later, of embezzling state funds. Within three months the party had given up its leading role and Bulgaria was heading for free elections.

What was happening here was as momentous as everything else going on in the former Eastern Bloc but events in the capital, Sofia, were totally eclipsed by the goings-on in Berlin. Poor Bulgaria: theirs was the revolution that hardly anyone noticed.

The 20 years since have not been easy here, either. The communist-era housing blocks I spot on the way out of Ruse are the most rundown I have seen in the region. Svilen tells me that the introduction of democracy and capitalism was accompanied by widespread corruption, mafia-dominated gangsterism and, for a period, hyperinflation.

There are plenty of people in the country scraping by on the equivalent of 100 a month, he tells me. For older, less enterprising souls, it has been a period of unremitting struggle. Not for them the shiny new shopping malls that flaunt their wares on the outskirts of towns.

But some have profited. Svilen himself, a likeable man in his forties, has built up a successful car hire firm based in Varna, the gateway to the bucket-and-spade budget nirvana known as the "Bulgarian Riviera".

"For me life is better," he says. "But my mum and dad think differently."

I am curious about Varna. A friend who knows Bulgaria well described it as a bit of a dump: an industrial port with not much going for it. Surveys in the country itself, however, suggest it is the place most Bulgarians would choose to live.

I am ready to be surprised. And as it happens, I am, pleasantly. I have arranged to meet an old British friend one of the thousands who have bought properties in Bulgaria at a fish restaurant on the sea front. To get there I have to pass through Varna's outstanding feature the beautifully designed stretch of parkland known as the Sea Gardens, which separates the beach from the main coastal road. It is a mild Friday evening and the gardens are full of people out for a stroll and families enjoying a mini funfair. The gardens have a simplicity and elegance I hadn't expected.

The sea front itself has a cheap and cheerful feel, with bars and restaurants and a late-night club promising karaoke. We drink a couple of beers (1.30 for the two) and order fish fresh from the Black Sea. Over a shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and feta-style white cheese), I am introduced to the pleasures of rakia (a fruit-based schnapps).

My friend, Robert, sings the praises of his adopted country, urging me to extend my stay to take in some of its beautiful mountain scenery, its magnificent monasteries and the unsung charms of a city called Plovdiv (apparently a delightful mixture of Thracian, Byzantine and National Revival wonders). We order another rakia and, as I watch the waves lapping against the sand, I'm tempted.

But first there is Varna to discover.

The Sea Gardens, I learn the next day, were fashioned in the early 20th century ("after the liberation") by the Czech horticulturalist Anton Novak, who is said to have modelled them on the Baroque palace gardens of Schnbrunn and Belvedere in Vienna. That explains the slightly Habsburg, old-Europe feel.

Its tree-lined avenues are popular with friends, lovers and skateboarding teenagers alike. Other attractions include an open-air theatre, an aquarium, a zoo, a planetarium, a bizarre little naval museum and a slightly overblown Monument to the Fighters against Fascism.

Valery, my guide, stops at a relief map of the Black Sea and we reflect on its vast scale (nearly 170,000 square miles) and the fascinating range of places it touches Constansa, Odessa, Sevastopol, Batumi, Istanbul. I get a serious twinge of wanderlust.

Beyond the gardens, Varna is still a working port and in addition to a sea of cranes I spot cargo ships. It lends the beach itself a certain hardness that may not appeal to all holidaymakers (most of whom anyway head further north to the purpose-built resorts of Sunny Beach and Albena). But for an afternoon or a day or two it's fun.

Amid some fairly rough-and-ready communist-era concrete constructions, there are some nice beach cafs and restaurants, and of course the sea itself. (The following morning I take a dip and experience the strange sweetness of the Black Sea it has barely any salt.)

Around the bay, I can just about make out the Chateau Euxinograd, a grand-looking retreat that in its time has been favoured by Bulgarian nobility, leading members of the Politburo (Todor Zhivkov came every summer), visiting heads of state and today surprise, surprise the country's leading politicians.

Valery is keen to show me more of Varna's treasures, and takes me to see the town's ace card: the gold exhibits in the Archaeological Museum. These finely crafted pieces of jewellery and bodily adornments, discovered in 1972, are more than 6,000 years old and are said to be the earliest of their kind in the world.

There is more gold (or gold plate) on the six domes of the town's landmark Cathedral of the Assumption. It is a typically lavish Orthodox affair with ornate stained-glass windows, huge wooden chandeliers and beautifully painted icons (I spot one of St George). It was built in gratitude to the Russian forces that liberated the country from the Turks. "We are very grateful to the Russians for our liberty; very grateful," Valery says.

The Bulgarians who in addition to the Orthodox religion also share the Cyrillic script with the Russians were so grateful that years later they unofficially asked Moscow if they could join the Soviet Union. (Brezhnev said no.)

On the square outside the cathedral, venue for past May Day parades, card-playing men slap down their hands with extraordinary vigour while vendors peddle mini icons and hip flasks bearing the face of Lenin.

The old part of Varna has been well preserved: it has pleasant tree-lined avenues, pedestrianised squares and a slightly Greek, westernised feel.

We press on, taking in the extensive ruins of the Roman baths, the vast bridge over the lake and a quirky little history museum focusing on Varna's Twenties heyday when it was first declared a tourist venue and began staging beauty contests.

The town still has plenty of beauties (and clubs with names such as Moulin Rouge in which many are to be found). I refrain from going down that avenue.

Instead I meet Robert again and we dine at a lively-looking restaurant called The House. It has an authentically Bulgarian feel and delicious food I go for the lamb chops with grilled peppers and yogurt and white cheese. To accompany it we order a bottle of No Man's Land red, produced from grapes grown in what used to be the guarded stretch of land separating Bulgaria from Greece. It is very smooth (Churchill used to enjoy similar wines from nearby Melnik).

It seems fitting to be drinking No Man's Land wine as we toast the tearing down 20 years ago this autumn of the Iron Curtain.

The restaurant is full of chatter and laughter, and there is a general sense of wellbeing. We are probably the only foreigners there. At one point someone gets up and performs an impromptu Balkan dance. He is cheered and applauded wildly.

We drink another toast to good times ahead.

My journey is at an end. Gdansk feels like a long time ago. So does 1989. We've all moved on. It's called travelling.