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.

Ten budget-friendly destinations in Europe

budget-friendly European destinations

For Americans, Europe can be very expensive. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge this fact. Tourist costs are high, and currently the euro is doing well against the dollar, even if the pound is down somewhat from its stratospheric performance a few years ago. So yes, Europe is expensive. But its high costs are merely a marker, not a prisonhouse. There are always ways to cut costs and forge an alternative path.

One way visitors can cut costs is by forsaking traditional tourist hotels for alternative types of accommodation. There is a new wave of very stylish hostels in many cities in Europe at odds with the traditional reputation of hostels as dirty, packed dormitories. (Look, for example at Paris’ Oops! Hostel, with doubles starting at €60 [$81] to see the new hostel wave in action.) And there’s also a newish recession-appropriate embrace of owner-occupied accommodations that are often quite inexpensive. Airbnb is the latest splashy arrival on the owner-occupied scene, but there are plenty of other local options, including the Italian agriturismo network, French gîtes, and couchsurfing.

Here are ten destinations, cities, regions, and countries where traveling on a budget won’t be a struggle in the least. Budget-friendly Europe begins here.

1. Bulgaria. Gadling writer Meg Nesterov visited Bulgaria this fall and raved about the local price index. Bulgaria, a member of the EU since 2007, is cheap in just about every possible way. Nesterov hones in on the tried-and-true tourist stop of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s Medieval capital, as particularly inexpensive.

2. Bratislava, Slovakia. About an hour from Vienna by train, Bratislava boasts a cute Old Town and many astoundingly cheap restaurants serving hearty Slovak fare. At Prašná Bašta, dinner can be as cheap as €6 ($8). Hotels are more expensive than they should be, though there are a few basic properties like Old City Hotel that cater to the budget set. Old City Hotel’s rates start at €53 ($72).

3. South Tyrol, Italy. This one is a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around, as this German-speaking region is one of Italy’s most prosperous corners. The landscapes are stunning up here, and simple, glamorous inns like Gasthof Bad Dreikirchen sell rooms on a seasonal basis starting at €57 ($77) including half-board (that is, breakfast and dinner). Bad Dreikirchen is open from the end of April through the close of October.

4. Berlin, Germany. The German capital remains impressively affordable and amazingly cool. Before you arrive, peruse some of the very good English-language blogs on life in Berlin; when you touch down, get yourself a copy of Zitty and get caught up to speed on what’s going on. You’ll be ready to sink into some of Europe’s hippest and cheapest corners in no time. Budget pick: Die Fabrik, a funky renovated factory, with doubles from €52, or $71.5. Brno, Czech Republic. Unlike Prague, which has become quite expensive, Brno is full of bargains. In June, Tim Bryan wrote about very affordable Brno for the Guardian. He withdrew 2000 krona ($110) from a cash machine at the start of his weekend in the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city. That outlay lasted Bryan through a program of gluttony and dedicated drinking. Think of how little you could spend with a more modest approach to dining and entertainment.

6. Chisinau, Moldova. Truthfully, Chisinau isn’t yet ready for a mass tourism moment. The prices are right for more courageous travelers, however, and Chisinau is a very attractive city of grand parks, underfunded museums, public markets, inexpensive places to grab a meal, and incredibly inexpensive public transportation. Once the government (a) deals with that annoying tendency on the part of the police to extort cash from tourists and (b) approves budget airline links into the country, Moldova will begin to develop as a destination.

7. Macedonia. Bulgaria’s neighbor Macedonia is a delightfully cheap place with a fantastic mix of cultures. Macedonia can claim an impressively complex capital city (Skopje), its very own Riviera (Lake Ohrid), and many exquisite monasteries. Skopje is divided between a modern Macedonian side full of Eastern Bloc apartment buildings and the warren-like streets and shops of its mostly Albanian Old Town. Lake Ohrid is ringed with churches and monasteries and sees some serious nightlife during the summer season.

8. Lisbon, Portugal. Located on the western periphery of continental Europe, Lisbon is a somewhat underappreciated city. This unfortunate fact translates into great values for hotels and restaurants. Lisbon remains relatively warm if soggy in winter, and is jammed full of museums, cafes, crowded alleyways, bars, monuments, and exciting nightlife.

9. Calabria, Italy. The south of Italy is full of good values, Calabria particularly so. Unlike the southern regions of Puglia and, to a lesser extent, Basilicata, Calabria has managed to remain under the radar altogether. Check out towns like Pizzo, Vibo Valentia, and Reggio di Calabria and experience a side of Italy that most guidebooks barely cover.

10. Greece. The Greek government just announced its 2011 budget, which is full of deep spending cuts. Despite this orientation towards austerity, the government plans to reduce its value-added tax on the tourism industry from 11 to 6.5 percent. Tourism is huge business in Greece. Add to that the melancholy fact that a country’s financial crisis generally means savings for visitors, and this is a great time to visit Greece.

[Image of Veliko Tarnovo by Alex Robertson Textor]

Weekending: Veliko Tarnovo


The best part of expat life for me are the travel opportunities, especially when living in Turkey, conveniently located where Europe meets Asia. Expat travel takes on a new twist as you seek out the new and unfamiliar as in any new destination, the newly familiar of your adopted home city, and the old and familiar of your original home city. You luxuriate in the things your expat home lacks, compare versions of similar foods and drink, and wonder where you’d hang out, what you’d cook, and where you’d buy groceries in this foreign place. I recently took a week-long trip to Bulgaria (read about Sofia here, and I’ll finish up with the Black Sea town Varna) and fell in love with the country’s old architecture, young creativity, and most of all, the prices.

The place: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo (also called Veliko Turnovo, so I’ll simplify as VT) is smack dab in the middle of the country, dominated by a 12th-century fortress, hills aplenty, and the Yantra River (a Danube tributary). Once the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, VT boats a bevy of sights and lots of daytrip possibilities. After the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, Sofia became the capital, but VT remains a popular tourist destination and a point of pride for many Bulgarians. Other than the spectacularly Soviet Interhotel (don’t be fooled by glam interior photos, the exterior is an eyesore from another era – see above on right), VT escaped much of the communist architecture of Sofia and retains a historic small-town feel.

%Gallery-105673%Upgrades

  • While I found Sofia to have the best prices of any European capital thus far, VT is even more budget. I stayed in the boutique Studio Hotel for 45 Euros a night, and ordered local wine in restaurants for 2 leva a glass (and that’s for a 250 ml pour, a third of a bottle!). Two people can hit the town with 40 leva (under $30 USD) in their pockets and come home with change to spare. Real estate signs advertise houses in nearby towns for 10,000 Euros, making you contemplate a rural Bulgarian life.
  • Endless people-watching fun. For a hill town of 70,000 people, the ladies sure know how to dress. On any given weekday afternoon, you may see women in 5-inch stilettos, miniskirts, skin tight jeans, or revealing dresses. The girls may look like they are on their way to a Jersey Shore nightclub, but more likely destinations are a university class or their grandmother’s house. Additionally, ’80s fashion is alive and well in Bulgaria – I spotted mullets (for women), big hair (for men), neon colors, high-top sneakers, and vests everywhere. An entertaining afternoon can be spent at a sidewalk cafe marveling “Did you SEE what she was wearing?!” with your travel mates.

Downgrades

  • While VT is a charming place, it feels like a one-horse town after a few days of wandering the same streets up and down. The historical sights are lovely to see but small and a tad overpriced (6 leva for a quick tour of a church feels a bit extortionate when you realize it could buy you a meal or get you nice and tipsy). One upside to the tiny museums is few crowds, even in the height of the tourist season. Visiting the weirdly wonderful State Art Museum as the only patron while little old ladies followed me around, turning on and off lights, was a highlight of the trip. The (almost) nightly Tsarevets fortress sound and lights show is fun to see at least once, though I thought it could be improved with more lasers and the Beverly Hills Cop theme song; visiting the fortress by day is a little disappointing and best enjoyed as a scenic view.
  • Another downside to the small-town feel of VT is limited food options. More cosmopolitan Sofia offers sushi, Indian food, and modern Bulgarian; coastal Bulgaria boats seafood galore; VT has traditional and not-terribly-exciting Bulgarian food (which can be a good or bad thing) and pizza. This means a LOT of meat and after a few days, I was literally dreaming of salad. Also: be careful with drinking tap water. Although, opinions are divided on whether or not it is safe to drink, I was sick every day I drank tap water in VT until I discovered the CDC advises against it, and was much improved after switching to bottled water. One favorite place to eat and drink: the Malkiya Inter cafe is eclectically decorated with antiques and musical instruments, buzzing with locals celebrating birthdays or watching football, and serves tasty and cheap drinks and, of course, meat.

Getting there

Centrally located, travelers can fly into Sofia or Varna and bus or drive from there, about 3.5 to 4.5 hours. Bulgarian buses are cheap, comfortable, and clean, and have the added feature (not sure if its a good one) of playing raunchy Canadian comedies with Bulgarian subtitles; I saw the dreadful National Lampoon’s Going the Distance and the “Dan Ackroyd needs a paycheck” White Coats. Trains are available as well but slower and less reliable, though they can connect you to Istanbul and Bucharest.

Make it a week

After a few days in VT proper, rent a car and explore the central Balkans, stopping at Arbanassi for architecture (you can even hike from VT) and multiple monasteries. VT can easily be combined with trips to other major Bulgarian towns, small villages, or even neighboring countries like Romania. If the weather is good, head out to the beach for my next Bulgarian stop, Varna on the Black Sea.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.