Over a very long weekend last Spring, Evan and I flew from Israel to Bulgaria, rented a car, and drove all over the Western part of the country. Nowhere I’ve visited is as underrated as Bulgaria, what a beautiful and seemingly untouched place!
Bulgaria’s quiet capital is set in a picturesque mountainous landscape– Vitosha mountain hits you smack in the face as soon as you land. We stepped out of the airport and both said “wow”.
Visiting Sofia’s museums and religious sites will help you get a grasp of Bulgarian history and culture, which is much richer and interesting than I had ever anticipated. The city itself contains an eclectic mix of styles from all periods of history, from Ancient Greek to Brutalist to Modern. There are Ottoman mosques, Byzantine churches, Russian Orthodox cathedrals, and impressive Sephardic synagogues, so if you’re into architecture (or cheap beer) like me, you’ll love Sofia.
After visiting various religious sites, we walked along Vitosha street to the ruins of Serdica, the Roman city upon which Sofia was built.
Sofia’s recent history was characterized Socialism, and if you take a “Communist tour”, which I highly recommend, you’ll get to see the secret entrances of old government buildings, hidden symbols and hear about life under the Socialist regime. Most older people, like in other parts of the Balkans, have a nostalgia for the 1970’s-90’s because Bulgaria was economically doing much better under the Socialist regime than it is today.
And if you haven’t had enough politics, there’s a Socialist Art museum just outside of the city, with vintage propaganda movies, music, sculptures. Public transit in Sofia really great, another product of the Socialist era!
We were stunned by the sheer amount of flowers everywhere. Bulgaria is the world’s biggest exporter of roses, but since it wasn’t quite rose season yet, the place was covered in red and yellow tulips instead.
Rose season is in June and is apparently insanely busy, so we figured we’d go early and beat the crowds. I definitely would recommend it, because there weren’t any tourists. But, of course, now I want to go back to see the roses!
Our third day, we, on a whim, drove half-way across the country and snuck into the abandoned former communist HQ. You can read about THAT adventure here: Exploring Buzludzha, the Abandoned Communist Headquarters of Bulgaria
Hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, is set to be 2019’s European Capital of Culture– this is the traditional Bulgarian town. The ‘Capital of Culture’ program picks a city each year to host traditional and pan-European events, and in turn, helps to revitalize the city and increase tourism.
If you’re interested in pretty houses and cafes, souvenir shopping, and local art, Plovdiv is your kind of town. In the heart of the ‘Creative district’, ice cream parlors and beer gardens serve to the large student population.
Plovdiv’s major attraction is its sprawling old city, which consists mainly of traditional wooden manors from the late 1800’s, painted with deep or neutral tones with floral embellishments. Greco-Roman ruins, the city’s foundation, are scattered throughout the city, from the hilltop Nebet Tepe, to the Roman theater and Hippodrome.
The food here is the epitome of ‘comfort food’: starch, bread, beer, cheese, and meat. For a couple dollar, I ate a potato pie bigger than my head and washed it down with two liters of local brews. I would highly recommend eating the wild forest mushrooms though, Bulgarian mushrooms are incredible because of the cool, wet weather.
Plovdiv seemed much less expensive than Sofia (not that Sofia is particularly expensive). I wanted to buy everything I saw: traditional clothing, instruments, gas masks, and all kinds of antique furniture and handmade goods. It is small though so one day and night is enough time to see and do everything at a very relaxed place.
For more on Plodiv, click here: Plovdiv, Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture
Rila Monastery and National Park
Driving deeper into the Bulgarian countryside, we passed endless rolling hills and small towns. Rila, one of many unassuming villages, is home to one of the most impressive Monasteries I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a fair amount of monasteries).
The monastery was founded by the followers of St. John of Rila, a hermit in the 800’s who was known to commune with nature, singing to birds like Sleeping Beauty. And also like Sleeping Beauty, St. John’s body lies in the monastery.. and people wait in line to kiss his casket! (What a strange coincidence.. or is there a connection between these myths?)
The frescoes are unreal– really, like no other Christian art I’ve seen, some with grotesque images of people being eaten by dogs and demons.
A few miles outside of the town, is the Rila Mountains National Park, which boasts miles and miles of scenic trails. Unfortunately, after we saw the Monastery, it started pouring rain, and since it was also only about 40 degrees up in the mountains, we didn’t really feel like climbing a mountain.The national park, from just what we saw driving, must be incredible, I can’t imagine what the views are like from the top! The hike is apparently 4-5 hours, so if you plan on doing both on the same day, make sure to get an early start!
We decided to just drive back to Sofia, and stopped in some small towns along the way to break up the drive. Peppers and corn were hanging up to dry in the windows, friendly dogs roamed the streets, and the wide river babbled as it slowly flowed through the center of the town of Rila. All of Bulgaria seemed oddly but peacefully quiet.
We would’ve liked to get to know the Bulgarian people more. Quite frankly, there didn’t seem to be very many. A lot of towns seemed abandoned, but the people we did meet in Sofia and Plovdiv were pretty friendly.
Bulgaria is really a lovely country, with a lush green countryside, cheap and delicious food and drink, and dozens of interesting historic sites to see. We had a blast, and I can’t wait to go back to see more of the country!
I would highly recommend renting a car, it made our lives so much easier, and we got to see a lot more of Bulgaria than we would have otherwise.
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