Five centuries subjugated to Ottoman rule and, more recently, four decades locked very firmly behind the Iron Curtain turned Bulgaria into a distant, enigmatic country in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Images of cheap wine downed at student house parties, budget ski holidays and umbrella-wielding Cold War assassins were once among the popular stereotypes, but Bulgaria today is a vastly different country from what it was even 10 years ago.
For most foreign holidaymakers, Bulgaria’s main lure is its long, sandy Black Sea Coast – which still boasts swaths of stunning beaches and picturesque bays despite the expansive construction work – but there is so much more to this country, and so much of it remains largely untouched and unvisited by overseas tourists. Networks of well-maintained hiking trails and horse-riding routes allow you to discover Bulgaria’s lush mountainous and forested landscapes, especially around the Rila and Pirin Mountains, inhabited by bears, lynx, rare birds and other kinds of wildlife now becoming scarce elsewhere in Europe. Getting around the country is easy, with cheap and efficient public transport to ferry you between the cities and into the remoter, rural corners, where the traditional, slow pace of life continues much as it has done for centuries. Here you’ll come across multicoloured monasteries, filled with fabulous icons and watched over by bushy-bearded priests, and impossibly pretty timber-framed villages with smoke curling lazily over the stone-tiled roofs and donkeys complaining in the distance, where headscarfed old ladies and their curious grandchildren still stare in wonderment at the arrival of outsiders. The cities, too, are often overlooked highlights, from dynamic, cosmopolitan Sofia with its lovely parks, sociable alfresco bars and fascinating museums, to the National Revival architectural treasures and Roman remains of Plovdiv, and the youthful maritime cockiness of Varna.
A fully paid-up member of NATO and (since 2007) the EU, Bulgaria has the feel of a nation at a very important crossroads. Massive foreign investment has created a construction boom, not just around the larger beach and mountain tourist resorts, but in the cities, too. More tourists than ever are discovering this country and an ever-rising number of foreigners are investing in property here. At the same time, the Bulgarian population is declining faster than almost anywhere else in Europe, wages are amongst the lowest on the continent – prompting increasingly long and bitter strikes – and the old problems of bureaucratic incompetence and organised crime bubble away in the background. The environmental damage caused by overdevelopment has been a particular cause for public alarm over recent years, and there are several national and international organisations campaigning to bring some of these issues to wider world attention. However much they complain, though, Bulgarians are a patriotic, if modest, bunch – when they ask you, as they often will, if you like their country, they genuinely care that you leave with good impressions.
Prices have certainly risen since Bulgaria became a member of the EU, but compared with countries in Western Europe, travellers will find it by and large a pleasingly cheap destination, and an easy and enjoyable one to travel round once you’ve mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and enough Bulgarian to buy a bus ticket. Bring your own transport and the whole country is yours to explore.