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Experiencing the beauty of the Balkans in Bulgaria

Anand & Madhura Katti
Anand & Madhura Katti

Award winning travel journalists based in Mumbai, India

Sofia, Bulgaria  /  Wed, December 7, 2016  /  03:16 pm
Experiencing the beauty of the Balkans in Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Shutterstock/File)

Bulgaria, an agricultural country and tourist destination in Europe, features an incredibly diverse range of natural beauty steeped in glorious history, from the Balkan Mountains to the golden sand beaches of the Black Sea. The southeastern European nation occupies the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula.  

Veliko Tarnovo

The climb to the Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo is majestic. The stronghold at the peak of a hill by the same name was the medieval capital of the second Bulgarian Kingdom. Ruins of a palace and the church of St. Petka, along with some historic residences, water reservoirs and battle towers, are magnificent remnants of the glory of the bygone kingdom. History is made interesting through a sound and light show.

Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria, its history dating back more than 5,000 years. The town was the capital of the Bulgarian state from the 12th to 14th century. The fortress was besieged and burnt down by Ottoman forces at the end of the 14th century, leaving just the rock stronghold to depict history. 

Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria.(Shutterstock/File)

The Holy Forty Martyrs Church at the foot of the fort is a monument of culture. It is composed of two parts: the oblong basilica with six columns and an annex added later to the western side of the building. The Bulgarian Empire's most significant historical records are stored in the church.

The Yantra River surrounds the hill in this beautiful old city in northern Bulgaria. The river has its source at the northern foot of Hadzhi Dimitar Peak in Central Stara Planina. Standing 1,340 meters tall, Stara Planina (Old Mountain) is a scenic mountain in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, sheltering historic sites and natural landmarks.

Earlier, we arrived in Bulgaria's capital of Sofia and were amazed by the city’s well laid-out road network amidst its natural and historic bounty. Communist occupation for 44 years until 1990 had ensured restricted development, thus preserving much of its original beauty. A few big shopping malls and commercial complexes dotted along the aesthetic architecture in the city flag the foray into the current transition era of modern development. Some elderly tourists said it looked like the United Kingdom of two generations ago.

Traveling the 220 kilometers on wide highways devoid of heavy traffic from Sofia to Veliko Turnovo was a pleasant experience. Stopovers at gasoline stations were refreshing, with coffee and cake from the adjoining outlets. Alongside the mountain road, it’s easy to spot a few rare birds and plenty of edelweiss, a beautiful mountain flower that belongs to the sunflower family.

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Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo(Shutterstock/File)

Country cuisine

We stopped at the village of Arbanassi, four kilometers before reaching Veliko Turnovo, for lunch. The country cuisine is rich in dairy products of native breeds. Snezhanka, thick cream yoghurt with chopped gherkins, walnuts and garlic, was a yummy starter. Bob Chorba, the traditional bean soup with plenty of herbs and Kebaptchata, the spicy, grilled mincemeat sausages were delicious, as were the sweet pancakes.

At a village museum, an old home at Arbanassi is rendered to illustrate the local lifestyle. Natural granite flouring, white washed walls, large wooden beds with bright bed covers and conveniently arranged copper and iron utensils near the fireplace of the kitchen weren’t too different from the lifestyle of a traditional Indian family. The quaint little town on a high plateau has many historical monuments and churches of the 17th and 18th century.

The old part of Tarnovo city bustled with craft shops run by master craftsmen. A lady crocheting a shawl at the street corner had a beautiful display of her handwork on the wall behind her.

The Balkan Mountains divide the country in two. The highest peak is Botev (2376 meters) and the easternmost point is Cape Emine, where it juts into the Black Sea. 

Varna

The beach town of Varna, often referred to as "the gem of the Bulgarian Black Sea", is situated at the end of the big Varna bay. Established by immigrants in the 6th century BC, the town is now an amalgamation of ancient medieval renaissance and modern culture. The city's peculiar sea charm is sublime.

Our first halt was at the Roman Baths, a key monument on the cultural visit list of Varna. These public baths of Odessos are among the best-preserved architectural monuments of the Roman age in Bulgaria. The baroque-style Archaeological Museum of Varna, apart from original finds of the Paleolithic age of about 100,000 years BC, has the largest Mesolithic collection of flint tools in southeastern Europe. The Varna Necropolis is considered the oldest gold treasure in the world.

Aladzha Monastery, 17 km from central Varna and just 3 km from the beach, is a 40-meter high bi-level limestone carved structure. The first level has a kitchen, cemetery, monastery cells and a medieval Orthodox Church. 

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Aladzha Monastery(Shutterstock/File)

Burgas 

Located 120 km from Varna, Burgas is the administrative center of the South Black Sea region. The UNESCO World Heritage Town lies on a small peninsula linked to the new part of the town. Beautiful sights here include a sea garden, beaches, an art gallery and opera theaters.

A walking tour of the old town Nesebar is a pleasurable experience that takes one on cobblestone paths through small lanes and streets exuding an air of history, interesting shops and inviting restaurants. The 3200-year-old town once had as many as 40 churches. The remnants of 23 have been recovered and the former main church of the city of Mesemvria (the old name of Nesebar), called St. Sophia or Old Bishopric church, is among the best preserved churches.

St. Sophia or Old Bishopric church(Shutterstock/Takashi Images)

There are many ethnic souvenir and antique shops in the area. Most of the hotels and resorts are located in the new part of town. Nesebar and the nearby resorts of Sveti Vlas, Sunny beach, Pomorie and Ravda offer a diverse selection of leisure and entertainment options for visitors. To watch and dip into the sea where striking waves leave behind loads of white surf on the golden sand beaches seemed to be a favorite pastime for locals and visitors alike.

The trip was overwhelmingly refreshing for us, who had little expectations for this lesser-known country. It is a treat for anyone who likes to indulge in natural and ethnic beauty devoid of modern invasion.

 

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Anand & Madhura Katti (husband & wife team) are award winning travel journalists based in Mumbai, India. They travel across the country and the world, attending many travel trade, hotel industry summits, and conferences. They also have contributed to many Indian newspapers and some overseas publications for 26 years. Writers can be contacted at abkatti@gmail.com.

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