Travel to Europe Off the Beaten Track: Bulgaria

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Despite the 2009’s recession’s impact on travel budgets, it’s still possible to visit extraordinary places in Europe by travelling outside of the London-Rome-Paris route, to interesting but cheaper destinations.

One way to do so is to head to affordable Eastern European cities near to UNESCO World Heritage sites. The World Heritage List is a partial and evolving list of almost 900 places, including some of the most famous sites in the world, such as Egypt’s Pyramids, India’s Taj Mahal and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But for every World Heritage site you’ve heard of, there are probably three more with no name recognition – and plenty to see.

For instance, in Bulgaria.

Affordable Bulgaria

With its rich, ancient culture, ancient Greek ruins, Roman baths and Byzantine churches, not to mention its recent legacy as a satellite of the USSR–this millennia-old East-West crossroads offers plenty to see and do.

Plus, Bulgaria has nine World Heritage sites. Each is quite different and extraordinary. These include the ancient City of Nessebar, Thracian tomb areas, and Srebarna Nature Reserve.

Getting There

The following assumes you’ll spend three or four days in Bulgaria as part of a longer trip to Europe. But, if you are going only to Bulgaria from the US, try to spend at least six days to visit additional historical and World Heritage sites, or a spa, or ski resort.

Flying direct, it’s a pricey, 10-plus hour trip from New York’s JFK to Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. If you get a good transatlantic fare, you can get there more cheaply by using smaller local carriers from a major European city. For instance, you can catch a direct three-hour flight for about $100 to Sofia from London via British Airways, Bulgarian Airway, or any number of smaller companies. If you’re traveling from elsewhere in Europe, Sofia is 75 minutes from Athens, two hours by plane from Rome, and a bit further from the huge airport hub at Frankfurt.

And, once you get there, it’s cheap, as European cities go. As of this writing, 5-star hotels in Sofia can be booked for under $125 on online sites such as Orbitz.

Starting in Sofia

Spend a day exploring Sofia’s broad boulevards and enormous Socialist Realism-style buildings – and appreciating the Bulgarians’ newly-acquired, post Communist, appetite for fashionable goods.

Don’t miss the monumental Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Bulevard Vitosha (filled with upscale shops), museums and, if you’re up for it, pulsing night life, Eastern European style. Sofia is one place you can literally “follow the yellow brick road,” since a path of yellow paving stones cuts a swath through the city, a wedding gift from Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1907 to his cousin, Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg.

For food, choose among the nation’s various traditions: Slavic, Turkish and Greek.

Not-to-Miss World Heritage Sites

Located in a suburb about 90 minutes outside of Sofia, Boyana Church is known as a perfectly preserved medieval monument. This World Heritage site is comprised of three churches adorned with remarkable ancient frescoes, some dating back as early as the 11th century.

It’s also worth the four-hour trek east from Sofia to see the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo, notable for their 12th-century Christian cave paintings. This area once harbored a cliffside village of churches – at one time, as many as 300 – all hand-hewn out of the rocky mountainside by dedicated monks. Some of the medieval religious frescoes, ascribed to the Slavic Tarnovo School of painting, have survived. Remarkably, their yellow, blue and red hues from that era are still vibrant.

For Fun, Spas and Slopes

If you have the time and inclination, you can flesh out your visit with a trip to ski slopes, pampering spas, the famous Valley of the Roses and Black Sea beach resorts.

Or, believe it or not, you may choose to spend some time at the dentist’s office. (Apparently dental tourism, a growing business in Bulgaria, attracts Europeans with up-to-date services at cut-rate prices.)

Shoppers will enjoy Bulgaria’s lively tradition of folk art.

Practical Matters:

Basic Data: Bulgaria, population 7.2 million, is largely Russian Orthodox; currency is the Bulgarian Lev (pegged to the Euro). It’s a member of the European Union, NATO and the WTO.

Who Goes: Bulgaria is better known among British than American tourists; of 5 million tourists in 2007, most came from nearby Greece, Turkey and Germany.

Choose your season: In summer the Black Sea beach resorts are in full swing. Sofia Music Week is in June. In winter, there’s skiing at a half-dozen resort areas.

You Should Know: It shouldn’t impact tourists, but corruption has emerged as a major social issue.