Bulgaria: Eastern Europe’s Hidden Treasure

Sunset Varna

Written by Stacey Knott

With  centuries of interesting history, stunning scenery and dirt cheap food and booze, forget West Europe and try Bulgaria for your next backpacking adventure. Kiwi travel writer Stacey Knott has a ton of tips and ideas for seeing the most interesting parts of  Bulgaria…

I decided to go to Bulgaria on a whim, with an empty agenda but an open mind. Over the course of a week I have visited a creepy cave museum in Chepelare, wandered around ruins in Plovdiv,  learned about Bulgarian history and then indulged in the night life of Sofia, clambered around in an abandoned UFO, and lazed about on the golden sands of Varna.

Liberated from its communist past just over 20 years ago, Bulgaria is relatively off the beaten track and still developing itself as a travel destination. There’s plenty of variety and you can easily do it all on a budget of  €30 a day.

AAlexander Nevski Cathedral

I stayed in Hostel Mostels in Plovdiv (13 Petar Parchevich st) Sofia (2A, Makedonia Blvd)  and Veliko Tarnovo (10, Yordan Indjeto st)  they are clean, run by extremely friendly and helpful staff, have great wifi and, importantly for the budget backpacker, a free breakfast buffet as well as an evening beer and  light dinner. A bed in a dorm is around €6 a night.

Hiking and history

Plovdiv is a beautiful and easy city in the south of Bulgaria. Spend a few nights here, there’s a free (though leave a tip) walking tour through the city, showing you famous monuments, ancOld Town Plovdivient ruins and detailing the varied history of the area. For more details, visit the website.

Get up early and go for a day trip to Chepelare. You can get a bus for €4.50 each way, from the Avtogara Yug (South) station and visit the Cave Museum (inside the Hotel Pesternika).Home to a display of preserved bats and a bear skeleton, the cave’s ominous atmosphere comes complete with a creepy, X-Files-ish soundtrack looped in the background. The area is surrounded by splendid woods, so if hiking is your thing then you’ll love local day hikes, and (if you are in Bulgaria over the winter) Chepelare is great for winter sports.

Local Julian Grozdanov runs Trip Elements from his bar Bear Nook (10 Spartak St) in the town, so go to him for all your gear, guided hikes and advice. All the information you need is on their site.

Cheap beer

Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, is a good place to spend a few days city traipsing, and if you feel inclined, eating your weight in ice-cream – there are stalls and shops peddling some pretty irresistible flavours, from cheesecake to lemon sorbet to a Bounty Bar flavour.

Euro trash

For about €1 for two big scoops in a waffle cone, you can indulge and know you’ll walk it off going through the markets and gazing at the churches. Visit the local antique/flea market for some souvenir trinkets close to the Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

People watching is paramount here, the term Euro-trash is a bit harsh, but within ten minutes of having a €1 beer on Vitosha Boulevard you’ll know what I mean. The Rila Monastery is essential viewing if you have the time, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Sofia’s Hostel Mostel offer day trips here for about €20. To top off your visit, gather some new friends from your hostel and hit the town. Some great bars include The Park Bar which is in Shipka Park and Rock n Rolla – full of fun and pretty people.

Monasteries and an abandoned UFO

Inside UFO

Away from the bustle of the cities and in search of some good mountain air, I left Sofia for Veliko Tarnovo, another Hostel Mostel joint, this one was possibly the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Sitting on the outside of the town, the hostel is in a beautiful old building with open spaces, wood interiors and excellent staff. There is a fellow kiwi who runs unofficial tours to an abandoned old Communist Party headquarters built in the shape of a UFO on Mount Buzludzha – you can’t make this stuff up.

UFO distance

We clambered around in the decaying building, looking at the smashed mosaics and then climbed a 70 metre tower for a spectacular view over the mountains and valleys. This was followed by a visit to a monastery, and a plunge into the nearby (freezing!) river.

Back at the hostel there are nice walks to be had through the town, an old fort to visit and more abandoned buildings to skulk in if that’s your thing. The hostel offers other tours including cliff jumping into a river, visiting monasteries and an open air museum, ranging from €10 to €25 depending on which tour you choose.

Beach-side relaxing

I ended my week in Bulgaria hanging out on the coast of the Black Sea, staying a few nights in Varna. This is a pretty typical beach-side town – ice-cream galore, cocktail bars on the beach, umbrellas to hire for miles and wrinkled old people sunning themselves.

Varna beach

There’s a nice park called the Sea Garden where you can buy some local fruits and pastries and have a nice picnic for under €3. There are also dozens of cultural attractions in Varna, including an archaeological museum and churches and galleries. It’s a good place to wander and stumble into things, but my top recommendation is hanging out at the beach, flitting between swimming, eating, drinking and sleeping. One of the nicest beaches is a 20 minute bus ride along the coast called Kabakum Beach. Take the 109 from town and ask the driver to stop at Kabukum, go to the free public beach which has cheap and cheerful restaurants close by.

Author Bio: Stacey Knott is a freelance multi-media travel journalist from New Zealand, who likes to traipse the globe to indulge her passion for reporting on the unusual. From voodoo in Benin to a prison rodeo in the USA, Stacey knows where to find the weird stuff. Follow her website, Facebook, or tweet her at @stacey_knott  

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All photos c. Stacey Knott

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