There are many different ways to experience Bulgaria. The country is perhaps most well-known as a summer holiday destination, most often visited for the eternal summer party unfolding in the resort of Sunny Beach.
For me, the most striking beauty of Bulgaria lies at an opposite geographical point – the south-west corner of the country where the three mountains of Rhodope, Rila and Pirin come together. With Bulgaria becoming increasingly popular as a skiing holiday destination in recent years, during the winter, this is the part of the country which sees many national and international tourists sliding down the slopes in Bansko, Pamporovo, etc. During the summer, these parts of the country, often challenging to reach through the steep and winding mountain roads, remain rather unexplored.
When we last visited Bulgaria, we spent 7 days exploring its different faces, getting a taste of the country’s culture, history and abundant landscape.
Day 1: Surfing at Albena Resort
Land in Varna, Bulgaria’s third largest city and Black Sea Capital, hire a car from the airport, and take off for Albena, situated about 40km to the north from Varna Airport. With its gentle waves and long, wide beach, Albena is a good spot for surfing beginners. The resort itself, while rather heavily developed (from an empty ground in the 1960s), is situated within well-preserved natural surroundings.
Day 2: The Stone Desert and Veliko Tarnovo
Take off from Albena for Veliko Tarnovo, and stop at Stone Desert on the way – a desert-like area consisting of natural stone formations and sand dunes. Take a stroll before continuing on your way to Veliko Tarnovo.
Veliko Tarnovo, once the infamous capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, is a definite must-see during a visit to Bulgaria. It’s located at about 250km to the west of Albena, which on the Bulgarian roads amounts to about a 3-hour drive. Situated on the three hills of Tsarevets, Sveta Gore and Trapezitsa, and divided by the meandering Yantra River, the city offers evocative atmosphere and enchanting walks. As a home to one of Bulgaria’s biggest universities, it’s one of the country’s most bustling towns, charged with creativity, enthusiasm and joie de vivre. It offers an abundance of excellent restaurants, set amidst backyard gardens or overlooking the dramatic hills of Tsarevets, and has a very lively nightlife, too. Make sure you visit the Tsarevets Fortress.
Day 3: Horseback-riding in Arbanasi and Buzludzha Monument
Arbanasi, a little village, four kilometres away from Veliko Tarnovo, set on a high plateau overlooking the city, is often a weekend or holiday destination for many locals. Boasting many hotels and beautiful nature, it makes for a great retreat. We stayed in the stunning Arbanashki Han, one of the most vivid examples of traditional Arbanasi-style houses, set on a vast greenland surrounded with high stonewalls and gates. The interior is simple, yet evocative, adorned with detailed woodcarving on both the ceilings and furniture.
Arbanasi provides an excellent location for a horseback-riding trip. There are a number of providers, but make sure you arrange your trip in advance for the most professional and well-planned experience. We spent a couple of hours in the morning, clip-clopping through the forrest, after which we took off for one of Bulgaria’s Communism most sinister moments – the Buzludzha Monument. The abandoned, dilapidating, UFO-shaped structure is a concrete-charged communist monument built in the what would later turn out to be the last living hours of communism. It’s an awe-inspiring building and majestic manifestation of the evil of communism.
Once you’ve taken delight in it, make your way down south towards Plovdiv, at first through the myriad of potholes on the purpose-built road connecting the monument to the E85.
Day 4: The Roman Amphitheatre and Byzantine architecture in Plovdiv
Day 5: Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges
Day 6 and 7: Trigrad