Worth visiting? Depends on when
Should I visit Sozopol? There is hardly a place that divides opinion more than this town on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Yes, by all means do go to Sozopol, will urge some of your Bulgarian friends. They will then lose themselves in nostalgic memories of strolling the quiet lanes of the town, the charm of the traditional houses under the balmy summer or early autumn sun, the buzz and energy of the Apollonia Arts Festival, the pleasure of sunbathing on golden beaches and jumping into the sea from the picturesque rocks around. They will tell you about the sweet, enchanting smell of warm figs in late summer and joke about the tough old women who let spare rooms in their houses to tourists. If you listen long enough, you will hear stories about summer flings both during and after Communism. Eventually, you will be recommended a restaurant or two where the seafood is great – marvellous even.
Isle of St Ivan
No rational man would set foot in Sozopol willingly, the sceptics will warn you. Yes, this place was once charming, idyllic and artistic, but it has long lost its atmosphere and its soul. The construction of ugly new hotels, restaurants and bars has suffocated what remains of the old quarter and its traditional houses. There is hardly a free strip of sand or pristine rock left, and the sea is so polluted by the lack of proper waste infrastructure that you enter it at your own risk. The crowds are insufferable and so are the landladies. The Apollonia Art Festival is not what it used to be. As for the restaurants, you will hardly find worse or more expensive food anywhere on the southern Black Sea coast – and that is saying something. The only thing that has remained from the golden times of Sozopol as a quiet holiday spot for Sofia's intelligentsia is the smell of warm fig trees in late summer.
The Palikari rock has become a symbol of old Sozopol
Who is right – the nostalgics or the sceptics, you will wonder. It all actually depends on when you visit Sozopol. In early spring and late autumn the town resembles more closely the idealised version presented by the former. In winter, when there are no tourists around, the town shrinks to its old core and residents return to their traditional vocation: fishing in the choppy and unreliable waters of the Black Sea. Visit in high season, and you will find that the Sozopol sceptics were entirely correct: the town is a fun fair of tourists from all over Bulgaria and Europe.
Whenever you visit, one thing will remain consistent: the bad, overpriced food in the local restaurants.
If you visit Sozopol out of season as an explorer rather than as a holidaymaker, you will discover plenty of interesting stories and curious sights. It might be small, but the town has a long history.
Established in the 7th century BC by the Greeks as Apollonia Pontica, the town soon became a wealthy trading centre. A sign of its prosperity was the colossal, 13-metre statue of the city's divine protector, Apollo, that rose over the harbour. This has been long since disappeared, taken away to Rome by the Romans who devastated the city in the 1st century BC. Sozopol quickly recovered, however, and retained its importance, vibrancy and wealth during the Middle Ages and the Ottoman period. It began to decline in the 19th century, when Burgas emerged nearby, syphoning off trade and traffic to its port. The Sozopol locals had no other option than to turn to small-time fishing. What remained of the town's former prosperity were the beautiful wood-and-stone mansions, and some ancient ruins. There are almost no native Greeks left in Sozopol today, as most of them left in the 1920s during the Balkan exchange of populations.
The buildings that have survived from olden times are now focal points where the visitor inevitably ends up. Spacious and recently restored, the former high-school is now a fine art gallery, its yard opening to the sea and the southern bay of Sozopol. Its only negative aspect is the view towards the hotels built on the once pristine coast, in the so-called New Sozopol.
In Old Sozopol are the 15th century church of Assumption, the oldest preserved in the city, together with St George and St Zosim, from 1828 and 1857 respectively, and the latest addition to the local houses of prayer, Ss Cyril and Methodius. Built in 1889, it seems uninteresting with its plain whitewashed walls, but this church is where the supposed relics of St John the Baptist, unearthed in 2010 in the ruins of an ancient monastery on the nearby St Ivan Island, are exhibited. The silver casket that contains them was donated by no less than the Bulgarian prime minister.
Temptingly close to Sozopol, the rocky islet is an easy trip by boat. Once there, you will find yourself impressed not so much by the unspectacular ruins of the monastery, but by the cruel battle for life that has been going on since time immemorial on this piece of land. The island is hotly disputed between a teeming colony of hares and an even more extensive colony of seagulls. Skulls crunching under your feet and the constant cries of the gulls are the most obvious sign of this brutal competition.
Across the water is a former island – in 1927, St Kirik was connected to the mainland via a breakwater, three years after a school for fishermen opened there. Why was a special school needed for a trade that usually passes from generation to generation? Because of the Great War. After the Greeks left in the early 1920s, the Bulgarians who settled in Sozopol were inland people who, far from their mountains and fields, were helpless at sea. The state created the special school to provide local boys with a livelihood, and also to teach, secretly, naval officers. As Bulgaria had been defeated in the war, it was denied its own navy but did what it could, clandestinely, to prepare for future wars.
Under Communism the former fishing school became officially a naval base and remained so until 2005. The island is still off-limits, and for most the beautiful decaying building of the school on St Kirik remains a picturesque silhouette, seen only from a distance.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners