‘Oh, you live in Bulgaria?’ says a random stranger. You can guarantee the next thing they say is, ‘Anywhere near Sunny Beach?’
I’m allowed to slag off Sunny Beach because, unlike most Sun journalists, I’ve actually been there. When we were thinking of buying a house in BG and had no idea which area to focus on, we booked a Club 18–30 holiday for £99 to Sunny Beach. Naturally, as soon as we arrived, we ditched the 18–30 gang, hired a car and headed off to see some of the country, but we did get to experience Sunny Beach for a while. The beach itself is pristine. Unfortunately, almost everything behind the beach is a concrete eyesore: hotels, casinos, bars, strip clubs, etc. There are loads of stories about drunk Brits getting beaten up, robbed, or swindled. As (somewhat) sensible adults who were at the ragged end of the 18–30 demographic, we didn’t have any trouble at all. But we’ve all heard the stories.
I recently got a tattoo* back home in Portsmouth. Even my tattooist, who is from Thailand, was dissing Bulgaria:
‘Why do you want a tattoo of mountains?’ he asked.
‘It’s for the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria.’
‘Bulgaria? Shit there innit?’
‘You sure? Someone told me it’s shit there.’
Sigh. ‘I’m sure.’
I hate that people who have never been here tar the whole of Bulgaria with the Sunny Beach brush. It’s just the latest cheap-as-shit destination for teenagers, like Faliraki was before it. It’s no more representative of Bulgaria than Faliraki was of the whole of Greece. (I can also legit slag off Faliraki because I passed through there about 16 years ago and it looked vile to me. And I was a right chav back then.) There’s so much more to Bulgaria than Sunny Beach. Even The Guardian says so, so it must be true.
For our anniversary this month, we’re doing a trip to the Troyan Monastery and a heritage village that had a chapel inside a tree trunk. Because that’s the kind of freaky shit that goes down in the real Bulgaria. We’re also planning to explore the Central Balkan National Park, just an hour or two from us, later in the summer. (We might camp, although we probably won’t on account of all the snakes that will want to get into my bed/shoes/hair. But there are plenty of guest houses to stay in.) There’s also the Pirin National Park and Rila National Park to explore – the national parks are full of stunning (and pretty challenging) hiking routes, as well as bears, wolves, vultures, etc. Did you know that Bulgaria is a bird watcher’s paradise? We regularly see eagles flying above our house.
|Photographic evidence of me in a cave. Being outdoorsy and stuff.
|The ‘Eyes of God’, Prohodna Cave.|
If you love a beach holiday, there are still some (relatively) unspoilt parts of the coastline. The trick is to not go where the Brits go – those places are, by and large, awful. Having said that, Nesebar, just a few miles from Sunny Beach, is a lovely place for a day trip. Burgas is a nice city on the coast. And Sozopol is a beautiful historic seaside town. Personally, I’d head down to Sinemorets, down by the Turkish border, where there are only a couple of big hotels and lots of small guesthouses. More adventurous folk can even try a bit of wild camping on the beach.
|Me in Nesebar. Back when I was young enough to squeak onto an 18-30 holiday.
Bulgaria is home to the Horizon festival, which I gather is a HUGE deal among those who like skiing and electronic music. (Not my scene. I’ll be at home by the woodburner, thanks.) And friends of ours are going to some 12-hour drum and bass festival in July, right next to Sofia airport, which sounds brilliantly weird. Hipster types will love Meadows in the Mountains, which basically takes over a village in the Rhodope Mountains each June. It sounds painfully cool, so naturally I want to go so bad, but it’s a bit too pricey. We went to the Spirit of Burgas festival once. It was cheap and good (complete with camping on the beach), but I’m not sure it’s going ahead this year.
Or you should come for a city break. I’ve wanged on before about how much I love Sofia, so I won’t do it again. Let’s just say it’s worth a visit. As is Plovdiv, with its beautiful old town (apparently Europe’s oldest city, although I think the Greeks might beg to differ). We’ve also been to Veliko Tarnovo a couple of times, and I like its bonkers, mashed-into-the-hillside appearance. Varna, out on the coast, is next on our city break to-do list.
There aren’t many motorways in Bulgaria so, if you drive anywhere, chances are you’ll pass through plenty of small towns and villages. Don’t be shy – stop and wander around, being sure to say ‘dobar den’ (‘good day’, the traditional greeting) to people. If you’re lucky, one of the old folks might invite you in for some homemade rakia (fruit brandy), pork fat (yes, really) and pickled vegetables (surprisingly tasty). Then you’re really experiencing Bulgaria.
*Despite my crippling health anxiety, the tattoo is still not infected.