Weekending: Varna, Bulgaria

weekend bulgaria travel varna
Back in September, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan offered locals and expats like me an excuse to go on holiday while our American friends were celebrating the end of summer and Labor Day. With more time to explore than a typical Weekending trip, I checked out Turkey’s most western neighbor, Bulgaria, and fell in love with modern and medieval captials Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.

The place: Varna, Bulgaria

Varna is known as the summertime capital of Bulgaria, a Black Sea beach town that’s a destination unto itself with several notable museums, an active cultural scene, and the gateway to the coastal resort towns.

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  • Unlike many of the purpose-built, touristy resort towns that litter the coast, Varna manages to maintain a nice balance of beach town and actual city. Pedestrian streets Knyaz Boris and Slivnitsa are great for window shopping and people watching day and night, and Varna has a handful of quirky and interesting museums to visit. The Archaeology Museum is one of the country’s best, and my visit to the creepily-cool Medical History museum (with nice Bulgarian lady following me around turning lights on and off as in VT) was one of my favorite travel experiences. Strolling the Sea Garden is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though the zoo is maybe the grimmest I’ve seen yet (I could have easily stuck my head into the lion’s cage with no interferrence) but with admission under $1, it’s hard to complain.
  • The variety of daytime diversions extends to nightlife too, with everything from sceney beach clubs to seedy casinos to dive bars. Indian Bar has an eclectic decor of Native American art and Italian soccer banners which manages to be more charming that offensive, while Saloon Bar is just the kind of place I’d love in my neighborhood: cheap drinks, good music, and a bartender that remembers you after one drink. Varna is also the birthplace to Happy Bar & Grill, a chain restaurant all over Bulgaria (and now in Spain too) that resembles a love child of Hooters and T.G.I. Friday’s, in the best sense. Happy has a vaguely nostalgic rock-and-roll Americana theme going on, a menu of Bulgarian food and pizza (they also have some sushi restaurants), and waitresses clad in miniskirts and nude pantyhose. There are several location including a tiki beach bar, and any of them are good spots to take advantage of free wi-fi, decent coffee, and as many ’80s music videos as you can handle. Varna is a bit pricier than other towns in Bulgaria but still a steal by Western standards.

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  • Lovely as Varna may be, the travel season is really limited to summer. While there is plenty to do in cool weather, there is greatly reduced transportation in and around town, many waterfront cafes will close in winter, and you’ll miss out on experiencing the summer scene. The Black Sea has been the hot weather refuge of many Europeans for decades and Varna retains some old-school (and Communist-era) flavor (see the above photo of the thermal pools frequented by the elder residences) while joining the modern world with boutique hotels and sushi restaurants popping up to serve a growing international clientele. If you visit Bulgaria in cold weather, your time would be better spent exploring the old towns and museums in central and western Bulgaria.
  • I’d be remiss in wrapping up a series on Bulgaria without pointing out the obvious obstacle: Cyrillic. Invented in Bulgaria and not Russia, the alphabet is less complicated than you think but takes some adjustment and practice to feel comfortable reading signs and maps. I was fortunate to travel with my Russian-speaking husband who could at least read the alphabet (though Russian and Bulgarian are as dissimilar as English and Spanish) but I got the hang of it quickly enough. Rather than trying to memorize the alphabet in advance, transcribe a few key and familiar words, such as your name, your hotel, and the towns you are visiting so you can begin to recognize the characters. Also, Bulgaria’s quirk is the reverse head nod: they nod horizontally for yes, vertically for no. This feels very foreign the first time you experience it but makes an odd sense after a few days.

Getting there

Most of the international flights to Varna are from Eastern Europe, though the great budget carrier Wizz Air flies from London and Sofia. Bus service is excellent throughout the country (about 7 hours from Sofia) or from Istanbul (10 hours) or Bucharest (7 hours), but train service is slower and less comfortable.

Make it a week

Rent a car or bus hop along the coast if the weather is good, taking note that if a town has a foreign name (like Golden Sands) it’s probably an overbuilt tourist town. You could also combine with other regions of Bulgaria. I fit in Sofia, Veliko Tarnavo, and Varna comfortably in an 8 day Saturday – Sunday trip, traveling between cities by bus and returning to Sofia for my international flight on Wizz Air.

Read about more Weekending trips here.

Weekending: Veliko Tarnovo


The best part of expat life for me are the travel opportunities, especially when living in Turkey, conveniently located where Europe meets Asia. Expat travel takes on a new twist as you seek out the new and unfamiliar as in any new destination, the newly familiar of your adopted home city, and the old and familiar of your original home city. You luxuriate in the things your expat home lacks, compare versions of similar foods and drink, and wonder where you’d hang out, what you’d cook, and where you’d buy groceries in this foreign place. I recently took a week-long trip to Bulgaria (read about Sofia here, and I’ll finish up with the Black Sea town Varna) and fell in love with the country’s old architecture, young creativity, and most of all, the prices.

The place: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo (also called Veliko Turnovo, so I’ll simplify as VT) is smack dab in the middle of the country, dominated by a 12th-century fortress, hills aplenty, and the Yantra River (a Danube tributary). Once the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, VT boats a bevy of sights and lots of daytrip possibilities. After the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, Sofia became the capital, but VT remains a popular tourist destination and a point of pride for many Bulgarians. Other than the spectacularly Soviet Interhotel (don’t be fooled by glam interior photos, the exterior is an eyesore from another era – see above on right), VT escaped much of the communist architecture of Sofia and retains a historic small-town feel.

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  • While I found Sofia to have the best prices of any European capital thus far, VT is even more budget. I stayed in the boutique Studio Hotel for 45 Euros a night, and ordered local wine in restaurants for 2 leva a glass (and that’s for a 250 ml pour, a third of a bottle!). Two people can hit the town with 40 leva (under $30 USD) in their pockets and come home with change to spare. Real estate signs advertise houses in nearby towns for 10,000 Euros, making you contemplate a rural Bulgarian life.
  • Endless people-watching fun. For a hill town of 70,000 people, the ladies sure know how to dress. On any given weekday afternoon, you may see women in 5-inch stilettos, miniskirts, skin tight jeans, or revealing dresses. The girls may look like they are on their way to a Jersey Shore nightclub, but more likely destinations are a university class or their grandmother’s house. Additionally, ’80s fashion is alive and well in Bulgaria – I spotted mullets (for women), big hair (for men), neon colors, high-top sneakers, and vests everywhere. An entertaining afternoon can be spent at a sidewalk cafe marveling “Did you SEE what she was wearing?!” with your travel mates.

Downgrades

  • While VT is a charming place, it feels like a one-horse town after a few days of wandering the same streets up and down. The historical sights are lovely to see but small and a tad overpriced (6 leva for a quick tour of a church feels a bit extortionate when you realize it could buy you a meal or get you nice and tipsy). One upside to the tiny museums is few crowds, even in the height of the tourist season. Visiting the weirdly wonderful State Art Museum as the only patron while little old ladies followed me around, turning on and off lights, was a highlight of the trip. The (almost) nightly Tsarevets fortress sound and lights show is fun to see at least once, though I thought it could be improved with more lasers and the Beverly Hills Cop theme song; visiting the fortress by day is a little disappointing and best enjoyed as a scenic view.
  • Another downside to the small-town feel of VT is limited food options. More cosmopolitan Sofia offers sushi, Indian food, and modern Bulgarian; coastal Bulgaria boats seafood galore; VT has traditional and not-terribly-exciting Bulgarian food (which can be a good or bad thing) and pizza. This means a LOT of meat and after a few days, I was literally dreaming of salad. Also: be careful with drinking tap water. Although, opinions are divided on whether or not it is safe to drink, I was sick every day I drank tap water in VT until I discovered the CDC advises against it, and was much improved after switching to bottled water. One favorite place to eat and drink: the Malkiya Inter cafe is eclectically decorated with antiques and musical instruments, buzzing with locals celebrating birthdays or watching football, and serves tasty and cheap drinks and, of course, meat.

Getting there

Centrally located, travelers can fly into Sofia or Varna and bus or drive from there, about 3.5 to 4.5 hours. Bulgarian buses are cheap, comfortable, and clean, and have the added feature (not sure if its a good one) of playing raunchy Canadian comedies with Bulgarian subtitles; I saw the dreadful National Lampoon’s Going the Distance and the “Dan Ackroyd needs a paycheck” White Coats. Trains are available as well but slower and less reliable, though they can connect you to Istanbul and Bucharest.

Make it a week

After a few days in VT proper, rent a car and explore the central Balkans, stopping at Arbanassi for architecture (you can even hike from VT) and multiple monasteries. VT can easily be combined with trips to other major Bulgarian towns, small villages, or even neighboring countries like Romania. If the weather is good, head out to the beach for my next Bulgarian stop, Varna on the Black Sea.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.

Airport people watching games

Airports can be boringI try to get work done at the airport. When I manage it, I usually do very productive, focused work. But by “manage it,” that means I need a comfy place to plug in my computer, decent wifi reception, and preferably someone bringing me food and drinks and not staring me down to get the table back.

When these conditions are not met, I make up people-watching games. “I Spy” is so last millennium. Here are two that worked for me at JFK last week, as I munched on ciabatta bread that had the texture of a rubber doorstop.

1. Hairwatch
You can play with a friend (whoever spots the ‘do first gets the points), or against yourself in twenty minute intervals. Points are allotted as follows:

Didn’t brush their hair today and probably not yesterday either – 1 point
Creepy/bad highlights – 1 point
Unnatural colors like purple or green – 2 points
Mullet – 10 points
Big as Texas – 5 points
and the ultimate: Scrunchie – 20 points

Watch for foreign flight attendants with the scrunchies. Who told them that was okay?

2. Baby Mamma Drama
Another point game:

Stroller – 2 points
Stuffed animal – 2 points
Stroller with pregnant mom – 5 points
Twins – 5 points
Child strapped/harnessed to adult – 5 points
Crying child – 10 points
Child in bar – 10 points
Child on leash – 20 points

But don’t let people know you’re looking at their children, they’ll think you’re creepy.