Bulgaria is considered to be off the beaten track in European traveling circles, and it’s difficult to understand why. Boasting a hearty cuisine that will fill you up and sing upon your taste buds, abundant opportunities to live it up in the outdoors with exotic beaches and uncrowded mountains, and a lengthy history involving the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and the Ottomans, this Balkan nation has much to offer visitors that arrive within its borders.
Part of the reason why has to do with its recent history: it languished behind the Iron Curtain following the Second World War, and being seen by much of the free world as a no-go zone, it fell from the radar of many would-be journeyers as a result.
However, ever since the curtain was pulled back in the 1990’s, a country with underappreciated delights has been available for daring adventurers from all over the world. The word still doesn’t seem to be out for some reason, which plays to your advantage as a traveler in the know. Explore its many monuments, ruins, and monasteries, talk with its people, and recreate yourself in its wilderness before the hordes arrive. You’ll be glad you did.
Currency: Bulgarian Lev
What To Do
Bulgaria’s proximity to the Byzantine Empire that was centred in Turkey shaped its religious life over the ensuing years. As such, the Eastern Orthodox Church rules vice here, and the countryside has many awe-inspiring churches and monasteries.
The largest one in Bulgaria and a worthy attraction in its own right is the Rila Monastery, found south of Sofia in the mountainous southwestern portion of the country. With many insanely detailed frescoes in the interior, striped beams, and a courtyard that opens up to a timeless view of the Rila mountains, you’ll understand why this place found its way to the back of Bulgaria’s 1 Lev banknote!
Moving along to the south central part of the country, you’ll find the ancient Thracian ruins of Perperikon, one of the last remaining traces of their civilization. Over the years, the Greeks and Romans had dealings in the area, with the site only being deserted after being overrun by the Ottomans in the 14th century. Today, the remains of the Orthodox Church and the tombs of former rulers are the main highlights.
Back in 1891, a group of Bulgarian freedom fighters fought to free their country from the rule of the Ottomans. Ultimately, their efforts were unsuccessful, but almost a century after the final battle between the insurrection force and the Ottomans, a gargantuan monument to their struggle was opened on the battlefield where it went down. Named Buzludzha, this place has seen better days, as it has been neglected for some time, but for its grand scale, making the journey to see this example of Communist largess is one that won’t be regretted.
Much of Bulgaria is dominated by mountains, making this country an excellent place to go on outdoor adventures. In the summer time, hiking is very popular, with the areas around Raiskoto Praskalo (Paradise’s shower), Pirin Mountain (the highest in Bulgaria with spectacular alpine scenery), and the seven Rila Lakes (considered to be a holy place by the locals) counting among the better places to trekking in Bulgaria.
Additionally, these same mountains make Bulgaria an attractive place to go skiing/snowboarding for much less than many of the established resorts in Western Europe. While the quality lags somewhat behind the Alps (and understandably so), the cheap prices more than make up for it. Besides, it’s all about having a ball on the slopes with friends, so enjoy the affordable lift tickets and enjoy the après ski options afterwards with the jubilant locals!
In Soviet times, the Bulgarian Black Sea coast was considered to be quite the exotic place to be for those that could afford to travel. These days, beach bumming here is an activity where one can expect to lay out upon those same vaunted sands, without obtrusive foreign crowds (though the word is slowly getting out). Sunny Beach is the most popular place to gather, with clear water, soft sand and no rocks.
What To Eat
Bulgaria’s cuisine tends to be very savoury and Kavarma, considered to be its national dish, represents that characterization very well. Composed of leeks, tomato paste and cubed/filleted pork and flavoured with paprika and wine, this concoction is reduced over two hours of simmering, producing a very intense gastronomic experience.
Those that like soup will adore Teleshko Vareno, a beef soup that is well loved by Bulgarians, especially when the chilly winds of winter start blowing. It is made by combining beef shank with carrots, onions, potatoes and celery. It is lightly seasoned by adding peppercorns, salt and cloves to mix during the three hours this heavenly stew takes to prepare.
At dessert, Kozunak will be a pastry that will have you coming back begging for seconds. This sweet bread is made with tonnes of sugar and butter, and has lots of raisins in it, with a lemon zest seasoning finishing off this amazing dessert. It is so well-regarded in this part of Europe that it represented Bulgaria’s neighbour Romania in the 2006 edition of Café Europe, a food exhibition started by the European Union during Austria’s time leading the EU parliament.