Rila mountain is a two hour drive from Sofia. The landscape is alpine, serene and astonishingly beautiful. Rila is known for the Seven Lakes area - glacial lakes, which reflect perfectly the surrounding peaks and the few puffy clouds in the sky. In my experience the hiking trails are well marked and signposted. If you are doing a popular hike, you meet people every now and then, which is comforting and you can ask for directions. I have done a five day hike to the highest peak – Musala 2925m and the Seven Rila lakes. You need to be relatively fit to do it. If you are not, do not worry. Most routes are loop hikes, so you can always stop in one of the mountain huts for a cup of tea. If you are doing a guided tour, ask your guide about the level of difficulty.
Pirin mountain is a three hour drive from Sofia. The starting point for most hiking routes is the ski resort Bansko or the nearby village of Dobrinishte. From Bansko you can go by car/taxi/shuttle bus to Vihren Hut, which is at the foot of peak Vihren, 2,914 m. In Bansko in July there is an international jazz festival. I also recommend going to Dobrinishte – there is a thermal spa pool surrounded by the view of snow-topped mountains. The perfect way to relax after your hike.
For a guided hiking tour, me and my husband have used the services of Penguin Bulgaria www.penguintravel.com and can recommend them. The advantages are that you have an English speaking guide, who knows the mountains; transfers to and from the mountains are included, they pick you up at the end of the walk by car and bring you to your hotel (in the event that you are not sleeping in the mountains), accommodation and meals are also included, they look after your luggage so you may be able to go with a daypack only.
It is a new chateau, ugly from the outside but great on the inside in the middle of the Rose Valley. Whether sitting on the terrace and looking at both the Balkan and Sredna Gora Ranges a few miles apart or eating, hiking or visiting history in the vicinity, at £35 a night its a steal.
Moskovits, nr Karlovo
+359 882 645 452
Head to Uzana, just north of Gabrovo and the geographical centre of Bulgaria, for a cheap and less crowded ski resort which hasn’t been completely saturated by tourists yet and so it’s mostly local people who holiday here. It won’t appeal to experienced skiers, given its size and smaller pistes, but it’s perfect for kids and us novices. The choice of accommodation will suit any budget from hijas (hostel-type accommodation) to affordable hotels, many of which offer lessons and have smaller slopes to practice on (and they let the dogs stay too!). Ski passes, clothing and equipment are a fraction of the price you’ll pay for at Bansko.
If you don’t fancy skiing, there are amazing walks and plenty of other things to do in the surrounding natural park and the views from the Stara Planina Mountain range are stunning. For cultural reprieve, the nearby cities of Gabrovo and historical Veliko Tarnovo are well worth days out.
On your travels: most restaurants will serve the homemade brandy (rakia) which is traditionally drunk with their delicious salads but be careful, if you drink too much of it you won’t be back on the slopes in a hurry! Or try a guvech: food cooked in a traditional clay oven pot, either with meat or cheesy vegetables, all washed down with good Bulgarian plonk. Happy days!
Bulgaria is known as a cheaper skiing destination, but the culture, traditions and cuisine are all worth exploring. Just a few miles east of the popular resort of Bansko is Dobrinishte, a bucolic village at the foot of Pirin mountain. Tucked away in the far corner of the village is the 'Makadonska Kruchma', a wonderful tavern that serves some of the best food and wines in the whole country. They also offer very comfortable and attractive rooms.
Dobrinishte is the first stop on a little narrow gauge railway that winds northwards through the mountains past small 'pomak' (Bulgarian Muslim) villages. It's painfully slow, but well worth it for the fine landscape.
Close to Pamporovo, another famous skiing resort, is the stone-and-slate village of Shiroka Laka. It's wonderfully pretty in the winter snow, and there are plenty more taverns to sample the fine Bulgarian cuisine. Gela - allegedly the birthplace of Orpheus - is just along the valley.
Ulitsa Targovska 1, Dobrinishte
Sozopol is located south of Burgas on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
Also see Nessebar (a lovely beach town) further down the coast, and take a boat from nearby Primorsko to see the lions head (part of the blue mountain range).
In Sozopol, Hotel Coral is a great place to stay.
I arrived in Varna from Istanbul, where after a long journey I attempted to use my Lonely Planet to find the great youth hostel promised in the centre of town.
Maybe it was the map, maybe it was the late hour, maybe it was the fact that it was dark, raining and not an English speaking soul was to be found. After 10 minutes walking around I gave up, checking in to a concrete monstrosity of a hotel frequented by many a Bulgarian lady of the night. Expensive and shoddy as it was I woke to a new day and found the hostel in about five minutes.
My tip? Find two french guys with a car and head north up the coast stopping in fishing villages, stopping at small rural shops to pick up some home made yoghurt, and soak up the glorious rock coastline of northern Bulgaria. In fact French guys with a car are optional.
Restaurant near the park. Great food, lovely courtyard, quiet and good prices. This was the first restaurant I ate at on my trip to Bulgaria and I don't think I topped it for the rest of the trip. A really beautiful place to stop for lunch.
47 Primorski Blvd, Varna, Bulgaria
Your trip to Bulgaria will be a better and richer experience the more contact you have with its many delightfully quirky locals. We took local buses everywhere and met loads of interesting people this way, including a Roma man and his disabled son, an American Peace Corps worker and a Bulgarian-Greek philosopher. We had an especially memorable trip from Veliko Tarnovo to Plovdiv. A man arrived with a large box and, after much discussion with the driver, the box was placed in the bus aisle, while the man walked away. As we drove off, the box began to shake violently. Seeing our alarm, a friendly student explained that it contained an injured stork who had been found and was being sent to the next town to an animal hospital. We assumed the stork was more likely to be off to become a meal somewhere but, when we pulled into the bus station in the next town, a woman in surgical scrubs was waiting. She told us she was the vet. We asked if she would be paid to treat the stork. She snorted and said, "Who would pay for such a thing?" Our bus trips were an unexpected highlight of an all-around wonderful trip, and revealed Bulgaria to us in all its strange, beautiful and surprisingly bird-loving glory.
Bus depots are in most towns and cities and run regular services
The Capitol Hotel (Art Hotel) has a nice 'tucked away' position in the city, it's small and stylish. Just over the road is the Sea Garden (a park full of amenities for kids and sports with huge Soviet era statues and gardens) which is adjacent to the beach. Stroll north through the Sea Garden and go down to one the many clean beaches, walk till you hit the Rappongi, a classy cocktail bar/restaurant with a sandy beach in front. Great value and top quality, you'll never want to leave.
After years of skiing in Canada, France and Switzerland, this was a totally unexpected mountainside gem. This restaurant/cafe is right at the top of the Pamporovo mountain resort in southern Bulgaria.
After a hard mornings skiing we walked in to find a roaring fireplace by which we hung up our jackets, gloves and hats so they were warm and dry by the time we left. We settled ourselves at a characterful log table close enough to the fire to feel the warmth thawing our bodies and ordered a spit roast chicken and chips from the menu. A limited number are roasted at lunchtime daily, and this was genuinely some of the best chicken I've ever had, served by very friendly locals, and for the astonishing price of about £4!
The Rhodopi mountains themselves offered a great number of slopes for beginners, which made up the majority of skiiers on the mountain when we were there. The runs were well graded and signposted clearly, and at the end of the week there were still new (parts of) red and blue runs we were discovering.
It was only on the penultimate day that we first plucked up the courage to tackle the (appropriately named) 'Wall' - a very steep black run with some fantastic moguls to challenge us! From the top the views were breathtaking.
Get there as soon as you can!
A tiny, beautiful Greek-influenced peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea that is the final resting place of St. John the Baptist, vampires from the Middle Ages and hundreds of marinated little fish that are perfect with the local wine! Watch the old ladies boiling up fig jam in the streets, stroll around the traditional stone and wood houses and then relax on the beach safe in the knowledge that a beer will cost you a Euro at best. Perfect!
Fly to Sofia and drive east to Burgas, then drive south a little while to reach Sozopol.
Google map: bit.ly/WvP90a
After years of skiing in Canada, France and Switzerland, it was the most magical thing to discover "The Lodge" restaurant/cafe at the top of Pamporovo mountain in Bulgaria. We walked in to a roaring fireplace, by which we hung up our mittens, jackets and hats so that they were warm and dry when we finally decided to leave the haven of The Lodge for some more great skiing.
Moreover, the food was outstanding. There are (limited numbers of) whole spit roast chickens cooked at lunchtime daily for hungry skiiers. I genuinely don't think I've had better chicken, and it set us back all of about £5 which is extraordinary value for a captive audience. Washed down well with some spiced wine.
Skiing in Pamporovo itself is fantastic. The tracks are well rated, and clearly signed. There is an abundance of beginner slopes, and these were more popular at least at the time we visited. By the end of six hard days skiing we were still finding new (parts of) red/blue runs we hadn't yet run, as well as only getting the confidence to tackle the (aptly named) 'Wall' on our penultimate day. For the braver skiers this is a steep and challenging black mogul field that affords absolutely breathtaking views.
Get there as soon as you can!
Pamporovo, Smolyan, Smolyan 4700, Bulgaria,
You can get a sense of both the Communist and royal past in the ski resort of Borovets. Samokov hotel gives a glimpse of the Communist past with its huge 11-storey building within which you can find a full size swimming pool, ten pin bowling alley, conference centre and shooting range - entertainment and brutalist architecture for the masses. A sense of an earlier royal past is provided by the Royal Bistria hunting lodge built at the end of the 19th century for Bulgarian monarchs nestling in the woods. If you are a Communist or royalist the skiing is good: there are enough descents through picturesque pine forest to keep most amused and it's much cheaper than the Alps. The Rila mountains are beautiful. You get a glimpse of their many lakes (120) on the way up from Sofia and if not skiing, mountain biking and walking are alternatives. On the way between Sofia and Borovets Mitropolitska church in Samokov is worth a stop to see its remarkable woodcarvings.
Arriving two hours late on the overnight sleeper from Istanbul, after five separate stops for checks by Turkish then Bulgarian border police in the middle of the night, it was bliss to find this cafe. With its worn squashy leather sofas surrounded by a sculpture garden, and a warm unhurried atmosphere, it provided the best hot chocolate I have ever had - pure, smooth, rich, dark nectar which lifted the spirts on a cold, grey October day. The art gallery was not very memorable, the hot chocolate was.
At the Church St Peter and St Paul in Veliko Tarnovo, often in the main and the shoulder season, three or four members of the choir sing beautiful hymns for 10/15 minutes. One competed at LLangollen International Musical Eisteddfod 20/25 years ago. Match the visual quality of the town with a magnificent aural feast.
Google map: bit.ly/11rsCA2
Sofia is beyond amazing, where else can you get a vast cathedral, a huge mosque and an enormous synagogue within walking distance of each other?
For skiers Bansko must be the best. A magnificent mountain, with runs of all colours, and a village which is like a doughnut. At its core is the old town, wiggly streets with mehanas (bars/restaurants) dating back hundreds of years, surrounded by modern hotels, restaurants and apartments.
If anyone comes to Bulgaria and does not visit The Rila Monastery they have missed a world heritage site.
Bulgaria (in my humble opinion) is even better when the snow is gone, walking, birds, butterflies etc.
Bulgaria, for a British person, is still cheap. The locals are ridiculously friendly. The skiing/snowboarding is good. The culture is amazing.
It’s an hour and a half by car from Veliko Tarnovo to get to the low-key ski resort of Uzana. A perfect place for children, novice skiers and those of a nervous disposition who still want to give skiing a go. Lessons are approximately 25 leva (£12.50) an hour including ski’s, poles and boots. There are no funicular lifts because the runs are short but there are those mad pulley sort of arrangements to get you back up to the top of the slopes. Uzana differs from Bansko and other ski places in south east Bulgaria by being quiet, refined, small and charming. Good hot chocolate from the resort hotels too.
Along with Bansko and Pamporovo, Borovets is one of the most popular destinations for skiing and snowboarding in Bulgaria. In my opinion it is the best place to go because there aren't many people, especially if you go on my personal favourite slopes Yastrebetz (1,2 and 3), Popangelov and Markudjik (1 and 2). It is near the capital - Sofia, you need an hour and a half or two to get there, so you can leave in the morning and be there by 10am, register in a hotel, guest house or a villa, eat something and be ready to go skiing or snowboarding by noon. You can buy a half-day lift pass which is 25 levas (about 13 euros) on the weekends and you can start using it at 12pm - the lift pass is for all the facilities in Borovets.
I was there this weekend and we stayed at a guest house, where we paid 20 levas (10 euros) per bed for one night, which is cheap, considering we are in the middle of the ski season. It was an amazing weekend, the weather was great, it was sunny, there was a lot of snow, all the slopes were fabulous.
A nice restaurant in the heart of Sofia, very close to the main landscapes. It is interesting with the ancient Roman wall passing through the restaurant and also with the nice paintings (the restaurant has expositions of Bulgarian artists). The food and the wines are very good, the service is quite attentive. They have also a nice bar to continue the evening ...
17 Al. Stamboliyski Blvd
+359 980 74 77
Google map: bit.ly/rU5YdS
I thoroughly recommend the area as a walking (or nature) holiday. The area is in SE Bulgaria, on the border with Turkey. It has exceptionally contrasting landscapes from the undeveloped coast of the Black Sea to low mountains and hilly landscapes with steep river valleys. It can be visited into September/ October. It allows a glimpse into the unspoilt rural Bulgaria of quiet villages with ramshackle houses surrounded by fruit trees and well-tended vegetables. Oak woodland cloaks the hills with some stunning open, flower-rich fields with goats (and I saw water buffalo) herded by shepherds.
One particularly impressive area was the broad meanders of the untamed Veleka River or the old forest, called the ‘Living Museum’ for its ancient trees, at Kondolovo.
Local culture is still strong, though threatened by abandonment. I attended a chapel blessing, involving much dancing and eating kurban, a local speciality – a stew made from a sacrificial lamb.
Strandja is easy to reach by flights to Burgas and hiring a car. I was superbly guided by Anja and Dave from VisitStrandja and they could speak Bulgarian, English, Dutch and German!
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