When travelling to Bulgaria, there are three snapshots to prepare yourself for. First, the derelict and dark, post-Communist façade of its cities; second, the beauty that exists behind the façade; and third, a colourful sketch of the countryside and, with it, the awe-inspiring Rila Monastery.
Even though Bulgaria is a member of the EU, unlike most of its EU brethren it is ridiculously affordable. From Dubai, it’s also possible to see the country comfortably during a long weekend if you fly to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.
A short taxi drive from the airport, you’ll observe hundreds of dilapidated buildings with layers of paint, brick and mould crumbling off or peeling away. What appear to be abandoned homes and businesses have become a canvas for graffiti – the walls are plastered with it, over every available surface. Surely this is just a rough part of town? Not so. With the exception of a handful of sights and government buildings, the dark streets of Bulgarian cities resemble a giant tattoo painted over sunburnt, peeling skin.
Tour the capital
One way to absorb the atmosphere of Sofia is by setting off on a walking tour through the city. Set off from the Sheraton Sofia Hotel, pass the government buildings and venture down Tsar Osvoboditel Street. Upon reaching the golden-domed St Nikolai Russian Church, cross the street and grab a coffee at BarMe’s Coffee Time. Next, head toward Bulgaria’s crown jewel, the Alexander Nevski Church. In between are plenty of public parks, which make up for the sad state of the local architecture. Ul Rakovski, a boulevard that runs between St Nikolai Church and Yuzhen Park, offers a fine glimpse into the local arts and culture scene, with a variety of street vendors selling everything from old typewriters to wooden Jesus plaques.
See the countryside
While it’s apparent that efforts are under way to ‘brighten’ Bulgaria’s cities, the best parts of the country exist outside its main urban areas. In winter, adventurers and sportsmen can ski in the Pirin Mountains, while during the summer, sun-lovers can easily find leisurely spots to bathe and tan on the Black Sea beaches between Varna and Burgas. Although it may seem easiest to take a bus on this lovely road trip, we suggest renting a car instead. Bus travel in Bulgaria can be a bit of a hassle, and the country is not as connected as you might like it to be. Plus, renting a car is cheap and it will get you to your destination quicker.
From Sofia, drive south around Mount Vitosha, toward the Greek border. Before you reach Blagoevgrad, turn east toward the village of Rila. The roads will get smaller and you will gradually become further removed from civilisation. From the tiny town of Rila, locals (and signs) will guide you along the road as it passes through a couple more scattered communities and fish farms.
Deep inside the Rila Mountains you’ll arrive at the secluded Rila Monastery. Upon entering the walls of the compound, once your jaw has finished dropping, you can check in and stay the night for as little as 60lv (Dhs162). If the basic simplicity and modest furnishings of the monastery aren’t for you, there’s also a hotel conveniently located behind the facility. The hotel will also provide you with meals and food for picnics. During your stay, be sure to take a day to hike along the forest paths. In the summer, there are also plenty of camping options.
Skiing at Bansko Resort
South of Rila, nestled in the Pirin Mountains, the town of Bansko and its accompanying ski resort have undergone huge transformations and development over the past 10 years. Unfortunately, some of the progress is shrouded by corruption that continues to plague the country. Nevertheless, this excellent ski resort has added two new lifts that will now permit them to elevate 24,000 people per hour. With 70km of ski runs to choose from and its highest peak (Shiligarnika) reaching an altitude of 2,500 metres, there is plenty of room for everybody.
What to eat
Behind Sofia’s dark façade, venues such as Under the Linden Tree (1 Elin Pelin St, www.podlipitebg.com, +359 021 866 5053) present the colour of a distinct Bulgarian culture. Amid merry Bulgarian songsters, treat yourself to local dishes such as shopska salad, sirene (white brine cheese), shkembe chorba (tripe soup) and, of course, real Bulgarian yoghurt.
For a traditional atmosphere, head to Hadjidraganovite Kashti (Serdica, 75 Kozloduy, www.kashtite.com), where the staff will play local tunes on the stereo and serve traditional delicacies such as hlebenica (a big soup bowl made of bread). Try the jamurki made from chopped pork beef and lamb, and accompany it with a traditional Bulgarian salad on the side. If you need a break from local fare, the town is a haven for international cuisine; you can fill up at any of the pizza, sandwich or pastry shops for as little as Dhs5.
Sofia is a hotspot for hip nightlife venues to while away the evenings and meet the locals. We’d particularly recommend unwinding in The Apartment (66 Neofit Rilski Street, www.a-part-mental.org, +359 87 87 87 123), a 19th century city mansion that has become a cultural project, with different rooms of designs and tapestries: you can have a few drinks, watch a film in the cinema room, programme your own playlist into a Mac computer, play a board game, read a book or talk about art. For a more studenty vibe try the outdoor Lodkite (+359 81-182-545) or trance hotspot Cutty Sark Borisova Gradina (Mitr. Kiril Vidinski 13, Borisova Gradina, +359 2 963 3072) – both are open-air discos where locals dance the night away and international DJs are often invited to perform sets.
If you’re looking to go clubbing, try Chervilo (www.chervilo.com, +359 888 626 446), which mixes commercial electronic beats until the early hours of the morning (events sometimes continue until 11am the next day). This club is more what we’re used to in Dubai, with a sophisticated, wealthy crowd dolled up to the max. There are also Latino nights on Wednesdays, which include salsa lessons.
Need to know
Austrian Airways flies from Dubai to Sophia via Vienna from Dhs1,789 return.
Where to stay
Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan: These five-star lodgings are supremely comfortable, located in the middle of Sofia’s main square. Rooms start at Dhs460 per night.
www.starwoodhotels.com (+359 2 981 65 41).
Hotel Maya: Although it’s centrally located in a building diagonally across the square from the Sheraton, Hotel Maya is a challenge to find. The entrance and elevator ride up are a little spooky and the owners don’t speak much English, but this is a comfy option that deals in local currency. For Dhs135 you can stay in a cosy double room in a homely setting.
(+359 2 980 27 96).
Hostel Mostel: Travelling solo? Book in here to meet fellow travellers and get more of a local feel. The hostel has a common room and is great value, with rooms from Dhs112.
History and geography
• Bulgaria borders five different countries: Romania, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.
• It is the 16th largest country in Europe.
• Bulgaria became a communist state in 1945.
• In 1989 the communist state transitioned into a democracy and allowed a capitalist market.
• Though it is a recently approved member of the European Union, it retains its own currency – the lev.
• Bulgaria does not use the Latin alphabet; rather, it employs the much larger Cyrillic alphabet. As a visitor, it shouldn’t take you too long to decipher the code and translate the symbols.