Bulgaria a mix of the old and new
Bulgaria -- When I tell people where I am going on vacation I can see their minds trying to pinpoint it on a map … is it somewhere off in Eastern Europe or possibly near Russia?
No and, no.
Bulgaria is the seat of the Balkans, nestled north of Greece and south of Romania. While Bulgaria may be a new destination for some, it has long been a vacation haven for Europeans. Even during communism, the pull of the golden sands along the Black Sea and the powdered slopes of the Pirin Mountains enticed holiday makers from the rest of the Eastern bloc.
The bustling capital of Sofia is a major international hub. Strolling along the streets of the recently renovated city center, I can pick out more international tongues than the native Bulgarian language. The old country charm of cobblestone streets blends into open-air cafes, little boutiques and rolls out into world-class museums posing as average buildings.
In Sofia, nothing is ever what it seems.
One minute, I am wandering down the street taking pictures of municipal buildings and the next I am standing in the middle of ruins from a third century Roman village. The grounds of Bulgaria are so saturated with snapshots of history that often when ruins are discovered during new construction they are left untouched, and the building continues around the original site. This stark contrast between modern and ancient can be seen everywhere from the gilded Bulgarian Orthodox churches and the Sofia synagogue (the largest synagogue in southeastern Europe) to the cultural and historical museums.
The past and the present are so woven into the fibers of life in Bulgaria that it blankets the entire country from the capital to the Black Sea. Strewn with cities like Nesebar, Pomorie and the resort town of Sunny Beach, each coastal town offers its own take on the combination of history and current happenings.
Nesebar is an ancient city that was originally built by the Greeks. The old portion of the city where most of the ruins are located is set apart like an island inside the city. Restaurants boast sea views from every seat and serve up fresh catches from the Black Sea. Third and fourth century churches litter the landscape making for opulent views along the coastline.
Pomorie is the oldest and largest salt and wine production region in the Balkans, offering travelers the same amenities it did to the Romans. Just a stone's throw down the coast from Nesebar, one of the bloodiest battles of the 10th century took place near Pomorie when more than 90,000 soldiers fell in one day.
While I did not partake in the bloodiest battle of the century, I did indulge in the local wine and salt of the earth. Similar to the ritual of the Dead Sea, the salty lakes of Pomorie are akin to a spa day, but without the cost. I floated in the salty water, gave myself a body scrub down in mineral rich mud and then walked across the road and rinsed off in the Black Sea … for free.
Having produced wine for the entire Roman Empire, the Black Sea coast shelters some of the oldest vineyards in Bulgaria. Recently a slew of up-and-coming wineries with full tasting rooms have sprung up in this popular resort area. Subsequent to partaking in nature's spa, I headed to the Tohun Winery, one of many along the main road. I was treated to a tour of the winery before sitting down to a tasting and nibbling a plate of local cheese and meats. By the time I was done at Tohun, my inside was as satiated as my freshly scrubbed outside.
Five miles down the road sits Sunny Beach, the largest resort area in all of Bulgaria. Here tourists from all over the world converge on what some are calling the new Ibiza. Sunny Beach boasts some of the largest nightclubs in Europe holding up to 20,000 people on any given night as well as a couple of casinos.
While most of the real estate is covered with all-inclusive packages, it doesn't mean that one can't wander in for a night of dancing and gaming. Then after dancing the night away you can head down to the beach to lounge at one of the many cafes while snacking on shopska salad and tracing circles in the sand with your toes. Watching the sunrise over the Black Sea is a breathtaking and almost spiritual experience when you think about the previous civilizations that shared that same view.
Trading in golden sands for powder, Bulgaria has developed a booming snow sports industry. The town of Bansko has become a global target for winter as well as summer tourism. Situated at the base of the Pirin Mountains in the Razlog Valley, the numerous lakes and old growth pines make the town a popular site. Over the past few years, the country has invested millions into expanding the town's infrastructure to support the influx of skiers and snowboarders. From new lifts to accommodate the increased numbers to the development of luxury resorts, Bansko is throwing its ski cap into the ring of top European ski spots. National parks in the area are rich with lakes waterfalls, caves and nearby villages boast natural thermal springs. Regardless if it's hiking, skiing or indulgences, the Bansko area has something to offer every visitor.
No matter how many times or for how long I visit Bulgaria, I can never see or do everything I want. As I pack my suitcase to return home I am already making a list for my next visit.