A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Europe’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Women And Other Reasons To Love Bulgaria

hot bulgarian womenI had to go to Bulgaria just to see if Bill Bryson was full of crap. In his book, “Neither Here Nor There,” published in 1991, Bryson wrote, “Sofia has, without any doubt, the most beautiful women in Europe.” I was in college when I read the book, and at the tail end of the Cold War it seemed like an improbable assertion. We’d been led to believe that women behind the Iron Curtain were ugly, and, given the fact that our only exposure to them was watching the Olympics, where all we saw were women with hairy armpits named Olga who could powerlift 800 kilos, it was easy to believe the jingoistic Cold War propaganda.

But Bryson’s line about Bulgarian women stayed with me, and in 1997, when I was 24, I finally had a chance to see the place for myself on the tail end of a long overland trip that started in Portugal and concluded in central Turkey. For a young, single guy on a tight budget, Bulgaria was like paradise. In smaller cities and towns, you could get by quite comfortably on $10 per day.

A bed in someone’s home went for $5, you could eat out for a buck and big bottles of beer went for as little as 30 cents. There were cities filled with history, medieval monasteries to discover, beaches on the Black Sea, and of course, dark-haired, head-turning beauties everywhere. But were they, as Bryson insisted, the most beautiful women in Europe?The Internet is filled with contrived lists ranking the best-looking women and men around the world. A list of the top ten cities with the most beautiful women on Traveler’s Digest, for example, places Kiev at the top of the heap, but Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea came in a very respectable fifth.
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Trying to quantify beauty on an international, comparative basis is, in a way, ridiculous because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But just about any seasoned traveler will tell you that they’ve been to a place where they found the locals to be simply irresistible. I’ve never heard any Western women rave about Central and Eastern European men, but there is something very compelling about the women in this region. (Traveler’s Digest’s list of top ten cities with the hottest men completely excludes this region.)

sexy bulgarian womanBut are Bulgarian women the best looking in Europe? I wouldn’t argue with Bryson or anyone else who makes that case but the competition is awfully fierce. I’ve been to a handful of countries around the world, which I won’t name, where I didn’t find members of the sex particularly attractive, but one can make a pretty compelling case that the women of almost any country in Europe are the most beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a long walk through the streets of Belgrade, Kiev, Zagreb, Budapest, Copenhagen, Berlin, Rome or Madrid, and you’ll see what I mean.

After I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, for two years as a married man, I found other reasons to love Bulgaria. After Bryson visited Sofia in 1990, he wrote, “I’m certain that if I come back to Sofia in five years, it will be full of Pizza Huts and Laura Ashleys and the streets will be clogged with BMW’s.” His timetable may have been a bit off, but he was basically right.

Sofia is a very interesting city but living in Skopje, I was most impressed by the fact that they had Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. (Married men can still enjoy munchkins and foot-long meatball subs.) But my favorite places in Bulgaria were all outside the capital – I loved Veliko Tarnovo’s gracefully crumbling architecture, Varna’s tacky seaside charms, Melnik’s wineries, Blagoevgrad’s youthful energy, Koprivshtitsa’s colorful houses and Plovdiv’s sense of history.

bansko bulgarian gypsy bandBut the place that really hooked me was Bansko, a lively little town nestled in the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of the country. Bansko now hosts a World Cup ski race and it has plenty of hotels and bars, but it’s still a place where local farmers walk their cows through the streets, wedding processions take over the center on weekends and photos of the dead are plastered all over buildings.

Bansko’s bars alone make the place worth a visit. They serve the excellent Pirinsko beer on draught, dirt cheap, and feature live gypsy bands almost every night of the week. But what I liked best of all about Bansko, was the way I felt each time we visited: blissfully cut off from the wider world and all of its problems.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

(Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis on Flickr and Dave Seminara)

Photo Of The Day: Catching Some Rays

Photo of the day - inside Bulgarian resort

Today’s Photo of the Day was taken indoors but the bright lights and orange glow make it feel like a hot summer day, or perhaps the inside of a tanning bed. Either is likely at the Bulgarian resort town of Varna where Flickr user PMania85 captured this scene with an iPhone camera. The photo features one of the most popular summer spots on the Black Sea. Every year, thousands of Eastern Europeans flock to the Bulgarian coast to tan under the sun or under the lamp, but preferably both.

If you’d like your travel shots considered for a future Photo of the Day, add it to the Gadling Flickr pool and please make sure you have downloading enabled.

Dive Communist plane off the coast of Bulgaria

dive communist planeFish are pretty and shipwrecks are cool to explore, but how would you like to dive a

Communist airplane in the Black Sea? A 1971 Soviet-made Tupolev-154 was submerged this week off the coast of Bulgaria to create an artificial reef for SCUBA divers. Orlin Tsanev, chairman of Black Sea Dive Odesos association, told Reuters: “The submerging of the plane aims to make it an attraction and (a place) for training divers.”

Made for former Bulgarian Communist ruler Todor Zhivkov, the plane’s engines and interior were removed and the body of the aircraft is now 22 meters deep, making it the largest plane underwater in the world. The plane has been grounded since 1999 but once also carried Communist leaders such as Fidel Castro. Zhivkov’s private yacht was previously purchased for cruises on the Danube River.

The new dive site is located near the resort town of St. Konstantin and Elena, just north of Bulgaria’s “summer capital” of Varna. Read more about travel in Varna here.

Photo courtesy AP

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: Sofia


Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.

The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.

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  • One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
  • Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.

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  • Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
  • While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.

Getting there

Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.

Make it a week

There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.