Bulgaria: The New Europe
Chief Editor Amarendra Chakravorty, recently in Bulgaria on an official invitation, found this East European nation rich in history, art and architectural marvels and ready to welcome the Indian tourists.
Situated in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria boasts an old and rich history. Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs and Bulgarians inhabited this land in their time, leaving behind monuments and enriching the world's treasure-house of culture.
Your trip will begin from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital and its largest city. Sofia is located in the western part of the country, on The Sofia Plain and on the lower slopes of Mount Vitosha. The city’s average altitude is 550 meters above sea level, the climate is moderate and continental, with cold winters and relatively cool summers. The average temperature in January is 1 degree below 0°С, and the average July temperature is 20°С.
Sofia preserves many valuable monuments to its long and storied past. You can see remnants of The Eastern Gate from the days when Sofia was Serdika and Sredets, dating from the 2nd-4th centuries CE. These remains are exhibited in the underpass connecting the Presidential Palace and The Ministerial Council, surrounded by shops selling traditional Bulgarian souvenirs and rosewater.
The Saint Sofia Basilica, founded during the reign of Justinian (reign 527-565), is one of the oldest churches in the capital. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Sofia is The Memorial Church Saint Alexander Nevsky, built in 1912, and designed by the Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev. Its bell tower rises to a height of 53 meters, and houses 53 bells, the heaviest weighing 10 tons. The church can hold roughly 5,000 people. The oldest church in Sofia is the Saint George Rotunda, thought to have been built in the 6th century, during the reign of Constantine the Great. In the rotunda’s immediate proximity, in the underpass leading to the Serdika metro station, is The Saint
Petka Samardzhiyska Church, built in the 11th century. While in the area, check out the Banya Bashi Mosque, built in the 16th century. Visit the National Historical and Archeological Museum, and The Lion Bridge, The Eagle Bridge, and The Russian Monument.
In the midst of the city’s religious landmarks, directly across from The Presidential Palace, is The National Archeological Museum, which has in its collection some of the most valuable treasures discovered in Bulgaria.
Masterpieces of Bulgarian painting are on display at The National Art Gallery, located in what was formerly the Bulgarian Royal Palace. The National Museum of Ethnography is also located here, and The Museum of Natural History is a very short distance away, with exhibits of plants and animals that are very valuable, and even some that can no longer be seen in the wild. One of the most beautiful buildings in Sofia is The Ivan Vazov National Theater.
On the lower slopes of Mount Vitosha, in the Boyana District, is located The National Museum of History, with its collection from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum has one of the largest collections anywhere, with over 700,000 items of cultural importance. Close to the museum is The Boyana Church, one of the Bulgarian monuments that is listed among the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Mount Vitosha borders on The Vitosha Natural Park, which is the oldest nature reserve on the Balkan Peninsula. The species of flora in the park are particularly rich and varied. Ten of the peaks in the Vitosha Range are over 2,000 meters; the highest is Cherni Vrah (Black Peak), in the center of the park, at 2,290 meters. For more information about the park, please contact the Vitosha Nature Preservation Information Center, located roughly 1 km from the Dragolevtsi Quarter, close to the Dragolevtsi Monastery.
Sofia and the immediate vicinity also boast a great many spa complexes. The hot springs at Bankya, a nearby resort offer wonderful facilities for rest, recreation, and wellness. There are ten spa centers within the capital’s city limits offering peace and relaxation, along with therapeutic and beauty treatments.
If you are interested in shopping, visit the Vitosha Boulevard, a shoppers delight, since Sofia is still one of the major crossroads on the Balkan Peninsula for trade of all kinds.
Take a couple of days at Sofia, and on your second day, check out the Rila Monastery on the northwestern part of Rila Mountain, at at an altitude of 1150 m above the sea level, in the immediate vicinity of the village Pastra (13km). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the biggest and most spectacular monastery in Bulgaria, Rila Monastery is only 111km away from Sofia. In the middle of the monastery yard stands high the Hrelyo Tower - a powerful stone fortification, the oldest preserved building in Rila Monastery, dated back to 1334-1335. According to the title on its entrance, it was dedicated to St. Joan of Rila and Virgin Ossuary. The five-storey stone tower is 23 m high, but the most interesting is a small chapel, named after God’s Transfiguration, which stands on the top floor. The chapel is richly decorated with murals and authentic icon paintings of great artistic value. The earliest of them dated back to the 14th century and represent three scenes of the life of St. John of Rila. The oldest preserved icon of the saint also dates back to that time.
Murals in the chapel are highly valuable monument of Bulgarian Medieval art. The four-winged residential area houses more than 300 monk cells, decorated with rich wood-carving ornaments, colourful paintings and wood furnishing and four smaller chapels.
If you are a health-conscious tourist, travel to Velingrad in the western part of the Rhodope mountain, 130 km from Sofia. Beautiful nature and deposits of mineral waters make Velingrad one of the leading “balneological” resorts in the Balkans. Velingrad is also famous for the largest karst spring in Bulgaria, called Kleptuza. Its output is from 600 to 1200 l/sec, and supplies two ponds with a separated resting area with water wheels on the side.
The average annual air temperature in the resort is + 9.3°С with average January and July temperatures at + 1.8°С and + 18.7°С, respectively.
Velingrad is in the first place in Bulgaria in terms of abundance and diversity of its mineral waters, the temperature of which varies between 28°С and 91°С. The diversity of mineral waters has also lead to diversity of options for use of the mineral water – for relaxation, rehabilitation and recovery. Mineral baths, swimming pools, beaches, balneological sanatoriums, and SPA hotels are available for tourists. The hottest water is in the section of Kamentsa – with temperature of up to 91°С.
Plovdiv, 80 km from Velingrad, is the second largest city in Bulgaria, and one of the oldest in Europe, dating back to the 5th century BC. It is situated in the Upper Thracian Plain, on both banks of the Maritsa river. Plovdiv has mild winters and hot summers. The average temperature in January is +1°С, the average temperature in July is +24°С. The town as its stands today was built around seven hills – the hills of Plovdiv (Plovdiv Tepes) which are an inseparable part of the city’s history.
In the architectural complex of the Ancient Plovdiv, check out the numerous old houses, pause for a coffee or to enjoy the view from the hill. Many of the restored old houses have been made into restaurants, workshops or museums (art galleries, ethnographic museum, renaissance museum, you name it). Most of these were built in the Bulgarian Revival style during the 19th century, and have colorful facades, heavy wooden doors and interesting windows. Some of them have lovely little gardens full of flowers. The houses look simple from outside, but have luxurious interiors.
Check out The House of Georgi Mavridi where the French poet Alfonse de Lamartin lived in 1833, also known as Lamartin's House.
The ancient amphitheatre in Plovdiv town is the most impressive building of Roman times. It had taken more than 10 years to clear the site and remove the 15-metre thick layer of earth covering the theatre. The spectators’ seats are amphitheatrically shaped and divided into two rings of 14 rows each. The theatre seems to have had a capacity of 7000 spectators at the most. The names of the respective city quarters were chiselled on the benches in each sector, and spectators had to take their seats accordingly. The two-level stage exhibits the architectural and decorative wealth of the building.
Another monastery worth visiting is the Bachkovski Monastery, situated in the village Bachkovo, 25 km south of Plovdiv in the foothills of the majestic Rhodope Mountain. The most treasured item of the monastery, the second largest in Bulgaria, which is also held in the monastery’s temple, is the miraculous Virgin Mary icon.
While in Plovdiv, visit Djumaya Mosque, known also as Ulu Mosque, a precious architectural monument in the centre of Plovdiv that gives an idea of the old settlement of Filibe. It is one of the biggest and the oldest mosques in Bulgaria. It is called Djumaya (from Turkish – Friday), because the service was held in Friday.
Your next stop should be Veliko Turnovo. Veliko Turnovo, one of the most ancient Bulgarian towns, is situated amphitheatrically on four hills - Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, Momina Krepost and Sveta Gora, the ridges of which were the steeply inclined banks of the meanders of the Yantra river. Tsarevets was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom in the 12th century AD.
Ancient travellers wrote about the town of Veliko Tarnovo as "the second after Constantinople" in its beauty and might. Take a tour of historic landmarks of the former citadel on Tzarevets and Trapezitsa Hills, and enjoy the Sound and Light show, a thrilling spectacle with the historic Tzarevets Hill forming the natural decor.
Travel just four km northeast to the village of Arbanassi (population: 310 inhabitants), one of the most picturesque old settlements in Bulgaria. It is situated in the rocky plateau of the same name. With its monumental National Revival architecture (16 – 17 c.) and marvelous natural beauty, Arbanassi attracts thousands of Bulgarian and foreign tourists.
Your stay in Veliko Turnovo should include a visit to the Madara Horseman, a carved relief of a majestic horseman 23 m above ground level in an almost vertical 100-metre high cliff. The horseman is thrusting a spear into a lion lying at his horse's feet. A dog is running after the horseman. The Madara Horseman was carved at the very beginning of the 8th century, about three decades after the foundation of the Bulgarian State.
Time zone: Bulgaria is in the Eastern European Time Zone, which is GMT(Greenwich Mean Time) +2 hours.
Climate: The climate in the country is temperate continental, with Mediterranean influence in the southern parts. The Black Sea influences the climate in the eastern part of the country. There are about 2,000 sunny hours from May to October.
Best time to visit: Depends on the reason for your trip. Skiing– December, January, February and March. Visiting the Black Sea beaches – June, July, August and September. If you are a hiker or camper, the most appropriate times are the late spring, the beginning of summer and early autumn. Any time is a good time to visit one of Bulgaria’s many spa resorts.
Festivals: International Folk Festival from July 30-August 3, International Regatta "Trakia" in September, Autumn Salon of the Arts, September 1 to October 31, Night of Museums and Galleries, September 21-22, Sound of the Ages festival, September, International Festival "Plovdiv Jazz Nights", October 25-27.
International airports: Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. Direct charter flights are available to the Black Sea airports in Varna and Burgas during the summer season.
Visa: For information on the application procedures and required documents for
the issuance of visas, as well as the address of consular offices, do check out the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - www.mfa.bg.
Currency: At present, only BGN (lev) is accepted. The official currency of the country is the lev, which is equal to 100 stotinki). Euro 1= 1.95608153214 BGN
Carrying medicines: If you carry prescription drugs, take the relevant prescriptions with you. Do not carry larger quantities than needed for personal use during the trip.
Emergency assistance: In the event of any emergency, call the toll-free telephone number 112. The number can also be reached outside the range of your mobile network. The operators also speak languages other than Bulgarian.