Bulgaria: Year-Round Destination

Bulgaria — By on April 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm

By David Hughes

Bulgaria stands at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia, at the confluence of a melting pot, bounded by Romania across the Danube to the north; Serbia and Macedonia to the west (whose quarrels in the late 20th century she sensibly avoided); by Greece and Turkey to the south (another set of feuds successfully dodged) and the Black Sea to the east.

Eight million people live among startlingly beautiful and unspoilt scenery from the plains of the Danube to the mountains of Stara Planina, Rila and Rodopi, and then the Black Sea coast – all attractive to visitors in different ways, and generally at bargain prices. Even in the capital, Sofia you can find somewhere to stay for €15 per night, and buy enough to eat for €10 – €12 a day, especially if you experiment among the various markets.

Prepare for getting around by jotting down a few likely place-names, matching Roman and Cyrillic scripts. The Cyrillic alphabet was developed in the First Bulgarian Empire and the majority of signs on streets and shops will invariably use the one you don’t recognise, so it’s wise to give yourself a chance. Don’t rely on locals speaking English: be patient and someone friendly should soon appear and help you…

Summer

Introducing my friends to holidays in Bulgaria, I would always begin in Sofia, absorbing the country and its myriad customs.

The city feels safe, freer from casual street crime than much of Western Europe – but don’t ignore folklore: a handbag seen on its own foretells imminent loss… The streets are uncrowded and the pace of life is always welcoming.

In Sofia, history is all around, even if some of it is the dreary block-architecture of the communist years; there are many other places to enjoy, ancient and modern. I would recommend you wander streets inside the medieval city walls, seeking open-air cafes, markets and vast bazaars. Don’t miss the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its intricate cross-domed basilica holding up a gold plated dome, simply beautiful.

When you come out, search the Alexander Nevsky Square and its surroundings for variegated, cheap flea-markets. Forget those western shops selling at western prices – there are bargains to be had in Bulgaria!  With your snacks enjoy a chilled Boza, a fermented malt drink with low alcohol content, and a slightly acidic sweet flavour, which is definitely best drunk when freshly made or it tastes slightly ‘odd’! Night life in Sofia is generally energetic and friendly: walk around and make your choices – or pick your poison…

Winter

At the start of the year my destination, Bulgaria offered me the cheerful, crowded Sofia Christmas Market, called Kolidariya in Borisova Gradina Park. This runs from late November to the middle of January, so it is open for the Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7 – a good way of extending the western Christmas and New Year.

After the festivities of the market I have been known to enjoy Pamporovo, this time however, I go on to Bansko for the skiing. Bansko is just 160km from Sofia where a standard single room in a three star hotel in April 2011 cost me only €12 per night.

In Bansko, budding daredevils might not find many wild black runs, but for the likes of me… it is enough that the snow quality usually remains high until mid- April, giving me plenty of time after Christmas to save up to go. Lifts and gondolas are being installed all the time, and, for a change, there are already more than 5km of cross country tracks. There have been multi-million euro developments over the last few years, yet it is still best to book ahead through package tours (easily done in Sofia) until the resorts become more adapted to solo travellers, which would help to keep your costs down considerably. Equipment is easily hired, but you bring your own ski-suits.

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