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.


  • 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.

The seedy side of Istanbul

Turkey isn’t all mosques and markets or comfy long-distance buses. It may come as a surprise that prostitution is legal in this predominantly Muslim country and drugs, while illegal, are a brisk business. Like any big city, there are nice neighborhoods and sketchy ones in Istanbul, and most tourists will rarely stumble into the areas with bad reputations, but some are within stumbling distance of Istanbul’s hot spots. I stumbled into several of the most notorious areas recently and was surprised at what I saw.

Tarlabaşı Bulvarı stretches southwest of Taksim Square (Istanbul’s answer to Times Square), just above the busy pedestrian shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, and forms the border of the largely immigrant neighborhood of Tarlabaşı. Look in any guidebook or ask a local and they’ll warn you about petty crime, transsexual prostitutes, and drug dealing, particularly at night. By day, the neighborhood is full of crumbling buildings, hanging laundry, and children playing in the street. At best, you could call it atmospheric “real Istanbul” and at worst, a rundown and poor area. One Friday night I found myself in a lively bar with a few friends just behind Tarlabaşı’s main drag, where the beer was cheap, atmosphere friendly, and the women were actually men. A street vendor outside was so amused to see an actual woman that he gave me a free sample of çiğ köfte, a sort of Turkish street version of steak tartare. It felt oddly appropriate to snack on raw meat while chatting with Moldovian pre-op lady boys.

On the other side of the Golden Horn, Aksaray isn’t a popular area for sightseeing, but the tram line runs right through it, connecting with the Metro line to the airport. For expats, it’s a necessary pilgramage to make each year to apply for or renew your residence permit. One Sunday afternoon after a failed visit to the nearby Horhor Bit Pazari antique market (closed Sunday), I sat drinking tea at a cafe when I became aware of the fact that every man was staring at me. It turns out this is because nearly all of the non-Turkish women in Aksaray are prostitutes, mostly from Eastern Europe, and many of the area “night clubs” are fronts for brothels or bars that may charge you several hundred dollars for the privilege of drinking with a lady. I wandered up a side street in broad daylight full of night clubs and hotels and noticed every table lined with over made-up women sipping cocktails and looking damaged. The experience was so uncomfortable that I considered breaking into a sprint so I could get off the street faster, but I was not approached or solicited.

While these neighborhoods might not be added to the tourist trail anytime soon, they show another side of a very complicated and ever-changing city. Gentrification is moving in and soon Tarlabaşı could be the next trendy “Soho of Istanbul.” As in any major metropolitan city when you find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks, caution and common sense should prevail. Stay calm, stay in well lit areas, and try to get the hell out of Dodge as fast you can. Though you may find that the places with the worst reputations are over-exaggerated and that sometimes a busy street in the day can be scarier than a dangerous nightspot.

Band on the Run: The SkyTrain View of Vancouver, BC

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

Last week, I had the pleasure of an extra day in Vancouver. The festival we performed at in Grand Forks, BC didn’t program events on the Sunday. As a result, we headed back to Vancouver on Sunday rather than on our flight day, which was Monday. This gave me a chance to catch up with a friend in Vancouver and take in a very Vancouver-specific experience:

The SkyTrain.

I was staying out in Surrey, an outlying suburb of Vancouver. My friend lives on the opposite side of the city and so we agreed to meet up downtown. I headed to King George SkyTrain station and felt like a tourist all over again, even though this is definitely not my first time in this city.

I love wandering cities alone, even the occasionally seedy ones.

Now, I’m not slagging Vancouver. This is a beautiful place. On my many occasions here I have walked the Sea Wall, seen Stanley Park, spent copious hours on Commercial Drive and generally loved the Vancouver vibe. I am definitely a west coast convert and probably wouldn’t turn down much opportunity to get out there because it is just that beautiful. The fact that it’s guarded by the Rocky Mountains doesn’t hurt either, as though they supervise the town with their stony majesty.

Well, hey, this summer is a fine example of that respect I feel for the west coast, not to mention the magnet I feel to get there; we have flown out there as a band three times since early July and that makes British Columbia our number one destination for summer festivals in 2007.

That’s something.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Vancouver has a rough side. Seedy, rough, sketchy – call it what you will. This town has its full-spectrum attributes and I’d say that King George station reminded me of this truth.

I read here that Vancouver has been noted as having “the worst skid row in North America.” Hard to believe when you tour the beautiful neighbourhoods of North Vancouver or the hip arts district of the East End.

But, I think this reality adds to the beauty of the city, too. There is a seedy underbelly here that clashes suddenly with such intensely beautiful scenery, for sure, but, even more interesting is that this underbelly is not being hidden; it is regularly visible, sort of like a dog that is willing to roll over and show its vulnerability without losing its ability to dominate or its charm.

Yeah, Vancouver is a mix, for sure, and that’s what I love about it.

Nothing happened at that SkyTrain station to be alarmed about, of course. There was just the exchange of general acknowledgment between those hanging around the station and me, the visitor, passing through the station. I bought my ticket (from the kiosks that work on an honour system – you just buy the ticket and they occasionally check but there’s no turnstile or attendant!) and headed upstairs to the platform. The only indicator that this is the right direction is the banner above the stairway that indicates that this is “Fare Paid Zone.”

I love how trusting Vancouver is.

This is the end of the line, so the train was paused here for a few moments before heading back downtown. It gave me just the time I wanted to snap a picture of its perch, pre take-off, and of the way the tracks look, as though they’re about ready to mount the mountains themselves and then race down into a twist and turn and upside-down roller coaster run. I half expected to hear that motorized-pulley sound of roller coaster cars being tugged uphill.

The SkyTrain is a subway above ground (not unlike Line 13 in Beijing or the L in Chicago) and it offers an amazing view of such a diverse city. When I sat down in the front car, I was soon surrounded by everyday commuters and some noisy teens heading out for the evening. Everything seemed normal and urban, as though I could be anywhere, as we weaved into the city suspended on stilts across the water and skimming roof lines of various neighbourhoods. No hills and no death-defying speeds, but it was cool all the same.

I got off at Granville Station and was met with the steepest escalator I have ever seen. In fact, I actually backed away from it when I saw it with the intent to take a picture and stranger said to me, mockingly, “Ah, don’t worry. It won’t hurt cha!” while pointing upwards and smirking.

I just nodded and took my picture, feeling all the more like a tourist (and this sometimes can be equated with “geeky,”) and then I also felt an overwhelming drive to put my camera safely in my bag, out of sight. This isn’t a common feeling for me so I rode the escalator up, took a couple more photos and then safely stashed it in my bag before getting to the top. The urge to conceal anything valuable was palpable and I just listened to myself. I wouldn’t call that paranoia, just instinct.

When I got out of the station at Granville, there was a lot of street action and I was grateful for this decision. I walked through it unnoticed, but sometimes looking like a tourist even when there’s only twenty bucks in your pocket and a cheap knock off camera in your possession is just not worth the hassle. I hurried past and then called my friend and we found each other just a few blocks later. Now, hey, I’m not saying there was any actual threat on that street there; I’m just saying that I wasn’t about to invite any, either. Not in Vancouver.

And then, I had a great catch up with my friend who I haven’t seen since I was in Beijing in June. I got a lift home from Dave’s sister, Liz, but I would have happily taken The SkyTrain again. I’ll have to do that sometime when night has fallen so that I can watch the lights of the city bounce off the water and the tall buildings. I’m sure it just adds to the beauty.

Until then, stay safe and open minded in the great wild, Wild West.

I miss that coast already.