OLD NESEBAR

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Over-tourism threatens UNESCO world heritage site

old nesebar.jpg

The summer of 2019 was disastrous for Bulgarian tourism, with an overall 20 percent drop in holidaymakers. However, there was one place on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast which remains packed: Nesebar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site conveniently located next to Sunny Beach, this nation's largest seaside resort and one of Europe's cheapest holiday destinations.

A peninsula covered with ancient ruins, Byzantine churches and 19th century mansions, Nesebar is a true gem, but you cannot enjoy it properly in summer. When the tourist season is in full swing, crowds fill its narrow alleys. Touts try to lure patrons into the overpriced, fake traditional restaurants. Stalls selling Made-in-China Welcome-to-Nesebar souvenirs, beach towels and kitschy marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and the centuries-old houses.

Nesebar was founded about 3,000 years ago, when ancient Thracians settled on a rocky peninsula at the northern end of the Bay of Burgas, connected to the mainland by a thin strip of sand. The town, which at the time was called Mesemvria, grew in importance after the 6th century BC, when Greeks moved in. Over the following centuries their colony became a prominent centre of commerce, preserving its importance well into the Middle Ages. Its mineral baths were famous for their healing powers, and its strategic position on the coast was reason enough for countless battles between the Byzantines and the Bulgarians for control of the city. Meanwhile, Bulgarian and Greek noblemen and wealthy merchants poured money into Mesemvria. They built dozens of exquisite churches, which now dot the Old City, and are a crucial part of Nesebar's charm.

Old Nesebar

Old Bishopric

 

In 1453, then Byzantine Mesemvria fell under the Ottomans, together with Constantinople. The town remained a busy centre of trade and a lively port, supporting a population of rich merchants. Unable to build new churches, they invested in hiring the finest artists of the time to redecorate older churches with frescoes and fine carvings, and builders to create sumptuous houses of wood and stone.

However, in the 19th century Nesebar slowly turned into a backwater, overshadowed by the rising star of the new settlement of Burgas. The former major trading centre turned into a town of small-time fishermen and farmers cultivating the vineyards on the mainland.

This was good for Nesebar's architectural heritage. The lack of well-to-do people wanting to build new houses, churches and public buildings led to the preservation of the old structures. This was how the ancient fortress walls, the medieval churches and the wooden houses were preserved to this day. The city did grow somewhat, but newer developments were confined to the so-called New Town on the mainland. The ancient heart of the city on the island was left to its poor and laid back inhabitants.

Old Nesebar

Deadend street

 

Nesebar began to attract crowds at the end of the 1950s, when Communist Bulgaria created Sunny Beach as an international resort on the 8-kilometre-long strand north of the town. For the next three decades the resort expanded, providing hoards of Russians and East Europeans with an affordable way to have some almost Mediterranean sun and fun, without leaving the well-guarded borders of the Soviet bloc. Bulgarians flocked here, too, renting cheaper rooms in Nesebar itself, as Sunny Beach was too expensive for them.

In 1983 UNESCO included Old Nesebar on its list of world heritage.

Back in the 1970s and the 1980s, Old Nesebar still felt real and you could wander its lanes, marvelling at its beautiful churches and undisturbed mansions, before or after heading to a beach that was not unofficially parcelled out between flashy or not that flashy hotels and bars, buzzing with holidaymakers on an alcohol-fuelled vacation and toned women with fake breasts.

Yes, places, like people, change with time. Nesebar's transformation was too brutal. Comparing its Old Town in the 1970s to the 2010s seems to show not just a different place, but a different universe.

Old Nesebar

Eastern bloc tourists indulge in fried sprat and local no-name beer near the port

 

Old Nesebar

Old man from Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

Old Nesebar port

 

Old Nesebar

Bulgarian youth in Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

Makeshift stands along Nesebar's main road

 

Old Nesebar

Nesebar in the 2010s

 

Old Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS
Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match.

KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES
From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles.

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE
Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.

SHIPS OF ROCK
Sinemorets, at Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast, remains one of the most idyllic and calmly beautiful spots around.

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.