As we left Bulgaria for good a few of months ago, I thought it was in order to make a short guide based on my personal experience of the country, hopefully it will provide useful to fellow expats moving in, or tourists who don’t just come for 7 nights all inclusive in Sunny Beach or Borovets (nothing wrong with that type of holiday, if you’re into it-but as I haven’t done either, there’s nothing I have to say on the matter).
Caveat: although changes in Bulgaria are still slow, and not always for the better, things will have inevitably changed since we visited places, and probably even more by the time you read this, so don’t blame me if the restaurant I’m raving about has closed in the meantime-be a good boy (or girl) scout and double check my references.
Now for a brief introduction: Bulgaria is a naturally beautiful country. No, really! There is a little bit for everyone: high mountains, gentle rolling hills, rocky coastlines and beautiful (albeit horribly developped) beaches, great winter sports, quaint little towns and scattered, picturesque villages clinging to mountain sides. For those interested in history and archaeology, it’s a fascinating and painful place to visit-enormously interesting and rich in stories and remains, very poorly displayed and explained, and mercilessly looted and desacrated. As one would imagine, Bulgarians are proud of their heritage and the depth of their roots, and rightly so, but they seem to have given up to the ugly gods of money-ancient treasures have been looted and sold to private collectors all over the world, and immensly important sites have been for ever lost to horrendous hotels and office buildings, mostly on the coast of the Black Sea. Most of the remaining archaeology is poorly known, indicated and displayed, with some amazing sites even unknown to locals. There are however a few notable exceptions, that I will talk about a bit later on.
So here are my rather random bits about Bulgaria and Sofia:
Best times of the year: spring and autum. April-May and September-October have mild weather, and the nature is stunning. Beware the wild variations in temperature between day and night, however-it can be freezing (literally) at night, with brisk, sharp mornings at 5-10 degrees C, and merrily go up in the low 20’s by the end of the afternoon-plan your clothes accordingly-layers, layers, layers! Winters and summers can be quite extreme and therefore unpleasant, from weeks on end when the temperatures drop in the double digits below zero and snow piles high everywhere-including in towns where the cleaning and removal efforts can be a tad superficial; to sweltering summer days, temperatures roaring over 35 degrees celsius-they get particularly bad in the South and on the coast, but also along the Danube; even Sofia gets its fair share of baking hot sun. With all this in mind:
Best drive: in May or early June, drive from Sofia to Varna; it’s a 4-6 hour drive – depending on the day of the week, hour of the day, and other misterious factors that will either make the road deserted and wonderful, or congested with thousands of old, decrepit vehicles moving cautiously at maximum 40 kms an hour in long queues (it made us think that either Bulgarians are not taught in driving school the esoteric art of overtaking, or that most vehicles are physically incapable of accelerating. It’s however probably a combination of both). On the plus side of the longer drive time-you’ll have plenty of chances to enjoy the very pleasant scenery. Same drive is beautiful in a very different way at the time the folliage starts to turn-sometimes in mid-late September, sometimes in early October. The mountains are covered in a riot of golds, reds and dark greens, and there’s a special light, a bit colder than the summer one, almost as if a very thin bluish veil has been drawn over the world. If you get a sunny week-end for this drive, it will stay with you for a very long time, believe me.
Best towns and villages: in no particular order-Varna, in spring, summer and autumn (avoid summer if you don’t like crowds and heat); Stara Zagora, in early June when the linden (or lime) trees are in bloom, and the roses are flowering; Plovdiv-anytime but not in summer, the town sits in a bowl surrounded by hills, which made it an ideal, sheltered location for very early human settlement, but also turns it into a right furnace in July and August; Veliko Tarnovo-ditto; Nessebar-in spring and early autumn, in order to avoid the hordes of tourists invading the Sunny Beach area; Koprivshtitsa (try saying that three times fast!)-late August, when they have the local holiday and the place is alive with people and music; Kazanlak-in June, when the famous roses are in bloom-but avoid, if you can, the infamous Rose Festival. It can be fun, but the whole world will be there and it can get quite oppressive; Sandanski in early September, if you have a thing for spas; and from there, Melnik later in the month, preferably during the grape picking period.
Sofia-its saving graces are the mountains nearby; the ever improving airport (it was badly plagued by fog just a couple of years ago, and it was a grim, hopeless pursuit to find a conveniet flight to almost anywhere; they have since bought and installed the necessary equipment to operate almost decently in foggy conditions, and the number of flights is slowly but constantly creeping up, making Sofia better connected-and easier to escape whenever need be); the relatively small, compact centre whith plenty of restaurants, bars, shops, banks, parks and the like within easy walking distance; and the fact it’s conveniently placed in a corner of the country reasonably close to Serbia (and Hungary, Austria, Croatia and even Italy), Greece and Turkey-if you want a short getaway and you get infuriated with the lack of flights.
Sofia is an easy city to live in, for a capital city, but it is also a very frustrating place. You have pretty much everything you need if you look for it-but as everywhere in Bulgaria, things are not clean or tidy, or freshly painted (which makes the city looks much uglier and dirtier than it actually is); its new developments are badly planned; there are no good solid medium-level restaurants and hotels (the ones which are cheap, are mostly barely acceptable verging on very poor quality, service and hygiene, and the ones which are expensive, with very few exceptions, are pretty bad too, especially given the expectations); public transport exists and is very cheap and convenient as it’s frequent and covers the city reasonably well, but there are basically no maps or ways for a non-local to know which bus to take to where, the buses, trams and troleys are mostly old, smelly and decrepit, and the whole network is plagued by the inexplicably horrid traffic at peak times (basically from September till July it’s peak time-Sofia only gets a break when the schools are on summer leave, as parents time their holidays after this, and virtually no one uses public transportation for school runs). The metro is modern, cheap and fast-but it only covers a minute part of the centre (which is normally nice to walk), and one or two of the old commie dormitory neighbourhoods-if you don’t happen to live there and work or study in the centre, then you have absolutely no use for the Sofia metro.
It has a fair amount of shopping malls which, until the Carrefour mall was opened (which carries, for the moment, a more reasonable selection of shops), were pretty dismal, as they are home to tiny little shops where very rarely you’ll see someone actually buy something, and most people seem to be there just to take a stroll or have a seriously overpriced, albeit nice coffee and do some people-watching. What it doesn’t have (in spite of Vitosha Boulevard trying to pretend very hard) is a pleasant shopping street, you know, like most European cities have, like indeed Istanbul has-a walking street, nicely lined with little shops, and cafes, and restaurants. Vitosha is a rather sad contender-it’s wide enough, and in theory it’s closed to cars (unless you’re a big shot in a dark car with dark rear windows), but the trams rund smack in the middle of it, thus rendering the whole exercise a bit pointless. There are very few cafes and one or two restaurants but none are interesting enought to hold your attention, and the noise of the passing trams somehow distracts from the otherwise pleasant experience of sitting on a terrace with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and watching the world go by. The shops are not for shopping, as they’re a bizarre mix of overpriced high-fashion brand shops(I’m not very sure the stuff sold in there is authentic, either), and utterly rubish chinese made jumble shops. With a few exceptions, of course. My personal guess is that most shops are just fronts for money laundering-there is no way anyone could afford to keep such a shop open and running on the sales they’re making.
Now, for the purpose of keeping these posts manageable in length, we’re taking a publicity break. Stay tuned, more to come soon :)