The Republic of Bulgaria sits to the south of Romania on the shore of the Black Sea. An ancient country, it has served for centuries as a crossing-point from East to West. As such, its long and troubled history is evident in its culture and archaeological remains – Thracians, Greeks, Romans and Bulgars have all left their stamp on it.
Today, Bulgaria is well known for the stunning Balkan Mountains that cut across the country and for its rich traditions of folklore, music and storytelling. In the last few years, Bulgaria’s comparatively low prices and rapidly expanding tourist industry have led to an influx of visitors, heading in particular for its beach and ski resorts.
The official language of Bulgaria is Bulgarian, a Slavic language very closely related to neighbouring Macedonian. About 10% of the population speak Turkish.
Some simple Bulgarian words and phrasesZdravéi – helloDovízhdane – goodbyeDá – yesNé – noMólia – pleaseBlagodarya – thank youGovórite li anglíski? – do you speak English?
Currency in Bulgaria is the Lev (lv), subdivided into 100 Stotinki. The Lev is pegged to the Euro. At the time of writing (August 2006):US$1 : 1.52 lvUK£1 : 2.88 lv€1 : 1.96 lv
Banknotes are issued in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 Leva. Coins are available in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 Stotinki and 1 Lev.
Be very wary of people who approach you on the street and offer a good exchange rate (and bear in mind that pre-1999 currency is worthless). Independent currency exchangers and even banks may refuse to handle traveller’s cheques. ATMs are freely available in the big cities, but not in the smaller towns and villages.
Bulgaria’s position and topography lead to a surprisingly variable climate. Situated in between the Continental and Mediterranean zones and with its mountainous terrain, there is a complex interplay of influences and different regions are variously affected. Winters are cold with high levels of snow; in the summer, the weather is hot and dry.
Due to the effect of the Balkan Mountains running across the country, temperatures in the north tend to be slightly cooler and rainfall significantly higher. On the coast of the Black Sea, humidity can be high and the winter brings high winds and storms.
Over two-thirds of Bulgaria’s tourists head for the coastal resorts along the shore of the Black Sea. The 250 miles of coastline boast a wide range of large and small hotels, most of them privately run and maintained to Western standards. The resorts of Golden Sands, Varna and Sunny Beach are among the most popular. As well as family activities and relaxing on the beach, more active and adventurous choices are on offer: surfing, diving, sea-fishing and water-skiing, amongst others.
In the Balkans, the ski resorts compete favourably with their more expensive European competitors and are gaining popularity with English tourists. In the summer months, climbers, hikers, cyclists and horse riders head for the mountains.
Cultural tourism is also on the increase. There are traditional villages hidden away from the major towns, with folk festivals and insights into rural life to be found; many people believe that Bulgaria’s best is to be found in these, off the beaten path of the resorts and cities. There are also many ancient ruins, museums and monasteries, though poor administration means that these are often badly advertised and may not be easily accessible to tourists.
Western-style shopping complexes are starting to open in the larger cities, though Bulgaria is comparatively cheap compared to other European countries.
Bulgarian crafts tend to be based around domestic skills. If you are after traditional goods, look for embroidered dresses (usually decorated with detailed geometric patterns), brightly coloured rugs, ceramics and jewellery. Woodcarving and painted icons are other ancient Bulgarian crafts.
Nightlife in Bulgaria is extensive and varied. Sofia, the capital, has a variety of bars, clubs and discos. Sofia also has a strong classical music scene; try the National Palace of Culture for details. November brings an International Jazz Festival, with classical music and ballet in the summer months. Opera is performed at the State Opera House.
The beach resorts along the coast of the Black Sea, very popular in the summer, also have entertainment to suit most tastes.
Many of Bulgaria’s 8000 miles of road are in poor condition or badly marked, particularly in rural areas. It is also worth knowing that many signs may only be in Bulgarian. Unless you know at least the Cyrillic alphabet, it is a good idea to take a map with you that also has place names in Latin characters. Drive on the right.
Standards of driving can also be very bad. Many drivers speed, ignore traffic rules and conventions and can drive aggressively. Lighting may be poor in some areas, making night driving dangerous.
The drink-drive limit is 0.05%. Police may levy on-the-spot fines for various offences – make sure you get a receipt. Don’t park in obviously restricted areas, even if everyone else is doing so.
Food and Drink
Due to its long history and position between Romania, Greece and Turkey, Bulgarian food is tremendously varied. Typical ingredients are beans, potatoes, tomatoes and milk products, as well as various meats and fish. Bulgarian food is traditionally cooked slowly, often on charcoal, leading to tasty and nutritious soups and casseroles.
National specialities include Shopska salata, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and sheep’s cheese, slow-roasted shish-kebab, moussaka and stuffed cabbage leaves.
Bulgaria has been a winemaking country from the very earliest times and is now the second largest exporter in the world. The country is divided into five different winemaking regions, each with different characteristics. Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay are popular. Beer is also widely drunk.