This time last year I was discovering the hidden gems of Bulgaria with my Bulgarian best friend.
Coming from the UK, I think a lot of my preconceptions of Bulgaria were besieged by our rapport with Eastern European countries and how the countries of Eastern Europe are very much seen as ‘developing’ in the eyes of major Western European powers. Bulgaria defied this expectation however; everything from the architecture, cobbled roads, outdoor ancient theatres, breath-taking waterfalls and plentiful ruins made it just as good a contestant for a centre of culture and history as Rome or Paris . It’s no wonder that Plovdiv (along with the Italian city of Matera) have been designated by the EU Culture Ministers, the 2019 European Capitals of Cultures.
My trip started with a more touristy side to Bulgaria’s party capital: Sunny beach. It is not called sunny beach for no reason, the sun was scorching hot, generally reaching as high as 40 celsius during the day and if cooling down at all during the night, only to maintain its dense, humid air. Sunny beach is the perfect tourist scene if you’re looking for a twist on your typical Magaluf holiday or looking for more of a ‘lads on tour’ type holiday with night clubs, bars and restaurants littered on every avenue.
We stayed at a hotel called Summer Breeze. It is a perfect location if you do not want to be completely emerged into the hustle and bustle of the party scene as it’s only about 10-15 minutes walking distance to the central part of sunny beach and of course, the beach itself. It also has its own outdoor swimming pool which is great if you want to avoid the swarms of people sunbathing at the beach and have a bit of quiet time.
I have to say something which I have noticed as a reoccurring theme in European countries in general, is that you are never rushed to pay for anything. We did not in fact pay for our room until the next morning when we had settled in. This hospitality is something, which I find is unfortunately, generally lacking in the UK where you most definitely have to pay the price before receiving a service or good.
We spent two nights/ three days at sunny beach and spent most of the daytime at the beach, eating out at restaurants (Condor) and clubbing (The Corner) during the night. This was my first experience at a ‘silent’ disco style club. Whilst there was music playing aloud, we also had the option to listen to individual music stations with our own wireless headphones. There was no entry fee and there were countless deals on both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, so if you’ve never been to a silent disco I would recommend it. A little disclaimer, this rooftop bar had all the glitz and glamour associated with sunny beach with semi nude women dancing on the tables so if this isn’t your cup of tea you might want to pass.
If you’re not one for clubbing and like me you prefer to explore the more cultural aspects of a country then do not fret– there is much to do! On our way back to Pazardzhik (Teodora’ hometown) we stopped off at a place called Nessebar. This beautiful town is steeped with history and is most definitely reflected in the church ruins, which appear on also every street. The place is charming, with the natural blend and transition from old to new. The tourist market stalls do not at all overpower the sense of preserved sacred history, and the town is unapologetically non-westernised which is refreshing, with the businesses/ restaurants here being all locally run.
Speaking of churches, we also visited a little mountainous community called Bachkovo, were we look a little pilgrimage to a very traditionally conserved Orthdox church. The attention to detail and vibrant colours of the fresco was so delicate and yet exquisite, I have never seen anything like it before. I could not help and compare this humble art piece to the grandiose décor of the Vatican. For me personally, the unassuming embellishment of this church, beautiful lit by candle light left a profound impression on me and I believe it would be hard not to feel inspired- religious or not. Modest clothing is required to enter, however if you are in shorts/ bare shoulders they do provide a skirt and shawl to cover up.
If you’re in Bachkovo, it’s also worth the trip to see its waterfall in the Western Rhodopes part. The walk comprises of beautiful scenery and more church ruins and the area is suitable for a picnic with benches and tables also provided.
Back in Pazardzhik, I began to feel at home with its own town centre and even familiar shops (Lidil) just around the corner. We went to my first park/zoo hybrid, which could easily have passed as a small-scale amusement park with life size statues of Disney princesses, playgrounds, ice cream stores and little cafes throughout the complex. We also went to a couple of bars, all of which were clearly decorated and styled with flair. One of which we went to was called paradise, which had a running theme, as I am sure you can guess, of a tropical paradise.
I also attended my first Orthdox service at Pazardzhik at the Sveta Bogoroditsa; the church where my best friend was christened. It was so interesting and different to any services I’ve been to from other Christian domains (catholic/ Methodist/ evangelical/ church of England). The service was conducted with everyone standing up, literally, wherever they wanted and again, the church was decorated in a very intricate, yet unpretentious manner.
Our next stop was Plovdiv. We spent a day there with Teodora’s cousin exploring the city and all its trinkets. Although this is a more commercialised and touristy region, the city still maintained it’s strong-rooted heritage with street art works, an ancient Roman outdoor theatre (where we attend Verdi’s Aida) and the mélange of both Christian and Islamic influence. If you’re looking for a town immersed in history, both difficult and beautiful, then definitely add this to your list.
The food in Bulgaria was so cheap- you can live like a king just on very little spending money. One lunchtime we went to a local restaurant (Tango) and I ordered a chicken soup which was 5 levs- the equivalent of 2 British pounds! I also had my first facial, for only 40 levs (£17) . Whilst this may seem like a dream come true, remember to sober yourself with the fact that yes, as a tourist this is high-living and luxurious, but for residents who live there, life is still expensive. My friend gave me an insight into the average salary being circa 500-600 levs a month, with which of course rent/ bills have to be paid- so that 5 lev soup might seem a bit pricey now. That said, I did not get a sense of this country being drowned in debt as we are constantly seen to be told by British news (and maybe that’s because I don’t speak the language and so couldn’t comprehend the gloomy news reports on the ‘failed’ economy), people still seemed to be consuming- going out to bars and restaurants.
A thought, which might not be important or applicable for all of you, but you might still be interested to know nevertheless, is how are black people treated there? Well, I don’t recall seeing many (if not any black people) around. That said, no one stopped to stare when they saw me–bearing in mind I am mixed race. There were other ethnic groups however in the region I was staying, namely Romanians, whom I was informed, had a slippery-slope relationship with Bulgarians. They were generally seen as being ‘gypsy’, which I think has a lot to do with cultural discrepancy, especially in the way they dress and perhaps even in the way they congress. I did not feel threatened at any point however, for being either a woman, black or muslim.
Bulgaria is full of beauties that will most definitely captivate you. I was even allured by a tv series called Medcezir, which with the help of my friend translating, I became hooked on- albeit it is originally a Turkish series.
I unfortunately didn’t make it to my namesake city; the capital Sofia, but Bulgaria is a country which deserves to be undiscovered, one breathtaking moment at a time- I definitely have a reason to go back!