It's one of Europe's most diverse areas in terms of scenery, yet it barely registers on the continent's travel radar. So much the better for those who do venture over its borders, for here you'll be drawn undisturbed down the tiny streets of Sofia, enticed up to the top of remote peaks and thrown into the glorious Black Sea when life on land becomes too hot.Roman history
Greek, Thracian, Ottoman, the influence of many passing civilisations is etched into the Bulgarian landscape, but none so deeply as that of the Romans. Capital Sofia has its fair share of ruins, whilst Plovdiv's beautifully preserved Roman theatre and stadium are still used for plays and concerts. Dip into Varna and you'll find Roman baths which constitute the biggest historical find in the country.Urban activity
From Sofia, with its mish-mash of dynamic streets, East-meets-West feel and wonderfully straight-collared communist architecture, to the old medieval capital of Veliko Tarnovo buried high in the mountains; Bulgaria has a whole host of urban experiences to offer. Try out the seaside towns of Varna and Burgas before diving back inland to see ancient Plovdiv.Mountains, mountains, mountains
Rhodope Mountains as they slope towards Greece, you'll find natural marble bridges, formed by years of erosion.Mountainside monasteries
It would be difficult, nay impossible, to take a trip to Bulgaria and not visit one of its 160 monasteries. Mostly situated high in the mountains, only very few are now home to monks and have been left in nature's capable hands for years. But those that live on offer an incredible glimpse into the past, when monasteries were centres for Bulgarian thinking, culture and art. The most famous of all is the Rila Monastery, founded in AD 927 by hermit monk Ivan Rilski. Though summer weekends bring hordes of visitors to Rila, many of the country's lesser known monasteries, such as Sokolski and Oustremski, offer a little more tranquillity.Black Sea beauty
With 250 miles of Black Sea coast to its name, there's no need to be fighting for space on Bulgaria's beaches. Large tourist resorts it may have but you can equally find yourself entirely alone on swathes of sandy beaches or looking out over the water from a traditional seaside town. Even if you're staying in one of the large coastal cities, it's easy to escape the urban bustle and head a couple of minutes out of town in search of tranquillity.
Surface area : 110913.0 km2
Population : 7400000 inhabitants
If you bring back one thing from Bulgaria, make it rose oil from the country's incredible Rose Valley. Here, over 70 percent of the world's rose oil is produced.
Bulgarian cuisine is a mixture of Slavic and Mediterranean influences. Its diversity reflects the agricultural wealth of the country. To that end, you'll find plenty of vegetables, soups (tarator), and particularly salads (chopska). But never fear meat-eaters, there are also several traditional meat dishes: kavarma, kebabs of oriental origin, suckling pig, delicious roast lamb and sausages flavoured with different kinds of herbs. The fish is mostly freshwater (trout, carp, pikeperch); saltwater fish are only cooked on the coast of the Black Sea.
For those with a sweeter tooth, head straight to the nearest bakery, all of which are teeming with pastries and doughnuts. Fresh or curdled milk is used for various dishes, and no visit is complete without a taste of the famous Bulgarian yogurt.
As regards drinks, numerous brandies are consumed as aperitifs (rakiya or mastica). Bulgaria has a large range of delicious white (misket, dimiat, madara) and red (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, mavrud, gamza) wines.
Popular culture is very much alive in Bulgaria. In terms of traditional music, you'll often hear the sublime sound of feminine voices singing "a capella", a truly unforgettable experience.
In the countryside, numerous seasonal traditions are celebrated, such as the arrival of the springtime which gives locals the opportunity to exchange small charms called "martenitsas". When the first bloom or sapling of the spring is seen, they will tie the charms onto the branches as a sign of welcome. In certain remote villages in the Strandja hills, the arrival of summer is celebrated by dancing on hot coals.
At Christmas, young children often do the rounds of the houses, singing hymns. Finally, it's good to note that the Bulgarians do the opposite of us in terms of nodding. They shake their head from side to side to say "yes", and they nod it forwards and backwards to say "no".
Bulgaria's winning attraction is that it remains an ideal destination all year round. In winter, take to the country's ski slopes at Borovets and Vitosha, near to Sofia, Pamporovo, near to Plovdiv, or the newly opened Bankso a little further to the South. Although the downhill ski runs are not as good as they are in the Alps, the resorts often have magnificent cross country skiing.
In the springtime, the countryside is ideal for a cultural tour to discover the monasteries, combined with an excursion to the valley of the Roses, an extensive area of rose cultivation where roughly 70 percent of the world's rose oil is produced. Then in summer, the Black Sea's sandy beaches await holidaymakers in search of relaxation. Summertime brings thousands of tourists to Bulgaria's beach resorts. If you want a cheap place to chill in the sun, look no further than Albena and Varna, both of which combine resorts and great city centres teaming with bars, restaurants and big sandy beaches. If you're looking for somewhere quieter, try the villages of Borgas and the UNESCO-recognised Nessebar.
If you've planned a visit to the capital, a real mix of tradition and modernity awaits you. Don't miss the churches of Svéta Nédélya and Boyana, as well as the city's two cathedrals - Alexandre-Nevski (orthodox) and Saint-Sofia, the city's second oldest church. Mount Vitosha also gives great views out onto the city.
Whatever time of year you choose, consider staying in local accommodation or renting private lodgings. This can often offer a much nicer package than one of the large resorts, as well as being better value for money.
The seaside is relatively easy to reach as the two big cities on the coastline - Varna and Burgas - have airports and are connected to Sofia by highway, train and buses. Additionally, EasyJet, Ryanair and WizzAir fly to Bulgaria and flights to Burgas won't cost you more than £150 during high season. Once there, arguably the best way of discovering the area is by car since distances are short and views are diverse.
Sunny Beach is probably the best known spot on the seaside. It is also known in Bulgaria as the Balkan's party capital, and there's a reason why! The beach is vast enough to host a vast number of international tourists, the bars are cheap and restaurants offer everything from a proper English breakfast to traditional Bulgarian yogurt desserts. The resort has its own festival, too. Cacao Beach Festival takes place every weekend of July and August, with non-stop music on the beach from sunset to sunrise.
But if you want to avoid all the craziness around Sunny Beach and Nessebar and indulge in a real luxurious getaway without breaking the bank, book a hotel in St. Vlas. The two towns are connected by bus but Sveti Vlas is much calmer and offers better accommodation. Here, you can get an all-inclusive five star hotel deal including the spa for just £100 for two per night.
The real Bulgarian treasures lie elsewhere. In Varna - the Bulgarian sea capital - you'll find a vibrant city where the beer is less than a pound and the seafood is finger-licking good. The Necropolis is the oldest gold treasure in the world, dating from 6th millennium BC. The artefacts are normally kept in the Varna Archaeological Museum and often travel around the country so check with the museum before you visit.
While in Varna also check out the Kamchia biosphere reserve. The reserve protects vast forests and dunes, whilst the beach where the Kamchia River feeds into the sea is beautifully untouched and the water is stunningly blue.
Another spot worth visiting and accessible from Varna is Kaliakra Nature Reserve. The reserve shelters fragile wetlands, 100 remote caves and over 300 species of birds. The dramatic coast in the area is steep with vertical cliffs diving into the waters of the Black Sea. Kaliakra is a perfect spot for catching the sunset. Keep your eyes open for the baby dolphins that will come to enjoy the first rays of sun with you. Look out for ghosts, as a local legend says that 40 Bulgarian girls once tied their hair together and jumped into the sea to avoid being captured by Ottomans.
If you decide to go south of Sunny Beach, your first stop should be Burgas. Burgas is a cosmopolitan seaside city that offers sandy beaches to relax on, beautiful botanical gardens to stroll through and good, good food all day long. Whether you go to one of the small patisseries and buy yourself a banichka (a traditional Bulgarian pastry usually filled with white cheese) or get a dinner of shopska salad and seafood (mussels and baby-squid around here are very fresh and tender), Burgas' cuisine won't disappoint you. If the heat becomes too much, get yourself a cold yogurt covered with jam and thanks us later.
A half-hour drive south of Burgas will take you to another fantastic little town with a long history - Sozopol. Similiarly to Nessebar, ancient Sozopol's charm lies in the 28-centuries-old buildings guarding tiny rocky streets and overlooking the beautiful Black Sea. If you're looking for a luxurious place to stay, Sozopol's New Town has many to offer and all of them within walking distance from the beach. The other good option for accommodation close by is Zlatnata Ribka camping area (Gold Fish).
To really be alone next to the sea, take a trip to Varvara. Locals will probably not speak English, but your best option for accommodation around here is homestaying. If you manage to convince a local grandma , for around £5 a night you'll be rewarded with the breathtaking landscape of Varvara's rugged coastline and a gorgeous breakfast consisting of mekitsi (another traditional Bulgarian pastry) and airian (a cold drink of mixed water and yogurt). We promise you no other breakfast tastes better.
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