TRAVEL

LOOKING AT BURGAS, DARKLY

Despite some researchers' claims that Bulgaria's largest city on the southern Black Sea coast is ancient (related in some way to... Troy), most would agree that Burgas is quite new.

The first poverty-driven settlers came here at the end of the 19th century, only to find themselves in a swampy, malaria-infested area fit for little save fishing. Burgas began as a maze of squalid streets, randomly built harbour warehouses and tumbledown buildings. It took 13 years to approve the first town plan with its 289 small neighbourhoods and seven parks.

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BULGARIA'S TOP MOSQUES

Sunni Islam is Bulgaria's second largest religion after Eastern Orthodoxy. In the centuries that have passed since its arrival with the Ottoman Turks in the second half of the 14th century its adherents have created some stunning and impressive mosques – though many have been lost to time, dereliction or active destruction, particularly after Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottomans in 1878.

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SOZOPOL WITHOUT TEARS

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.

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EXPLORING ROMAN PLOVDIV

Plovdiv claims 7,000 years of uninterrupted history, starting from prehistoric times, but the earliest visible traces of this long past are much younger. They date back to the times when the city was called Philippopolis and was a major centre of government and commerce in the Roman province of Thrace.

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THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

Guidebooks boast about the beauty and artistic importance of the murals in Bulgaria's churches that date from the later centuries of Ottoman domination. Created by a society that was still deeply rooted in medieval tradition, but which was beginning to look towards and absorb Western European influences, this style of decoration sometimes charms but is sometimes hard to stomach. To the enthusiastic art lover, it embodies the search for new artistic means that defined the work of Bulgarian painters in the late 18th and 19th century.

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TOMBS, TREASURES AND ROSES

Everyone has heard about the Valley of the Egyptian Kings, but Bulgaria has its equivalent. The Valley of the Thracian Kings is a region where you can explore the tombs, mounds and treasures of what many historians consider to be the forefathers of modern Bulgarians.

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SHABLA: HIDDEN GEM TUCKED BETWEEN SEA AND LAND

Some cannot get enough of its beaches, beauty spots and tourist amenities, while others lament that much of its calm and pristine nature has been lost to overdevelopment. History lovers point out that the ancient Thracians, listed among the forefathers of modern Bulgarians, were masters of the choppy waters of the Black Sea long before the Greeks arrived and settled along its coastline, in the 7th-5th centuries BC. Foodies can talk at length about the superior taste of its bonito, turbot and sprat.

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BULGARIA'S REDWOODS

Bulgaria may be famous for many things but sequoias is apparently not one of them. Think again. If you know where to look you will discover a number of wonderful redwoods that will make your head swirl: Am I in the Sierra Nevadas, the natural habitat of the world's largest and tallest trees, or am I in the eastern Balkans?

The curious case of Bulgaria's sequoias started in the late 19th century when a few enthusiasts imported redwood seeds and planted them in various locations, mainly for aesthetic purposes.

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BULGARIA'S CLOCKTOWERS

Today, knowing what time it is becomes a problem only if the battery of your smart phone is dead and there is no one around to ask. For previous generations, it was different. For millennia, people measured their days and nights by the movement of the sun and stars, or waited for a rooster to crow.

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