As more people are vaccinated and countries open to cross border travel for those with a Covid certificate, Bulgaria emerges as one of the first places ready to accept international tourists. Covid infection rates in the country have been low to moderate and the local vaccination program is ongoing. The country has had two waves since the beginning of the pandemic, but the average number of new cases in July for the whole country remained under 70 which compared to Finland’s July average of 300 is rather tolerable.
The numbers for the Varna area were tenth of that, less than 10 cases per day. Bars and restaurants are open for business and some resorts are fully booked. Conditions to travel are same as for many other EU countries; i.e. certificate of a second dose administered at least 14 days before arrival or a negative test result not older than 72 hours.
Beach holiday is the most common reason for tourists to travel to Bulgaria. The country is situated to the west of Turkey and north of Greece and has a Black Sea coast line of 378 kilometres, with numerous public and private beaches. Sunny beach still maintains its reputation as the party-lover place of choice destination and is favoured by young travellers. The beach has several discos and night clubs. The guides say that at the height of the party season, there are always a couple of ambulances staying on guard ready to carry the casualties of wild parties to hospital.
While Sunny Beach is probably the most well known destination for many, there are plenty of other places to enjoy the golden sands of the southern Black Sea coast. One of these is the beachfront of the city of Varna itself, which - due to the close by harbour and commercial ship traffic - may not be the most picturesque beach, but is certainly lively and full of people. The old soviet era dressing rooms, which initially were built to separate swimming areas for men and women are now transformed to beach side bars. Cubo is one of these bars which has gained a reputation for being the hip place for young locals and tourists.
The small town of Nessebar, which used to be an island before being connected to the mainland by a bridge, is a popular tourist destination with both beaches and interesting cultural and historical buildings, including churches and ruins of baths from the Roman period. The town also has numerous restaurants, shops and bars. Michael’s Eco Bar is one worth visiting. Shaped like a cave with water running through it, the bar has a naturally cool atmosphere in a hot sunny day. You may easily be fulled by the turtles in the pond to take them as sculptures, but if you observe long enough you will see a head moving or one slipping into the water to swim.
Varna Archeological Museum
Even if you are travelling for the beach and the sun, it is definitely worth the time to spend an afternoon in Varna’s Archeological Museum. Bulgaria has an interesting and volatile history and the present time Bulgarians are not the first people to have occupied the land. Ancient traces of civilisation can be found everywhere and diggings have produced plenty of interesting artefacts from different periods, going back to the the early Palaeolithic Age (about 100 000 BC). The permanent exhibition of the museum displays skeletons and objects from the Thracian era to the Greek and Roman times. The two story building and its basement which was originally constructed as girl’s high school, provides 2150 square meters of exhibition space.
Some of the most interesting parts of the permanent exhibitions are the artefacts from the world-famous Eneolithic Necropolis of Varna which were discovered accidentally in 1972 in an industrial construction site.
Archeologists were then called to the site where they discovered 294 tombs. In 57 tombs there is no human skeleton, but only a mask decorated with metals or bones. Only three contain the largest part of gold objects. The most fascinating of these is the tomb 43, which contained a well preserved skeleton of a man who appears to have been a tribal king with gold ornaments and tools placed around him.
University Bothanic Gardens
Situated in a protected area, the botanic gardens of Balchik have an interesting and complex history. The garden was first stablished by Queen Mary of Romania, who wanted a getaway for as a spiritual retreat. Queen Mary who had converted to the Bahai religion constructed a palace called the Quite Nest.
The palace and several residential and support buildings, including a chapel, wine cellar, monastery, smoking hall and residential villas were constructed between 1926 and 1937. The surrounding garden which has an area of 65,000 square metres and accommodates 2000 plant species belonging to 85 families and 200 genera.
One of the garden's main attractions is the collection of large-sized cactus species occupying 1,000 square metres. This is the second largest cactus collection of its kind in Europe after the one in Monaco. The area also has an artificially built waterfall, where the sea water is pumped up to fall back towards the see. The restaurant in the garden is called Corona, referring to the Queen - unfortunate coincidence at the time of a Coronavirus pandemic.
Situated 60 kilometres northeast of Varna, this 12 kilometre long cape has diverse history. Due to its strategic location and geography, the cape has been used as a fortification since ancient times by Thracians, Romans, Ottomans and now partly serves as a military area for the Bulgarian navy. Remains of fortifications from different era, together with ruins of residential buildings and baths of the roman time still exist in the area.
There are several stairways leading to the water level from sides of the narrow cape from the steep 70 meter high cliffs. If you are around, Cape Kaliakra is definitely worth visiting. The windy plateau extending from Kavarna to Kaliakra is one of the windiest places in Bulgaria and studded with wind turbines. Between 2003 and 2015 over 318 wind turbines were erected in Bulgaria, most of them in the Black see coast area. At the end of 2015 the wind power in Bulgaria had production capacity of 691MW represented 3.23% of the whole power generated in the country for that period.
Around the same time ten years ago, three golf resorts were established along the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. All three resorts, Lighthouse Golf Resort, Black Sea Rama and Thracian Cliffs are located in a 6 km radius from each other and all three off them offer amazing views of the Black Sea. They all offer a membership / ownership concept where you can buy a villa in the resort and let the club rent it out for you when you are not using it. The three golf resorts collaborate in arranging tournaments and other activities, even though all have different owners.
Light House Golf & Spa resort
The Light House is the only one of the three golf resorts with a five star hotel and spa, in addition to the holiday residence villas for purchase or rent. The hotel has 180 luxurious and specious double guest rooms and club suites and 4 exclusive Penthouse Suites featuring modern design and comfort. The resort has a spa with traditional and infrared saunas, Turkish bath and Jacuzzis, etc. Different kinds of massages are also available to book.
The resort has an 18 hole golf course, a golf shop and a range with professional teachers available.
Thracian Cliffs Golf and Beach Resort
Thracian Cliffs has one of the most attractive private beaches in the Bulgarian Black Sea coast line. The narrow and cosy beach backed by cliffs on the coast side is equipped with a bar and restaurant and comfortable hammocks and sun-beds. The sand and the sea are clean and suitable for both swimming and water sports. Maybe for this reason, not all guests are golfers and many come only to enjoy the location. The Marina and Hill Side villages include luxury properties for purchase or rent.
Black Sea Rama Golf & Villas
Featuring an 18 hole signature golf course designed by Garry Palyer, the resort also has a beach and several villa complexes with shops and restaurants. The golf course is one of the most uneven golfing venues in the world with plenty of ups and downs for every hole.
A one bedroom villa with a bathroom costs around 250€ per night for two people. The price includes breakfast and use of spa, but you have to pay for playing at the golf course.
One highlight of the resort is its amphitheater constructed in the ancient style with reconstructed ruin of a castle and an spectacular view of the Black Sea over the cliffs. The amphitheater is a favourite place for holding wedding ceremonies and often booked for that purpose. Occasionally also concerts are held in the venue. The rent for the amphitheater itself is just €250 and cost for the wedding reception around 60€ per guest.
Dimo’s residential dining
As the minibus arrives in front of a villa in Tsar Boris III street, situated 10 kilometres and a 20 minutes drive from Varna, the charismatic owner and host, Dimo Atanasov is outside waiting to welcome the guests. Push of a button and the large iron gate slides open. Inside, the view of a garden with a diverse selection of plants is the first to notice. In a plot of over 6000 square meters there are three buildings connected with stone paved paths covered partly with pergolas. Grapevine branches with shiny green leaves and still unripe grapes cover the pergola. “In Bulgaria we have these pergolas in every yard. They are normally covered with vine branches to provide a shadow and a fresh cool air. The grapes of course are used to make wine.” Dimo is the president of Varna Wine Club and produces his own wine. Dinner table is set with appetisers, but the topic of the night is wine tasting. The patio is decorated with interesting artefacts ranging from historical reliefs and ceramics to modern art style statues and objects. Jazz songs are played from a vinyl record. One Bulgarian win after another is served with food presented by the host who at times draws the wine areas on a map on the wall using a laser pointer.
Dimo’s private dinners are definitely worth the evening and the travel. Dimo is a professional long time restauranteur and wine expert who enjoys what he is doing. The main building of the villa took 5 years to build, as he wanted it to be in the style of traditional stone villas and castles of the area which are slower to build and less constructors are able to do it. The milieu and hospitality is pleasant and welcoming. There is also the possibility of short term accommodation in the building. “This place is not suitable for long stays, but you can start with a long dinner, stay over night and enjoy the breakfast the next day,” explains Dimo.
The Bulgarian Wine
Bulgaria is divided into 5 viticultural regions with their own varieties of wines: Northern region or “The Danube Plain”, Eastern or “The Black Sea” region, Sub-Balkan or “The Rose Valley” region, Southern or “The Thracian Lowland” region and the South-Western or “The Valley of The Struma River.” Each of these regions grow different generic grape types such as Merlot, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon and an autochthon grape variety: Misket, Rubin Rosé, Pamid, Rubin and Mavrud.
While travelling in Bulgaria there are frequent opportunities to taste the wines of local vineries, with a wide range of quality and taste. There are so many large and small wineries with their own methods and grapes, that no standard quality can be expected.
Bulgarian wine may not beat the best French or Spanish wines, but is definitely worth tasting and getting acquainted with. While three or four samples would feel unseasoned, the fifth may surprise you. The full-bodied wine from Mavrud grape is certainly one of those.
The first and only Oyster Farm
Mussels are natural to the Black Sea and one of the delicacies offered almost in every restaurant and buffet table. There are also over 25 mussel farms in Bulgaria, some with their own restaurants, where you can have mussels for appetiser, soup, main dish and desert. Only the chef’s creativity seems to be the limit.
There is however only one Oyster Farm in Bulgaria, which is situated between Kranevo and Golden Sands near Varna. Kosta Petrov was a mechanical engineer with an enthusiasm for oysters. He had worked for different companies in a variety of North Asian countries from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan; designing food production and automation machinery among others. Inspired by a science program on the Discovery Channel, he got interested in the possibility of farming oysters in the Black Sea. Thus a long process of research and experimentation started, It took Kosta and his son Peter 7 years of self-learning to get to the point of establishing their oyster farm.
Currents are essential for optimal nutrient availability for oysters and the location was chosen based on this and other parameters. The father and son duo imported Pacific seed oysters from Bay of Biscay and started their farm. The business looked promising in 2019 with a sales of two tons of oysters to Romania, but the pandemic forced restaurants to close and consumption decreased. In order to promote local consumption of their oysters, Kosta and Peter opened a small three table restaurant called “Stridarium” in the central area of Varna where Bulgarian white wine is served with fresh oysters.
Kosta believes that his oysters are one of the best in the world. “Black Sea salt level and other nutrients are unique and the conditions are optimal for oysters,” says Kosta. It takes around a year and a half for oysters to reach a medium consumption size and at the moment the farm has a 4 ton yearly production capacity. “Our main problem is that Bulgaria is not known for oysters and we have to introduce our product to the rest of the world.” Kosta’s oysters are indeed much larger than the most common ones offered in oyster bars and restaurant in Europe. The taste is also fresh and good.
The maintenance and service problem
Bulgaria is a beautiful country with lots of new resorts and hotels constructed during the last 20 years. Soviet style buildings and monuments still dominate parts of the cities, with magnificent historical buildings hidden in between. New construction can also bee seen everywhere. The common caveat of the fast development are the problems of quality and more often maintenance. Even in the top hotels or resorts there is always something broken, not working or missing. These are not momentary problems, often one can see that the defect has been left unprepared for quite a while. The quality problem is also apparent in the roads connecting cities or villages. Even though the driving culture is civilised and cars keep to their lanes, the bumpiness and sometimes lack of asphalt roads are bothersome. For that reason, renting a car and driving around may not turn out to be a relaxing way of seeing the country.
There were direct flights to Varna from many European capitals before the pandemic, but lack of demand has reduced them to almost none. Finding a direct flight to Sofia is also not easy at the moment. That leaves international hubs such as Munich and Frankfort for the best possible routs. Bulgarian Airlines flies to Varna from Sofia a couple of times every day. The equipment is modern and the flight takes less than an hour. Transportation time from airport to the city is also short. Locals warn about “fake taxies” which would charge you much more than the fare level that is normally at least a third of what you would pay in Finland or other Northern European countries for the same ride. Otherwise getting around is easy and you feel safe all the time.
Bulgaria is definitely a country worth visiting and if you are looking for a perfect beach holiday spiced with some cultural site seeing in a safe post-covid environment, this is certainly a good option.