Who would’ve thought that Bulgaria had such beautiful beaches. This Balkan country has 380 kilometres of coastline on the westside of the Black Sea. We’d already seen Black Sea beaches in Batumi, Georgia and came away not that impressed. But, as the old saying goes, “Westside is the Bestside” and in this case it most definitely is true.
Having not seen any sea for over a month we’ve ploughed our way across the Romanian border and headed straight for Varna in the east of Bulgaria. Varna is Bulgaria’s third largest city and its largest seaside resort. Whilst the beaches themselves in Varna aren’t magnificient, there are a number of other things to see and do around the city.
The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral is certainly the most impressive sight to be seen in Varna. The second largest Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, it was opened in 1886 and is now home to the bishopric of Varna and Preslav. Inside is also nice and when I visited, not crowded, but the exterior is what impresses most.
Just across the road from the Cathedral is an example of some of the more modern architecture, dating back to early 1900’s.
Unknown to me at the time and situated 4 kilometres from the city centre, is the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, which is considered to be one of the key archaeological sites in world prehistory. In one of the tombs around 1,000 objects have been discovered including 31 golden pieces of necklace, which represent the oldest worked gold pieces on earth. Only discovered in 1972, the oldest gold treasure in the world dates back to to 4,600 BC to 4,200 BC and is now housed in the Varna Arachaeological Museum, which has helpful English transalations.
Varna’s Primorski Park, which is also known as the Seaside Park is also worth wandering through. I caught up with Vassil, a running buddy of mine from the UAE, for a trot around the park, which was extremely pleasant. The kids meanwhile had found their own gold back at the hotel, when they discovered the swimming pool.
Having dipped our toes in Varna, it was time to head south to Vassils parents’ dacha which they’d kindly lent us. The drive down to Chernomerets, where the “dacha” was located, gave us an opportunity to view what seemed like an endless expanse of seaside resorts along the way.
Just past the popular seaside resort of Sunny Beach is the ancient town of Nesebar, which is situated on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea.
Crossing the causeway to get to the Old Town takes you past an old wooden windmill which was built during the Renaissance period when the area was under Ottoman rule.
In 1983, due to the town’s rich historic buildings, Nesebar was included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Often referred to as the Pearl of the Black Sea, there is evidence of archaelogical structures that date back to 2,000 BC. Originally the Thracian settlement of Menebria, the city became a Greek colony in the 6th century BC and remains from this time include an acropolis, a temple of Apollo, an agora and a wall from the Thracian fortifications.
During the Middle Ages, other buildings and monuments, including 40 churches, were built which not only contribute to the cultural richness of the site but give it its soul.
One of the more interesting churches happens to also be one which has been least preserved. The Church of Saint Sophia is completely open which provides, rightly or wrongly, the opportunity to scramble over an important piece of history. Initially built as early as the 5th century AD, its current structure “only” dates back to the 9th century AD.
History aside, just wandering around all the narrow streets and alleyways is an amazing way to spend a couple of hours in a place that is simply too gorgeous for words.
having visited not quite all of the 40 “deceased” churches, on the way back out we also had a quick look at Nesebar’s only functioning church, the Dormition of Theotokos with its golden-coloured spire.
After dragging the kids through UNESCO World Heritage sites, it was only fair to also let them have some downtime. Having reached Chernomerets, a 10 minute drive takes you to the lovely beach of Gradina, which introduced us properly to the beautiful golden sands of this stretch of the Black Sea.
Whilst playing in the kid friendly waters, we could see the Old Town in Sozopol in the distance which often is compared to Nesebar and which was next on our agenda.
While there are similarities between Sozopol and Nesebar, there is also enough differences to make them worth visiting individually. Whilst Nesebar has the cute narrow streets and tons of old Byzantine-style churches, Sozopol has more of a lived in feel and is a great place to perch on the side of cliffs eating freshly caught seafood and watching the waves crash below.
That’s not to say that there still isn’t plenty to see in the Old Town. Like Nesebar, there are remains of medieval churches which date back to the 10th century AD and which themselves were built over the ruins of buildings from the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Apollonia in the 5th to 2nd century BC.
Sozopol also benefits from having an easily accessible and nice beach within the Old Town, which Nesebar didn’t, as well as a pleasant marina on the westside of the peninsula.
From the marina it is possible to take a trip to the nearby Saint Ivan (Saint John’s) Island, which is Bulgaria’s largest island. Here researchers unearthed holy relics of Saint John the Baptist (five bone particles and a tooth) which are now housed at the St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church and attract pilgrims from all over the world. DNA testing have proved the bones came from a man who lived in the Middle East at the same time as Jesus, in the middle of the first century AD. Not too many pilgrims where there the day we visited giving the place a nice peaceful feel.
While we only scratched the coastal surface of Bulgaria, what we did see was fascinating. The country doesn’t receive too many western tourists, although judging by the number plates of cars on the road, neighbouring Romanians definitely value its many attractions as they seem to make up nearly quarter of the traffic on the busy coastal road. We would have loved to have spent more time in the interior of Bulgaria, as there are some beautiful sights to see including the Belogradchik Rocks, Rila Monastery, Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, Pirin National Park and a wide range of other natural and cultural attractions, but alas time doesn’t permit this trip. It’s now time to leave Europe, board a lovely 3.50am flight and head to a new continent in search of troglodytes.