Bulgaria ancient treasures, current events and great value

By | Category: Travel destinations

Neil Rioch and Hristo Stoichkov - not that I'm starstruck!

Forget about politics and the inconclusive General Election on May 12, Bulgaria is in the news for much more positive reasons. They have just hosted their first major golf championship: a leg of the Volvo world match play tournament at the new amazing Thracian Cliffs course. And there’s an Aston Villa charity match near Sofia on May 26 followed by traditional afternoon tea at the British Embassy.

Bulgaria is a most friendly place and excellent value. Based on the present rate of exchange (43 pence buys one Lev) the sterling equivalent for main courses in good quality bistro restaurants is £5, wine £6 to £7 and taxis in the capital Sofia are less than half London prices. Take euros if you want to take cash as only the banks or casinos change sterling.


Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

There’s a great feeling of space in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. You do feel as though you are in Eastern Europe, as opposed to Central Europe. There are strong Russian influences with orthodox churches, hundreds of repro souvenir icons, furry hats with Red Star badges and the high goose stepping style of the palace guards. The impressive Alexander Nevsky is one of the largest Orthodox Cathedrals and was built in memory of Russian casualties in the Turkish Liberation War (1877-1878).

But there are influences other than Russian. Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. Reminders of the Turks are everywhere from fountains in tiled courtyards to substantial mosques converted to galleries and museums.

Getting around Sofia is easy. A good bus exists, there is a small underground system and there are free walking tours, lasting about two hours, with English speaking guides from a non-profit cultural organisation. For those, just turn up at 11am or 6pm outside the Palace of Justice. Their website lists the 35 or so key sites in Sofia and some suggestions for places to eat. We found that the smaller cafes and wine bars were more fun and you get a pretty good dinner with drinks for under around 600 Levs. A few words about about nightspots – take on the spot advice, avoid the places with touts (as usual) and you may have to put up with rather unsmiling security chaps. Maybe they’ve had to deal with English speaking stag parties or even Russian stags! By the way, bouncers apart, English is spoken everywhere and many seem have been to London for holiday or weekend.

For those who want to shop or just lounge in a café you should head to Vitosha Boulevard. This is not just a shopping street but is said to be the most stylish place in Bulgaria. It’s had several re-designs as well as a name change. Bags of style, bags of handbags it’s like a different planet to the world of the bulky bouncers. But be prepared to pay London prices for a cocktail.

Balchik and Queen Maria’s castle and gardens

Queen Maria's chapel in Balchik

If you are on more than a city break and have time head to the north east corner of Bulgaria to Balchik on the Black Sea. The main attraction, 400,000 people visit it every year, is the palace and gardens completed in the 1920’s by Queen Maria of Romania – just before Balchik was ceded to Bulgaria. Born in Kent, she was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s son Albert and his wife Marie who was the daughter of Czar Alexander II of Russia. Maria was one of the most photographed of royalty at the time and, for photographers, there’s an interesting collection of early 20th century studio work and over 200 images on this link http://bit.ly/120dxLl.

Maria embraced all religions and, extraordinarily, the gardens’ design and themes successfully combine the whole gamut of Balkan cultures: Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Christian. The palace has minaret on top and there are chapels in the gardens together with waterfalls, wonderful sea views and the use of hedges and walls to cool plants in the Summer and protect in the Winter. Part of the palace is a museum and, of course, it has Turkish steam rooms.

Varna. Golden sands and golden treasure

Just North of Balchik the seaside resort of Varna has one of longest beaches on the Black Sea coast known as the red Riviera under the Soviets. There is hardly any tide there and, currently, there are very good packaged holiday deals available.

Originally a Thracian settlement it was later a Roman resort and the public baths are still standing. What is unique about Varna, housed in the Archaeological Museum, is the world’s oldest recorded collection of gold coin and jewellery unearthed from the Varna Necropolis in 1972 and dated 4,600 BC.

Bulgarian wine and Rakia

Those who remember the early 80’s will recall Bulgaria’s reputation for well-made, good value red wine and for a time they were the world’s second largest exporters. Their wine industry was privatised in 1991 and is gradually building up with Russia as the main export market. To whet your palate before going, checking the web for UK supermarket offers and a brand to look out for is River Rock for around a fiver.

Rakia is a tasty Bulgarian digestif made from distilled fruits according to the area which could include apricots, figs, peaches and pears. It’s worth bringing some back. You’ll even find, in the museum at Maria’s palace in Balchik, a pressing device to make Rakia from rose petals.

Thracian Cliffs

A wrong drive and you swim to retrieve your ball

For some years Bulgaria has been building up ski resorts so that it offers an inexpensive option to many well-known resorts. But in recent years they have also invested in golf tourism. Just South of Varna there is a course at Thracian Cliffs which Gary Player commented, “you will not find a golf course like this anywhere else on the planet.” Well he would, wouldn’t he as he designed it! However, it is exceptional and set into the cliffs so it is similar to a links course and has outstanding views across the sea. There is an island tee across to a fairway below the cliffs but the wind and the Black Sea can claim a lot of balls if you are having an off day. The quality of the course attracted the Volvo world match play tournament this year in which Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium hit a drive into a toilet – one hazard Gary Player had not designed Colsaerts expressed gratitude that he was allowed to drop the ball outside the building and not in a cubicle!

Footballers’ corner

I had two coincidental encounters on this visit of a footie nature. At the Lighthouse Beach and Golf Resort I met Neil Rioch in charge of the Aston Villa Past Players Association – a Charity. He was meeting the Barcelona legend Hristo Stoichkov who still plays and is turning out on May 26 for the charity match near Sofia for children with leukaemia. It is also hoped Stiliyan Petrov, former captain of the Bulgarian national team will play as he has a personal interest. He is fighting leukaemia. The second coincidence was that Fulham’s Dimitar Berbatov, who is also down to play, was on the flight back from Varna.

There are frequent flights into the country with Sofia having the most flights. Twelve airlines serve the country from the UK.

For more information about Bulgaria, click here.
For more about Bulgarian food and drink, see jane’s story in our sister publication, Just about Food. click here.

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