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.

Pack spare passport photos – International travel tip

When traveling abroad, it is a good idea to have an extra set of passport photos packed among your belongings.

In the event that your passport is lost or stolen, you can save valuable time by immediately taking these photos to the embassy or consulate when you apply for a replacement. Without the photos, you may find yourself frantically searching for a photo lab in a potentially unfamiliar city or town.

[Photo: Flickr | selmerv]

Trade souvenirs when traveling – International travel tip

That White Sox hat you’re wearing above your “I hiked the Grand Canyon” t-shirt may be a hot commodity in some countries. Many items we take for granted are both unique and highly sought-after in many foreign nations.

If you find something at a vendor’s stall you like, offer that vendor something of yours in exchange for that good. Maybe he’d like your hat, or that extra shirt in your bag. While you’re not allowed to bring a cache of items into a foreign country to sell, trading items you would normally have in your luggage is perfectly acceptable. No extra luggage room is needed — and you don’t need extra cash on hand, since you’re swapping goods.

It’s not icky to give someone the hat off your head! Trading souvenirs is fun; you get to interact with the locals; and you go home with souvenirs and a great story on how you acquired them.

[Photo: Flickr | Courtneysue75]

Ten ways to deal with culture shock

Traveling to other countries can be an exhilarating and wonderful experience. When it is, treasure those moments and take lots of pictures. When it isn’t… it’s usually because you’ve suddenly realized you’re “not in Kansas anymore.” What felt exotic from your original home suddenly feels “weird,” “uncomfortable,” or “downright annoying” now that you’re in this new culture. Don’t let these down feelings get the best of you and ruin what could be an otherwise life-changing experience. Here are ten ways to deal with culture shock before and after it happens.

Get an “informant” (make friends with someone from the foreign-to-you culture).
This can be the most important thing for surviving another culture, especially if this person becomes a close and trusted friend. This informant becomes the go-to when something happens that you can’t make sense of, or if you have questions about what’s appropriate or not. It’s like having a “local culture dictionary” — and can be vital for your sanity’s survival.

Get a same culture buddy (make friends with someone from your own culture).
This helps in having someone who either is going through or has recently gone through a lot of the shocks you are currently enduring. You can vent with someone who knows what a public restroom should look like. Just be careful not to let it slide into a “hate everything about this country” session.
Every day make yourself find something that you like about the culture
Celebrating the good of the new culture can help take some of the edge off the things you see as bad. Think of it as the things you’ll miss when you go back home; and as hard as it is to believe at times of heavy culture shock, there will be plenty of things that you miss one day. Bonus: when you can find a positive aspect to the “squatty potty,” then you know you’ve made progress.

Be a tourist
Plan time to do the cheesy touristy things that the locals wouldn’t be caught dead doing. It helps to be an outsider sometimes, because you can find wonder in things the locals don’t even notice anymore. Sad to say, but once you see it day in and day out, those majestic mountains become just common place. So, before it becomes mundane to you too, stand in wonder at the wonders of the world. Extra points if you take a local with you and make him/her be your “tour” guide.

Do something that takes courage every day
Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for saying this, and it’s good advice to take. Besides, it’s actually not that hard to do when you are somewhere foreign. Adventure surrounds you in another culture — big and little. Taking courage can simply mean going to the market by yourself, but if you see it as an adventure, rather than a chore that will take you three times as long as it does in your own culture, you may actually find yourself having fun.

Do something familiar
Figure out how to make your favorite food and do so often. Watch your favorite movies. Listen to music that makes you feel good in your own language. Have people over to celebrate your home culture’s holidays your way. Sometimes you just need to close your eyes and hear, smell, taste the things that are home to you. It’s amazing how good mac n’ cheese can taste when you no longer have easy access to it.

Go for walks

Spend time exploring on foot. In your own culture, you take for granted how the trash is picked up, how the mail is delivered, the colors that the houses are painted, etc. Take time in this new culture to figure out how the minutia of life gets done and being on foot helps you to notice the little details, plus it gets you out of the house for a little exercise.

There’s no better place to get it all out then on the pages of a book that no one else will see. It will also help for you to look back on it and see how far you’ve come, the humor in situations that weren’t humorous at the time, and how you can help other newbies as they have the same problems. Consider taking this journal and sharing it in a blog form to help others as they transition, but be careful to gain some perspective before doing so. If you’re in the ugly depths of culture shock, you may really hurt the local people with your mad ravings. Wait until you’ve cooled off; you’ll be glad you did.

Ask for packages from home
Ask someone–anyone–from home to send you the taco mix, chips, chapstick, shampoo, and wool socks that you can’t find anywhere. It’s amazing how great it is just to get a little care package with a few of your favorite candies, spices, drink mixes, t-shirts, scarves, etc. If you don’t have anyone to ship them to you, then see if you can find a company that ships overseas. It may be a bit pricey, but it’s worth it to have a few pieces of home every once in awhile.

Do your research
Know what you’re getting into before you go, or if you didn’t before, then do it now. Research the web, buy some books, watch local movies, and learn the language. It will help you have some idea what you’re getting yourself into. Note on learning the language: it will be hard at times and you’ll feel like a two-year-old babbling incoherently, but not only will you gain a lot of insight into the culture by learning the language, you will also be able to function better. So, be prepared to look foolish and give it a try.

Research before you photograph – International travel tip

You’re planning a trip to a foreign country. Of course, you’re going to pack your camera to capture the people and places that make the country special. But before you go, do a little research.

In some countries, it’s illegal to photograph certain places. For example, in Britain a terror law makes it illegal to photograph police. Alternatively, it may be culturally or religiously offensive to photograph certain people or locations.For example, photography in Tibetan monasteries and Muslim mosques is forbidden without permission. Photographing local women in some Muslim countries is taboo.

Do your research, ask permission and, above all, be respectful.