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

Istanbul to get second Bosphorus with new canal project

Istanbul second BosphorusThe US may be all abuzz about President Obama’s birth certificate, but the big news in Turkey this week is the proposed Istanbul canal project to dig a second Bosphorus. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s self-proclaimed “crazy” project would connect the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea, making Istanbul a city of “two peninsulas and an island.” Details of the project are still unclear, but it is estimated that it will cost more than $10 billion and would be finished in time for Turkey’s centennial in 2023.

“Today, we are rolling up our sleeves for one of world’s greatest projects which cannot even be compared with Panama Canal, Suez Canal or Corinth Canal,” Erdogan said. “Istanbul is the only city on earth that a sea passes through. With this project, Istanbul will become a city that two seas will pass.”

Turkey’s cultural capital is already known for several historic bodies of water including the Bosphorus strait, which divides Istanbul between Europe and Asia, as well as the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea. The Bosphorus is one of the busiest and most important waterways in the world, with up to 50,000 passages per year with one-way traffic for tankers. The new canal would alleviate all of the commercial traffic and allow for additional ships to pass. The waterway would be around 30 miles long, 500 feet wide, and 80 feet deep and cut through the European side far west of the city center. The upside for vistors is that the crowded Bosphorus would be returned to sport and pleasure boats, making the classic Bosphorus cruise less polluted and crowded.

Photo courtesy Flickr user alinnman

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.

Photo of the Day (11.2.10)

How often can you claim that you’ve drifted between two continents in one afternoon? Welcome to the Bosphorus; the liquid body that officially separates Europe & Asia. At a maximum width of 3,420m, it’s the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation and its shores are home to the 5th most populous city in the world.

This photo, titled “Bosphorus Sunset” comes from Flickr user roxie88. I love the raw quality of this image; the off center and out-of-focus ship, the subtle lens flares. It’s natural, captivating, and preserves what I imagine to be a very special sundown.

If you left your professional camera at home & snapped some quick, unpolished snapshots from incredible places, we want to see them! Upload them to our Flickr group and it could be our next Photo of the Day.

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.