Weekending: Varna, Bulgaria

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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Gadling teaches you to read the Cyrillic alphabet in 5 minutes

It used to be that when I saw Russian words like this– компьютер, студент, пасспорт — my eyes skipped over them like yours probably just did. But the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Slavic languages like Russian as well as non-Slavic languages like Kazakh and Mongolian, is easy to learn.

Given the number of English cognates in Russian (the language we’ll focus on here), learning the Cyrillic alphabet allows you to read and understand dozens of words in Russian, including the three above (computer, student, and passport, respectively).

Here’s a short five-minute lesson on how to read Russian’s Cyrillic alphabet…

1. Some letters are virtually the same as in English. The Cyrillic letters A, K, M, O, and T are close relatives of their English counterparts. The Cyrillic letter Б (which looks like a lowercase “b”) also makes a “b” sound. The letter “C” always makes the “s” sound, like in the English word “cite.”

2. Others are closely related to Greek. Frat guys and sorority girls already know the letters Г (gamma), P (rho), П (pi), and Ф (phi), which are the English equivalents of “G”, “R”, “P”, and “F”, respectively.

Easy so far, right? Check out a few examples:

a. кафе = ?

b. бар = ?

c. опера = ?

d. робот = ?

Look below the fold for the answers…


a. кафе́ = cafе́

b. бар = bar

c. о́пера = opera

d. ро́бот = robot

See? Easy. On to the next lesson…

3. Some letters are imposters. They look familiar but don’t sound like their English counterparts. The Russian letter “H” makes the “N” sound, “y” makes the English “oo” sound, and “B” sounds like the English “V.” This letter, И, which looks like a backwards “N”, makes the “short i” sound, as in the English word “pin.” The Russian letter “Я” sounds nothing like it’s mirror image in English. Instead, it makes a “ya” sound, as in “yacht.”

Wth me so far? Here are a few more Russian words you already know.

a. Интерне́т = internet

b. CпyTHИK = Sputnik

c. POCCИЯ = Russia

d. PECTOPAH = restauran(t)

4. The rest of the letters, well, they’re just jerks. You’ve never seen ’em, and you just have to memorize how they sound. Here’s a quick run-down.

Ц = “ts” as in “pizza”

Ш = “sh” as in “shoe”

Л = “l” as in “lamb”

ж = “zh” as in “measure”

Д = “d” as in “door”

З = “z” as in “zebra”

Ю = “oo” or “yu”

Ч = “ch” Since the letter looks like a “4” and makes the “ch” sound, think of the word “fortune.” Four-chun. Get it?

There are a few more subtleties and even a couple more letters in the alphabet, but we’ve only got five minutes here, and I think you’ve got the gist of it.

Time for your final exam. Candy will be e-mailed to the top scorers.

a. You’re in St. Petersburg and you see a restaurant with this written on it: MAKДOHAЛД’C. Where are you?

b. You’re in a Moscow bar and would like to drink something authentically Russian. Someone suggests Bо́ДKA. What are you having?

c. You’re applying for your Russian visa and a form asks whether you’ve ever criticized the Russian президе́нт. What’s it asking?

Hope you’ve enjoyed the lesson… Leave your “final exam” answers in the comments…

For a helpful, longer-than-five-minute primer on the Russian alphabet, go here (pdf).


Bolshoi in Russia: In Cyrillic, American fastfood chains suddenly look exotic

Greetings from Moscow! Bolshoi in Russia is my variation on Big in Japan. (Bolshoi means “Big” in Russian. Get it?) Stay tuned for my live dispatches from Russia this week.

What you are looking at is Starbucks coffee, or if you want: CTAPBAKC. In Russia, they must legally rewrite even a brand name in Cyrillic; not the way it is spelled, but phonetically. PECTOPAH is Restaurant, spelled phonetically.

Half of the fun of being in Russia is interpreting the alphabet. It is actually pretty easy for me because I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and had to study Russian in school. This is really helpful in Russia, where only a small percentage of people speak English.

Most menus here are in Russian and all the subway signs are in Russian. If you can’t read it fast enough, it could be a problem. I really suggest studying the alphabet before visiting Russia. It is not that difficult.

Still, seeing American fastfood chain signs in Cyrillic is a little strange. Here is McDonalds and “McDrive” or McAuto, as they say here. Really, it’s MAKAVTO.

American chains are very popular here. Every McDonalds I saw was packed. The branch on Pushkinskaya Ploshad is the busiest McDonalds in the world. The trick is: it is packed because it is relatively cheap. Unlike most dining options in Moscow.