I first visited Bulgaria in 2011 as part of a G Adventures trip from Budapest to Istanbul. I was able to visit cities like Belogradchik, Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. However, I never got to the Black Sea. My agent Stephen Hanselman (who took the photos for this post) and his wife Julia Serebrinsky recently visited the Black Sea and came away with a newfound respect for the country and the region. Here Julia’s story about what she discovered in Bulgaria and why it is not what people expect.
In the aspirational world of international travel, Bulgaria is not a country that gets much respect, not even from its neighbors. In Moscow, where I spent my early childhood, a popular proverb about the former Soviet satellite went something like this: “As a hen is not a bird, Bulgaria is not abroad.”
In other words, lower your expectations prior to landing.
Some things never change. In 2013, when my husband booked a three week summer vacation in Burgas, a port city along the Black Sea Coast of Southeastern Bulgaria, book-ending it with stays in Dublin and Istanbul, I found the reaction of our incredulous American friends tinged with familiar dismissiveness:
“Why Bulgaria?” they asked, picking it out as the oddity on our itinerary.
When it comes to Eastern European destinations, Bulgarian cities like Sofia, Varna, and Burgas do not exude the cultural cool of Prague or Budapest, or the topographical allure of the fashionable Croatian coast. Bulgaria–a country of 7.3 million that shares the edge of Europe’s Southeastern frontier with Turkey, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece — has always been the region’s wallflower; the last time it made international headlines was in July 2012, when a suicide bomber set off an explosion at the Burgas il airport on a bus carrying Israeli tourists, killing seven people and injuring 35.
Bulgaria’s deficient hip quotient is further eroded by the difficulty of getting there from our side of the Atlantic. Without direct flights into any major Bulgarian cities from the New York area, our options of getting to Burgas involved connections through either Dublin, Stockholm, or Istanbul, with long delays and logistical complications. But we were determined to accomplish two tasks. First, to introduce our twin eight year old boys to their Russian family who vacation at the Burgas’s coastal resort town of Pomorie (which translates as “along the sea”) every summer. The second is to leave the kids with the family so my husband and I could enjoy a weekend getaway in Istanbul, which we knew was a scenic four hour drive from downtown Burgas. (Nisikli, a Turkish bus company, daily delivers travelers from Burgas to Istanbul on a comfortable, brand new Mercedes Benz bus for a bargain price of $120 Turkish Lira ($53.00) round trip per person.)
For years my Moscow based Aunt, who owns a small condo along Pomorie’s sliver of beachfront properties, has been cajoling us to join her and our extended family for a leisurely summer vacation. With its access to Black Sea and proximity to Europe’s ancient settlements, Pomorie and other resort cities along the bay of Burgas, have been drawing a smattering of cosmopolitans like her. These are travelers from the sun-deprived countries of Eastern and Western Europe for whom Cote d’Azur, The Amalfi Coast, and the Greek Islands might be out of financial reach, but who still want to partake in the Continental tradition of lengthy summer getaways on the beach. Russians were the last of the Europeans to discover Burgas, and by 2008 they were arriving in droves.
It turns out our own visit to Burgas last year coincided with an end of an era. This past summer, Russian tourism to Bulgaria dropped significantly, falling by some estimates as many as two million visitors short. On the street, this change is being attributed to Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, which, once again, brought the prized Black Sea coastal possession under Russian suzerainty, vying for its citizenry’s hearts and wallets.
I see this unanticipated development as an opportunity for coastal Bulgaria to bring a new wave of tourists. While to Western travelers the Black Sea has never projected the sunny glamour of the more popular Mediterranean, its dry, temperate climate, relatively spare beaches, nature preserves, healing centers, ancient archeological treasures and a favorable currency exchange (66 cents to one Bulgarian lev) provide a clear alternative to the more expensive and congested Eurozone.
SNAPSHOTS FROM THE LAND OF SPARTACUS
In the pre Greek civilization, the bay of Burgas formed what became known as Thracian Fields. Coveted for its rich soil, the land drew settlers who over centuries honed their agricultural skills, sophisticated trade-oriented practices, and fearsome warrior culture. (The most famous Thracian in history is Spartacus, Rome’s legendary gladiator, played on the big screen by the likes of Kirk Douglas and Russell Crowe.) Having been subjected to the procession of Empires—Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman before it became part of the Bulgarian kingdom—the region stands at the crossroads of great civilizations whose signature architecture, culinary culture, and customs still prevail. The ancient towns of Nessebur and Sozopol, Burgas’s crown jewels whose earliest settlements date back to the Bronze Age, display impressively preserved Roman ruins, Byzantine fortifications, and medieval churches that survived the Ottoman rule. But even the more recently developed areas of Burgas offer a distinctive charm, which comes, in part, from the tension between the region’s Hellenic earthy past, its kitschy post-Soviet present, and an indeterminate future.
Our first stop was in Pomorie’s Old City, a pre-war district whose central cobblestone promenade is lined with tourist shops selling beautiful local ceramics and linen, cheesy boutiques hawking knock off designer clothes, and countless vendors showcasing exceptional produce. Its makeshift amusement park and nightly outdoor opera performances cater to vacationing families, but slightly off the beaten path one can find little treasures—specs of medieval architecture, a local fisherman dock, and my personal favorite, the elegant Grand Hotel Pomorie. It’s lackluster 1970s exterior conceals a tasteful old world interior, painted in warm, languid hues, decorated with cozy antique furniture, and threaded with a labyrinth of quiet nooks. Balneo, the hotel’s world class spa, is located a short walk along a pedestrian bridge that opens up to a breezy panorama of cafes, bars, and restaurants along the beach. It is the spa that draws a chunk of Bulgaria’s medical tourism. With its extensive menu of healing treatments, it offers the famously curative mud from the banks of Pomorie’s salt lake, rumored to alleviate bone ailments, muscular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Pomorie’s Old City is a five minute taxi ride away from the recently developed Helios Beach, on the road that cuts through dodgy residential and vacation properties that predate the tourist spike. They still project their woeful Soviet-era neglect, surrounded by dusty no man’s land of littered beaches, an occasional food kiosk, and ghostly construction sights. (All construction comes to a halt in Pomorie during the high season between May and October so as not to disturb the vacationers.) The Monastery of St. George located on Knyz’ Boris Street is a lovely remnant of the main drag’s Byzantine past, where you can still catch a buggy ride operated by chain-smoking Roma coachmen who test their limited knowledge of English and Russian on unsuspecting passersby. (We learned the hard way to negotiate rates in advance; the pricing for this experience is as arbitrary as it is excessive, subject to the coachman’s estimate of any given tourist’s gullibility.)
BURGAS IS A BOX OF CHOCOLATES; YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GONNA GET
Pomorie’s transition from a sleepy fishing community connected by gravel roads and spotty eateries into a bustling summer resort was predictably mixed. Financial opportunities ultimately prevailed over whatever reservations the local population that services tourists might have experienced; the addition of paved roads, bike lanes, and rows of real estate developments in progress suggest that the tourist industry has been accepted–if not embraced–as the future.
Our home base was at Sunset Resort, a compilation of six high rise hotel buildings and standalone Roman-style family villas that hug the seashore and dominate the skyline. Overtly grandiose, the buildings, named after the letters of the Greek alphabet, are meant to evoke the aura of Western chic, capturing, inadvertently, both the ambitious reach and the paucity of imagination behind the project.
Designed to accommodate Olympic-size crowds, Sigma, the largest structure where we lived, curved around a swath of sand colored marble, dividing this section of the beachfront into three separate pool areas, the central and largest one pivoting around a giant water slide. A slew of restaurants scattered around the complex—La Boheme, Venezia, Asia, and Vienna–capture the mundane range and the unequivocal origin of their culinary offerings. They run on erratic schedules, providing inexpensive (by Western currency standards), selection of dishes on the predictably generic menus. But the thin, dry Balkan air wafting through the arched outdoor patios is steady and enchanting enough to compensate for such shortcomings.
It didn’t take long for us to notice the absence of English speaking tourists, and only a smidgeon of French and Scandinavian languages could be heard through the chorus of Slavic dialects and German. Yet, complete with a bowling alley, outdoors performance stage, and a permanently parked Maserati bearing the license plates of the Czech Republic and rumored to belong to the hotel’s owner, Sunset Resort is unabashedly global in intent. On the beach, costumed Disney and Pixar characters stroll the property and take pictures with giddy kids. There one can hear the deafening music from a Zumba class, where bikini clad adolescent girls and their mothers dance, under the searing sun, out of sync with their rhythmically challenged instructor. All this is a reminder that Pomorie is no longer an obscure satellite state of a larger empire.
The staff, who speak rudimentary Russian and English but have a preference for the latter, are not necessarily eager to please in any language. A request for directions or clarification evokes monochromatic response such as “downstairs” or “upstairs” delivered with a mix of Soviet style devil-may-care disregard, signaling unmistakably that Bulgaria’s hospitality industry is still in its infancy. The all-inclusive dining area has all the brisk hospitality and rude service of a cold war era cafeteria I recall from my childhood behind the Iron Curtain. On the beach, towels are released with documentation and a stern warning about return. The fee for losing a towel is 50 levs, an equivalent of a light dinner for five at a restaurant in Pomorie’s classier Old City. While the towels have clearly seen better days, theft still occurs with frequency sufficient enough to propel the policy.
Still, staying there was a bargain. The spacious top floor, two bedroom apartment we rented cost about $200 per night. We booked the apartment months in advance and received a 25 percent discount through KITT, a tourist agency based in Sofia and Varna. The apartment’s American style accommodation included carpeted bedrooms, garage sale art, a slick but poorly equipped kitchenette, and a vast wraparound balcony offering spectacular views of the Black Sea and surrounding resorts that would be better enjoyed in a comfortable chaise instead of two rickety plastic chairs and a table we were offered.
It is from this terrace that I discovered Victoria Hotel and its inconspicuous but glorious spa and beauty Salon. One of the best birthday presents I ever received was a gift certificate from my parents that redeemed its services, an exquisite selection ranging from a luxurious Turkish bath to the majesty of the Balkan Massage, performed with divine efficiency and ruthlessness by migrant workers from Asian countries. I emerged from the spa with what felt like newly procured limbs—repaired, freshly rinsed, and reassembled for a new adventure.
SOMETIMES, A SALAD IS NOT JUST A SALAD…
At a distance bulgaria may not seem like a foodie destination, but it should be, maybe not for restaurant snobs (restaurants are a hit and miss), but definitely for a passionate home cook. The women in my family cook for pleasure, even when we travel, so shopping at a local market is an essential immersion experience. My aunt’s promise of Pomorie’s delicious, organic produce, a range of uniquely Bulgarian dairy products, and local seafood was the siren call I couldn’t resist.
It is impossible to overestimate the purity and taste of Bulgarian fruit and vegetables in summer without being a touch fetishistic. The three staples—bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers—are standouts. The bell pepper may be Bulgaria’s national vegetable with at least twelve unique varieties that are grilled, roasted, preserved, consumed fresh, baked, stuffed, and sauced. Tomatoes (they only bother selling the heirloom variety), come in extraordinary range of sweetness and shades of color, from red and pink to orange and yellow; they are too good to be mixed with any vegetable, unless it is local seedless cucumbers which carry a woodsy aroma and the crunchy snap that make our treasured seasonal Kirbys and expensive, long English cucumbers seem limb and sorrowful in contrast. Peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are a ubiquitous presence at the Bulgarian table in summertime and with a dash of oil and the addition of brinza, (Bulgarian feta, but don’t call it that), offer lovely variations served up mezza style.
Bulgarians take great pride in their plantings, so even the most humble of homes conceal lush, meticulously kept up vegetable beds out of which emerge the most extraordinary locally inspired concoctions. There is the unforgettable Lutenitza—a smoky tapenade of roasted peppers, tomato puree, carrot, and potato reduction punctuated with a dash of paprika. A Bulgarian friend prepared an excellent Torator—chilled, hand-diced cucumber soup with garlic, mint, kislo mliako (Bulgarian buttermilk, but don’t call it that) diluted with mineral water and lemon.
Beyond salad ingredients, Bulgaria’s culinary heritage bristles with the legacy of Mediterranean and Turkish influences that have drawn on the natural bounty of its land and sea. I recognized Turkey in the juicy meatiness of kibabchi (skewered ground beef), the Greek inflection in the Shopsin salad (a Thracian salad which became Greek with the addition of olives), and the echoes of Mediterranean aromas in the fish grilled on the spot or flash fried in a thin layer of batter to crispy perfection. The most satisfying and least expensive meals in Pomorie can be found at food kiosks where gooey cheese stuffed puff pastry, pillowy beignets (ponchiki), and thin crust pizzas are fresh and pungent and can be purchased for an equivalent of two to three dollars.
Neighborhood cafes, hidden, due to the idiosyncratic zoning practices on the sides or in the courtyards of residential buildings, were another discovery. These cafes, usually family owned, project the comfort of traditional taverna and the functionality of a Caribbean lalo where locals and repeat summer vacationers take their daily meals consisting of predictably delicious range of fish, meat, and vegetables.
We were fortunate to have been guided through the neighborhoods of Pomorie by long term residents who know these out of the way spots, backyard gardens, and menus well. Under the soft evening breeze we indulged in specialties like lavrak, a branzino served whole, and tsa tsa, tiny fried sprats, tender and intense when washed down with the excellent Kamenitsa beer. The experience reminded me of California sand dabs and sardines of Venice. At another neighborhood restaurant, Siren on Morska Street, we explored classic rustic fare in the form of bob, a stew reminiscent of Tuscan bean soup served with juicy veal sausage with a choice of homemade chile sauce or garlic pistou on top. Sache, a fajita like dish of meat and vegetables sizzled in a cast iron pan that’s been heated to blistering temperature on the grill and removed for the cooking process, became another favorite.
While Thracian fields have traditionally provided welcome soil and climate for wine grapes, most of the local wines we sampled were disappointing, with an exception of selections at Izbata, a neighborhood restaurant we stumbled into in the last days of our trip. Built in the 1930s, this outdoor restaurant that is now part of Victoria Hotel (where my unforgettable spa moment took place) is covered by a giant canopy with trellises of grape clusters hanging over every table. Its extensive list of local and highly regarded dry white wines, with excellent Savignon Blanc and Pinot Gris varieties, almost overshadowed the temptation of shish and sache that are the specialties of the house.
IN TWO COASTAL VILLAGES, TREASURES FROM ANCIENT GREECE, ROME, BYZANTIUM AND THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE ABOUND
If pomorie is an uneasy mix of kitsch and old world refinement, the ancient coastal towns of Nessebur and Sozopol, located on the opposite ends of the Burgas bay’s horseshoe, are the region’s lasting legacy, two destinations not to be missed.
Traveling south from Pomorie to Sozopol is a steady bus ride along a 35 kilometer stretch of Thracian fields that in late July bloom with sunflowers. We took a break at a conspicuous construction site cloistered on an open farm field, a castle ornamented by an elaborate network of steeples and arches that enclose a patchwork of gardens, vineyards, and ponds. At first glance, the structure may recall Camelot, a Disney movie set, a long abandoned Ottoman fort, or, possibly, freestanding walls of Dracula’s castle.
This embodiment of Slavic Romanticism, called, nostalgically “In Love with the Wind”, carries the official title of The Ravadinovo Castle. The project, 18 years in the making, was slated to house a statue of Spartacus and pay tribute to Bulgaria’s heroic past. The property’s owner and developer is Georgi Tumpalov, a Bulgarian athlete turned real estate tycoon who cordoned off an a 20,000-40,000 square meter reserve to house a winery, ponds filled with black and white swans, a somewhat intimidating collection of bee hives, wine cellars in the style of Gothic dungeons, and exotic birds which tourists can enjoy for the modest entrance fee of 6 levs (Less than four dollars, which happens to be the price of two respectably made cappuccinos at Pomorie’s Sunset Resort). The castle proudly offers forgettable house wine, delicious local jams, and honey which is, unfortunately, accompanied by rather aggressive swarm of bees. The premises are campy enough to make you embarrassed to admit that it is so pretty and tranquil you would visit again in a heartbeat.
It almost prepared us for the spectacular natural, architectural, and archeological wonder of Sozopol, the ancient town on the peninsula’s rocky shore founded by Greek colonists in 5th century B.C. as Apollonia. The city fell to Rome in 72 b.c, become part of the Byzantine Empire in 330 A.D. and was one of the earliest cities in Eastern Europe to be Christianized. At the entrance to the Sozopol a modest Church of St. Cyril and his brother Methodius commemorates the Christian missionaries who brought the Cyrillic alphabet and liturgy to the pagan Slavs in the Balkans that was to spread north into Russia. A home to well-preserved Hellenic, Roman, and Ottoman structures, Sozopol remains an active site for digs. In 2010, a team of archeologists uncovered, among the ruins of a medieval church on a nearby island, six bones that DNA evidence suggests might have belonged to St. John the Baptist.
Sozopol’s elevation and the layout of the narrow cobbled streets recall the medieval cities of Western Europe like Assisi in Italy or Sintra in Portugal, but the architecture is distinctly Black Sea. Built with practical consideration for energy efficiency, the houses rest on stone foundation with sun dried brick walls and the living space is flared out by external wood boarding. The buildings house countless antique shops and art galleries offering everything from World War Two memorabilia and orthodox Christian iconography to the elegant ceramic tea and coffee sets. Sozopol’s bohemian flair and past are commemorated annually during Sozopol Apollonia Arts Festival, one of the largest and more significant Bulgarian performance and visual arts expos that is held every summer.
To escape tour groups we walked along the fortification wall of a medieval castle, accidently slipping into a hideaway that turned out to be the outdoor restaurant of the charming Villi Hotel. Offering breathtaking views of the bay and excellent Turkish coffee, the restaurant’s sprawling terrace, layered under a cloudless azure sky, recalled the famed Mediterranean shores of Italy and France.
On a clear day, Sozopol offers a distant shimmering view of Nessebur, Burgas’s other ancient city, and lurking behind it, the newly developed resort of Sunny Beach. Both are vastly different but popular destinations north of Pomorie. Sunny Beach is what South Beach is to Miami, a hotspot bustling with upscale shops, gaudy restaurants, and fashionista-packed nightclubs. But we chose, as our final outing, a trip to Nessebur, a World Heritage Site that unfolds beyond the remnants of a Byzantine fortress wall at peninsula’s isthmus.
At the main entrance to what was once a thriving Greek colonial outpost, an elderly bagpiper greets visitors with a soothing hum of his instrument. Like Sozopol, Nessebur’s signature Byzantine churches dot its narrow streets. We were the only visitors at the Orthodox Church of Sveti Stefana (St. Stephen’s Cathedral; see pictures at end) which dates to the 11th century. Its recently renovated Three Knave Basillica showcases exceptionally preserved iconography of Mary of Nazareth and the Apostles. When I return to Nessebur, I’ll make sure to book a reservation at St. Stefan, an understated boutique hotel on Ribarska Street that is steps away from the Church and Nessebur’s bustling harbor. There, a profusion of fishing boats seem to come out of a Turner painting and outdoor grills exude the crackle and aroma of the succulent meals the locals prepare throughout the evening from the catch of the day.
Inner streets of Nessebur contain countless little shops of highly refined specialties, such as ceramics of elegantly cubist design in colors of indigo and gold. Handmade needlepoint lace—a Slavic stepsister to Belgian lace that adorns Bulgarian clothes–is offered in bulk as are the variations of embroidered coarse linen that distinguishes locally made tablecloths, runners, napkins, and curtains. High end fabric shops stocked with decorative tapestries, wool and leather goods come in infinite variety. (A variation on sheepskin slippers would give Uggs a run for their money).
The intimacy and restraint of Nessebur reminded me of textile and fabric shops in Norcia, Italy, where shopkeepers would lead me to the perfect tablecloth without having to exchange a word. In Nessebur—as in Sozopol–these goods aren’t cheap; still, they are a bargain compared to Antwerp, Europe’s more refined mecca for linen and lace. Bargains, however, can be found along Messabria, Nessebur’s main artery where the local artisans ply their wares, some better than others, to throngs of tourists. We took a long stroll after a lovely dinner of freshest blue fish at Cacadua, one of many outdoor restaurants on Ivan Alexander Street, and bought a miniature watercolor impression of the spot from a bespectacled painter whose paintings captured the sumptuousness and pride of Nessebur with deliberate understatement. He was a slight, quiet man, perhaps in his early 40s, who recalled wistfully a short visit to New York City in his youth. His hospitality emitted a kind of regard and longing for America I haven’t seen in Western Europe in decades, so full of longing and good will. I knew then and there that I would return to Bulgaria, sooner rather than later.
Julia Serebrinsky is a freelance writer and book editor. You can reach her on Twitter at @jserebrinsky