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.

%Gallery-105965%
Upgrades

  • 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.

Downgrades

  • 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 (9.26.10)

Sunsets are my favorite time of day when traveling. The angle of the light, the vividness of the shadows and the brilliance of the colors never fails to make me happy. So it was with great pleasure that I found this gorgeous sunset scene of Vienna this evening captured by Flickr user narinnr. The clusters of pedestrians milling about accompanied by those extra long shadows, the street art mural on the wall on the right and the brilliant flash of late-afternoon sun all caught my eye.

Taken any great travel photos you’d like to share with Gadling? Why not add them to our group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Free wi-fi in Times Square

It’s been quite the week for free wi-fi announcements. Airlines and airports seem to be offering it up like mad, to much thanks from travelers who need to stay connected. The latest hotspot for free wi-fi: New York’s Time Square.
Yahoo!, in cooperation with Times Square Alliance, is now offering free wi-fi in the pedestrian-only area of Times Square. Just get online and head to http://m.yahoo.com. Laptop users will see a welcome screen and can then select “Times Sq Free Wifi” to connect to the web (you can use any site to search the web, not just Yahoo!).

The contract for free wi-fi in the area will last at least one year, with the possibility of a three year extension.

Now, if only we could get hotels to take note. . . .

Times Square becomes a pedestrian zone

New York City’s famous Times Square became free of cars this Monday.

This is the latest in two decades of radical changes to what used to be a dirty, dangerous, but uniquely vibrant part of one of the world’s greatest cities. City officials have blocked traffic from 42nd to 47th Streets at Times Square and between 33rd and 35th Streets at Herald Square in a much-anticipated move we first reported on back in February.

The traffic jams are being replaced by pedestrian plazas and more shops. The hope is to attract even more visitors to New York City’s iconic square by getting rid of noise, pollution, and frequent accidents. New Yorkers celebrated Monday with a big block party and setting up lawn chairs in the middle of the road. The city plans to have various events and street performers every night in the coming weeks to attract more people to Times Square.

Old-time New Yorkers like yours truly have fond memories of the old Times Square, full of seedy bars, seedier adult shops, and crumbling movie houses where you could watch a double feature of martial arts films for two bucks. I saw my first Jackie Chan film in Times Square, my first zombie picture, not to mention countless Z-list action flicks. Ah, the Eighties!

But not everyone liked Times Square at its decadent best. It was too close to Broadway, where accountants from Omaha wanted to see musicals without being reminded that the world isn’t like it is in A Chorus Line.

First to go were the movie theaters, replaced one by one by adult video centers, as if the area didn’t have enough of those already. No more blaxplotation or ninja flicks, just hard core. Then the porn shops got shut down. Times Square began to look like Disneyland. Now the squalling, bumper-to-bumper traffic has gone the way of the dodo. The armpit of New York has been replaced with the outdoor equivalent of a shopping mall. Progress? Well, it’s certainly safer (how I survived my teen-aged trips to the old Times Square still amazes me) but I can’t help but think that by killing Times Square, New York City has lost something.

Every city has its grotty area. Amsterdam has its red light district, London has Elephant and Castle, and New York had Times Square. The thing is, these neighborhoods are often really interesting and alive. The red light district in Amsterdam has some of the city’s best architecture. Elephant and Castle has an amazing variety of African shops and restaurants. Times Square has. . .well, had. . .an exciting street life and a variety of movie houses for every taste. And no, I’m not talking about the adult stuff. Back in the day, all sorts of people went to Times Square, everyone from well-heeled businessmen up to no good, to curious teenagers like I was, all the way down to street hustlers and petty thieves. That’s what I liked about it. Now it’s tourists and the middle class. Aren’t there enough places like that?

Any other old-time New Yorkers out there have any thoughts on this?

Times Square turning pedestrian

If Times Square experiences traffic jams now, just wait ’til late May when the streets around the Square will be bumper-to-bumper and the sidewalks along Broadway will be filled with — not cars — but feet, and (not to mention) a lot of construction.

I know, it may be the hardest thing to imagine, but starting this Memorial Day through the end of the year, the streets surrounding New York City’s most crowded thoroughfare will be converted into a strictly pedestrian walkway.

The $1.5 million (that’s it?) project will provide green landscaping, tables and benches between 42nd and 47th streets. Currently, the number of pedestrians quadruple the number of cars in Times Square. Roughly 350,000 people pass through per day, which pretty much explains why it has one of the highest injury and death rates in Manhattan. That rate will certainly be curbed with the newer, greener look to the square.

Nearly 50 million tourists paid a visit to Times Square last year alone. With a friendlier and less dangerous feel, I imagine that number could very well increase come the new year of 2010. There will be something worth celebrating in Times Square indeed.

[via USA Today]