Back in 2009 I joined a tour operator who were based in central London and the leading specialist to the country of Bulgaria.
I had for years wanted to work in “the smoke” so every day I jumped on the train into Victoria station then walked down Buckingham Palace Road dothing my cap as I passed her Majesty then on through the parrakeet screeching pathways of Green Park, past the obscenely expensive jewellers of Bond Street before spending my day in an office just a stone’s throw from Oxford Street where a pair of shoes can cost you more than you would pay for a weeks family summer holiday on the Black Sea Coast of this sometimes misunderstood East European country.
Often the negative reaction when I told people that I was going to be selling and promoting Bulgaria and even today, years after I left, always left me feeling deflated given that I grew to really like the country and its people. There is a certain snobbery around some destinations and I soon became accustomed to the body language that told me, on the mere mention of the word Bulgaria, that it was not a place they would ever consider.
However rather than let that get me down it actually spurred me on, as it does with another country close to my heart yet tarnished with the same stuffy brush – Bosnia & Herzegovina but more of that another time.
Bulgaria is an Eastern European country that really divides opinion – is it the marmite of world travel? Quite possibly!
Beyond Sunny Beach...
The abundance of cheap hotels in the most popular seaside of resort of Sunny Beach, the drinking culture of the British (not the Bulgarians I hasten to add) and the often referenced links to the Bulgarian mafia unfortunately taints the opinion of many. It seems that one lively resort in July and August where youngsters head for a great time means that the rest of the country is considered off limits. I guess that is similar to visitors coming to the UK to somewhere like Blackpool – does that then mean that any holiday in the UK is going to be all day drinking, donkey rides and kiss me quick hats.
Your Bulgarian Lev will go a very long way and as a result the country does attract those just intent on drinking enough beer and Rakia to sink a battleship but like so many places in the world if you head off the beaten track and away from those commercial traps of excess you will be surprised at the beauty, the quality and the hospitality available.
During these five years I learned so much about Bulgaria, the country, the resorts and the people. I hope now with my new bloggers hat on….no kiss me quick hat here, I can dispel a few myths and showcase some of my memories and experiences whilst also highlighting some of those places and resorts that so often get overlooked!
Potholes & Dreams...
I remember my first experience of Bulgaria was a whistle stop road trip of the summer coastal resorts flying into Varna in the North then from the resort of Albena working my way 130kms south before ultimately departing back to the UK from Bourgas.
A friend of mine had and still has an apartment in Varna, bought with loose change over a decade ago, He had always stated that the northern Bulgarian coast was quieter and home to some smaller, relaxed, safe resorts as well as three high quality golf courses, one of which is world class.
So there you go, have I surprised you already? Quieter…. smaller….relaxed…safe…world class – surely these are not words to describe the Bulgaria that we all “think” we know?
I always remember that road trip with great fondness as I was driven and guided by a lovely Bulgarian lady who taught me so much about the country, its traditions and her dreams for the future – something I always like to hear from people is their aspirations in life.
In scorching weather we travelled south in a car the size of an eggbox which was covered in so much sand, both inside and out, that it could have come straight from the Dakar rally. Add to this, a lack of air conditioning and a suspension that had clearly come off worst in many a battle with a Bulgarian pothole, this was the type of road trip and adventure that I have always relished – for me travelling is about these random adventures and the occasional hair raising moment.
Varna itself is an airport hub, a port and a seaside resort and is mainly considered as a gateway to the northern resorts of Albena, St Konstantin and Golden Sands not to mention the golf resorts of the Cape Kaliakra region.
The third largest city in Bulgaria, Varna has grown in recent years to offer visitors so much more in terms of shopping, history, art galleries, museums, cultural events, a promenade with numerous bars, restaurants and a nightlife that never sleeps.
I particularly loved the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, the brightly coloured houses, the wrought iron balconies and the pretty bustling flower market – it is well worth a day trip if you are staying in the area
Just 30 km north of Varna is Albena. A purpose built seaside resort on one of the very best beaches on all of the Black Sea Coast. I recall wandering around observing the open spaces, kids playing safely in the parks, a horse drawn carriage taking tourists on a gentle tour of the town and the cleanliness of both the beach and the streets.
For some random reason I always remember a cheap oh so simple kids toy kiosk that was a throw back to my youth and a happy old man in a blisteringly hot tent in the shape of an orange selling fresh juices. I think he was drinking more than he was selling!
All quite bizarre but a lovely resort and ideal for a great value, safe family holiday where you will rarely stray from the beach…. I mean why would you when its that good?
Heading south I discovered the principle northern resort of “Golden Sands” which alongside its lush green wooded hillside location gave me that first glimpse of aqua parks, family attractions, neon lights and the party scene.
However its most famous attribute and as the name suggests is the beach which is listed as a Blue Flag Beach meaning it is safe to swim, clean and pollution free. Golden Sands is blessed with some great beach bars where you can take a sundowner at incredibly low prices. A lovely road train offers visitors the chance to rest their legs while being ferried between key locations.
At night there is a dizzying choice of bars, restaurants with one of my pet hates, pictures of every meal on the menu and clubs featuring the old favourite “kareoke” where you can choose songs from the local Bulgarian hit parade written in Cyrillic or if your not up to that challenge then there are plenty of your more recognisable favourites.
Personally I found Golden Sands a little too commercial and glitzy for me although it does what it says on the tin and caters for families or singles looking for fun, 24/7 entertainment and beach life all at an amazing price.
Just 30kms from Golden Sands and a very popular excursion are the Botanical Gardens of Balchik. Here you will find rare species of plants, cactus, stalls selling local produce and souvenirs, a small church and even a little beach with refreshments. This was far more my taste and I wholeheartedly recommend this trip.
St Konstantin & Elena..
Just 7kms south of Golden Sands is the peaceful resort of St Konstantin.
There is the most lovely beach here with its small village centre home to a few shops, bars, restaurants and market stalls. Very popular are the numerous mineral springs and treatments available in both the town and its hotels and these draw in visitors looking to be refreshed and revived! Am guessing as a result of a night in Golden Sands or Sunny Beach!
I really enjoyed my time here relaxing and unwinding amongst the cypresses, fig trees and lilies that fills the park that surrounds the resort.
St Konstantin is small, affordable and 8 kms away from Varna and is a far cry from the hubbub of the other larger resorts.
If I said that one of the top three courses I have played anywhere in the world was in Bulgaria you would probably think I was joking or I had only played well… three courses in the world. Well actually no!
The region of Cape Kaliakra hosts the Lighthouse, Black Sea Rama and the jewel in the Bulgarian golfing crown, Thracian Cliffs. As a golf destination Bulgaria continues to attract guests through excellent pricing, the attractive mix of beach and golf and increasingly its reputation.
Thracian Cliffs is top class and I can only describe it as if you were playing a round of golf along the white cliffs of Dover… the views are amazing and the golf immaculate although prepare to lose a few balls over the edge especially if you tend to vere right off the tee!
The staff here at Thracian cliffs were so lovely. I spent some time talking to the young guys and girls pictured down at the beach and they were so excited to be working at that time for a very new concept in Bulgaria. They shared the owners vision to put Bulgaria on the worlds golfing map and within a few years I learned that Thracian Cliffs had been selected as a venue for a PGA (Professional Golf Association) tournament so as a team they succeeded and I was delighted for them and for the country.
A little story while I was staying at the Lighthouse Golf Resort and Spa. I was laying by the pool shown in the picture below and suddenly a lady who was the only other person using the facilities about ten yards from me jumped up as if she had been ejected from a James Bond car. A rather large and slippery snake had taken refuge under her lounger so both I and the chief barman were called into action to capture it and send it on its way which we did. We never saw the poor lady again.
As you move south and take the one hour drive of 55kms to the resort of Obzor you move into what is considered Bulgaria’s southern resorts and these are normally served by flights into Bourgas or as written in the Bulgarian non Cyrillic version – Burgas.
Once again the star attraction is the 10km long sandy, clean beach, making it ideal for family bathing and activities. There are two parts to this beach the main part and then the quieter south beach.
There are a number of large beach front hotels catering for the holiday makers needs but its worth noting that Obzor is small, peaceful and part of a community of seven villages centred around Obzor. In the village there are lots of bistros, local shops and market stalls ideal for discovering during those barmy summer evenings.
If you want an excursion away from Obzor then you could try visiting the local salt pans or the natural mud baths….they will not only improve your skin but also guarantee a fun day out with no doubt a few selfies for your social media followers – just don’t drop your phone as you will never find it!
This village is situated in a quiet bay with a huge fine sandy beach offering a great choice of water based activities.
Accommodation here is generally in hotels or in the beautifully designed villas that are set amongst the bordering green meadows, mountains and hills that run down towards the sea.
Elenite is a fantastic place for a family holiday or for couples looking for a more relaxed holiday in the Summer sun.
For many the beauty of Elenite is that it offers the best of both worlds as the resort is quiet yet you are within reach of the lively Sunny Beach should you get the urge to have what is called these days a “blow out” !
Just 5km north of Sunny Beach resort and 9km from Nessebar the small resort of Sveti Vlas (or St Vlas) is well known for its lovely marina where yacht hire is popular as is just relaxing in the many bars and restaurants that overlook the bobbing boats and lovely beach.
St Vlas is also ideal for those looking to have a peaceful base yet get out and about to explore the surrounding resorts and countryside, the stunning marina, bars, restaurants and luxurious hotels.
Now where do I start!? My first introduction was to pop to the companies Sunny Beach office and meet the team of experienced and friendly staff managing the resort after which I took a stroll to take in the sights, smells and sounds from the strip! If I have the time I always love to do this as I find its the best way to really get to know a place – just walk, stop for a drink, just one for the road of course and observe.
What I soon discovered that afternoon was every street was the same – full of noisy themed bars and clubs all trying to outshine the next, restaurants of every style imaginable, stalls selling beach items and tacky souvenirs, fairground rides for the daring or the paralytic and enough tattoo, body piercing and hair plaiting stations to keep a Premiership football team looking the part and out of mischief for a week…. well maybe not.
The cherry on the Black Sea cake is the beautiful long soft sandy beach which attracts the sun worshippers and families in their droves. In some areas testerone fuelled bare chested and often sunburnt lads would congregate and look to demonstrate their sporting or drinking prowess as a kind of mating ritual to attract the female who more often than not was more interested in her tan lines, her OK magazine and where the next strawberry daiquiri was coming from.
The weather during peak season is so incredibly hot that the premium priced but still great value bars and restaurants located on the beach were always busy offering those stylish cool cocktails along with Ibiza style vibes and comfy seating areas to catch the setting sun. I loved this time of day in Sunny Beach and I enjoyed my time exploring however I kind of knew that this was the calm before the storm.
At night the decibels are ramped up, the neon lights come out to play, restaurant and bar owners showcase their offerings and try to entice you through the door while the screams from the rollercoaster get louder by the minute. As night turns into morning dubious looking characters emerge from the shadows and the neon signs of seedier establishments flicker into life while of course the beat of the club continues along with the body piercing long into the early hours…..
Sunny Beach is party central but do you know what, it is what it is and for the price I can guarantee that if you are in your teens or twenties and streetwise you will have the time of your life, if you are a family the children will love it and if you are a middle aged travel blogger observing life and all its facets, its all part of life’s rich tapestry….. I just wish I was 18 again!
A popular excursion just outside of Sunny Beach is to a place called Khans Tent. Here you can enjoy a neverending meal of cooked meats, salads and vegetables all washed down with copious amounts of alcohol while being entertained by various Bulgarian acts from clowns to plate spinners and dancers to trapeze artists. The location also boasts a great place to view and take a group pic of Sunny Beach from up high on the mountain side. Book ahead as this is a very popular and often riotous night!
Nessebar Old Town...
One place in Bulgaria that is universally loved is Nessebar. A UNESCO protected town due to the ancient medieval fortress with a famous wooden windmill at the entrance to the area known as the Old Town. I too was captivated by Nessebar and really liked its pretty little streets full of revival style houses, art and crafts stalls, souvenir shops, quaint bars and restaurants and the ancient ruins of St Sophia church. Somewhere I spent many an hour was the central square where you can grab a cooling drink and just people watch for hours on end. I would also recommend the walk along the peninsula to get a true feel of the town and its location.
Regular buses run from Nessebar to Sunny Beach and in the town itself there is a fun road train to get you to the main sights. Another quirky excursion is to book the red double decker bus from your hotel to take you on a tour and down to the harbour where you can pick up a catamaran and head out past the gorgeous statue of St Nicolas out on to the Black Sea. If you are lucky as I was, you may spot wild dolphins as the sun was setting. This is by far the best way to see dolphins in Bulgaria and not via the Dolphinarium in Varna which has a long history of animal welfare problems – avoid !
There is something quite magical about Nessebar and it’s a place I would go back to in a heartbeat. During the day its busy with tourists and visitors but that makes you appreciate the peace and tranquility at the start of the day with a strong coffee and a pastry and at the end of the day with that refreshing sundowner!
The resort of Pomorie is slightly different to others in that it is famous as a place of healing and rejuvenation as it hosts a variety of mud, clay, salt and water treatments that are almost guaranteed to reinvigorate the body and mind. Quite clearly I have yet to undergo any of these therapies !
Aside from all this healthy stuff there are the usual array of bars and restaurants and a lovely Blue Flag beach to enhance your stay still further.
There are also a number of cultural attractions in the small town with museums and entertainments galore.
Without doubt this is my favourite town in Bulgaria and a bit of an undiscovered gem in my opinion especially the excellent Hotel Selena at the far end of the horseshoe shaped bay.
Sozopol has for starters a lovely beach which is shallow and calm for swimming due to its shape. Backing the beach is a promenade overlooking the sea and packed with easy going bars and restaurants offering al fresco dining and great views. Behind the path there is a road which is also full of stalls with both souvenirs and also fast food outlets such as kebabs, ice creams and pancakes.
Then on the other side of this road there is a lovely fruit and vegetable market and in the late afternoon and early evenings smartly turned out and well looked after horses take visitors from one end of the bay round to the old town on the peninsula with its hilly cobbled streets, revival style wooden houses, pretty shops and a stunning array of restaurants perched above the rocks and overlooking the lovely bay.
Sozopol is a great place to wander and stop as often as you like for a refreshment or a lovely meal. The fresh fish in the restaurants is highly recommended as is the famous Shopska Salad which is served everywhere in Bulgaria. This is a salad which is most often a side dish but could if you wish be a main course of chopped tomato, cucumber, onion and peppers and often with some feta cheese and oil sprinkled on top – the colours represent that of the Bulgarian flag!
A little shout out to the 3 star Hotel Selena where I stayed all those years ago and which after a quick google tells me it is unsurprisingly still going strong. A charming little no frills hotel offering a lovely welcome, a great service, a wonderful continental breakfast on the front terrace amid gardens and a tiny little pool. Its also the type of hotel you get from time to time that is a bit of a secret yet it sells out very early in the year with repeat guests so get in quick for those peak dates! Its always reminded me of the 3 star Hotel La Playa in Alghero, Sardinia – another hidden gem but please – keep that to yourself….
I really loved Sozopol, it is not really a party town, more for middle to older aged couples I would say but its a place I recommend to this day !
Just 7 kms from Sozopol and 40km from Burgas Airport is the purpose built high quality holiday resort of Duni or Dyuni as it is sometimes spelt.
Duni is without doubt a great place to go for your family holiday as it caters for children of all ages in terms of entertainments and activities across a range of different hotels from 4* excellent to 5* luxury. The difference here though is you don’t have the myriad of jumping bars and culture of excess drinking that you do in Sunny Beach during the peak season.
Despite not being someone who enjoys being surrounded by screaming brats… sorry I mean children, I instantly recognised this as a fantastic resort and in fact probably the best in Bulgaria for families. It is safe and has the most magnificent 3 km long Blue Flag beach together with a huge choice of watersports.
Everything is available on site so you really do not need to go anywhere although the lovely Sozopol for a spot of history and a different view from your table is only up the road.
And Still There Is More...
So after a short transfer from Duni to Bourgas Airport that was my little Bulgarian summer road trip over – I had survived the potholes and opened my eyes to a country that previously I knew little about.
I had experienced a real variety of resorts, I had met Bulgarian people who want to welcome you to their country and like anywhere in the world all they ask is that you treat it with respect, I had eaten wonderful fish, meat dishes and that healthy Shopska Salad and I had spent time relaxing on award winning sandy beaches as good as anywhere in the northern hemisphere.
Over the next few years I discovered even more to the country – the truly beautiful nature and countryside of the interior, the capital of Sofia where I met the Bulgarian footballing legend Hristo Stoitchkov and was serenaded by the Bulgarian Eurovision entrant from 2008. I played yet more golf and skied the three winter resorts of Pamporovo, Borovets and Bansko….. all of this I will leave for another blog.
So banish those preconceptions and give Bulgaria a chance – yes of course you need to pick the right resort for you and/or your family as Bulgaria is most certainly not a one size fits all destination and its certainly not all about Sunny Beach !
Speak to your friendly travel agent or tour operator and find out more because there are many hundreds of thousands of tourists, many repeat guests, heading to Bulgaria every year and their view is the same as mine…. its a sea view !
Two tour operators dominate the market from the UK – Tui and Balkan Holidays. There are many super convenient regional charter flights offered by Balkan Holidays and an increasing number of low cost airlines heading east so contact your local travel agent and see what works for you.
The Bulgaria National Tourist Office is of course a great place for further research.
While this piece focuses on the summer I would recommend visiting Bulgaria outside of the two main months of the year when crowds are smaller, beaches are quieter and everything is a lot calmer.
I hope you enjoyed a summertime view of Bulgaria …
Till next time