Nearly one third of Bulgaria is covered in forests, but not to worry, you won’t be confined to walks in the woods if you take a trip to this mysterious eastern European country. A country so far removed from the UK that shaking your head means yes, and nodding your head means no, you could be forgiven for feeling a little intimidated by Bulgaria, but once you get beneath the surface, this is an historic, beautiful and fascinating country whose culture is rich and well worth delving into.
The first Bulgarian empire formed in 680, and the country’s name hasn’t changed since, making it the only country in Europe that has had the same name since its establishment. This also makes for incredible opportunities to see historic landmarks, reflected in the fact that the country has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of which being the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, or the Rila Monastery located in the Rila mountains, which was founded in 927. Some of the monastery was rebuilt after a fire in the 1800s, yet has remained one of Bulgaria’s most important sites, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. The striped, colourful exterior is unusual and striking, and there are seemingly endless religious frescos covering both the exterior and interior. The monastery also has its own museum that features Rafail’s Cross, a crucifix whittled by a monk named Rafail using magnifying lenses to depict 104 religious scenes and 650 figures, with none bigger than a grain of rice. It took him 12 years to complete, at which point the monk lost his sight!
Other religious UNESCO sites include Boyana Church on the outskirts of Sofia, a medieval church dating back to the 10th century, and the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, a group of churches, chapels and monasteries built into solid rock.
Of course, you don’t have to stick to the UNESCO sites solely, and in fact you shouldn’t, as there are plenty more must-see sights in Bulgaria, such as Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the capital of Sofia, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world and a must-see when in the city. The Cathedral features a gold plated dome and 12 bells, with the interior decorated with Italian marble, Brazilian onyx and alabaster, among other precious materials. Make sure to also visit the crypt, which is a museum of Bulgarian icons, supposedly containing the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe!
If you want a break from the man-made marvels of Bulgaria, make sure to see Zlatnite Mostove, or the ‘Golden Bridges’, a stone river on Vitosha Mountain near Sofia. It is, in actual fact, a group of boulders running down a slope from an altitude of about 1700m down to 1350m, and is certainly a unique sight to behold. This is a popular place for a day trip amongst tourists, who often picnic and sunbathe on the stone, or for the more adventurous, climb the river.
The Seven Lakes of Rila (located in the previously mentioned Rila Mountains) are yet another natural wonder of Bulgaria, and are between 2,100 and 2,500 metres above sea level. Each lake has a name associated with its characteristic feature, including Salzata (‘The Tear’) due to its clear waters and Okoto (‘The Eye’) after its oval shape. Chalets in the area are very popular because of the beauty of the location, so if you can make it an overnight trip and fully experience the splendor of the lakes.
Bulgaria has been famed since the Roman era as a utopia of spas, with over 700 natural mineral and hot water springs, and arguably the most popular and famed in the country is Velingrad, which prides itself as the ‘spa capital of the Balkans’. In the town there are over 90 springs with preventive and curative properties, along with the Kleptuza, the biggest Karst spring in the country, and has around 100 hotels to choose from, so why not draw out your stay and relax to the max.
On a chillier note, skiing is probably not the first thought that comes to mind when considering Bulgaria, yet Bansko ski resort is one of the most underrated in Europe. Located in the south-west of the country, Bansko boasts low prices, new hotels and a picturesque town, with 75km of ski runs.
Of course, Sunny Beach cannot go without a mention. Situated on the Black Sea, it is a Blue Flag winning resort and is the most popular holiday destination in Bulgaria, drawing in massive crowds of mainly youth looking to experience the sun, sand and partying. There are hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs, with Flower Street at the centre of it all – the only street with a name in Sunny Beach!
What do you think of Bulgaria’s rich history, amazing activities and beautiful vistas?