You may like the bustle and the energy of Sunny Beach or you may hate it, but don't judge the rest of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast by it. While Bulgaria's maritime border is only 378 kms long it's rich and diverse. Venture, and you'll see picturesque cliffs and surreal remains of Socialism, busy cities and still unspoilt beaches, archaeological sites and quirky people, swamps, rare birds and mosquitoes.
The route we suggest is north to south, but you can reverse this, or just do a section of it.
Some practical advice: there is no such thing as a Black Sea coast highway in Bulgaria. Most of the road will be inland, not by the sea. As usual in Bulgaria, drive attentively and defensively.
For years, Durankulak, Bulgaria's northernmost town, was popular mainly with people from Varna, who cherished its remoteness and complete lack of Sofianites. Here, they used to enjoy the fish soup at the Zlatna Ribka restaurant and the free camping on the almost empty sandy beach, oblivious to the mosquitoes from the Durankulak lake. This has changed, but Durankulak is still pretty well overlooked. The Durankulak lake is also a good birdwatching spot and on the Big Island are the remains of some of the earliest stone buildings in Europe, along with archaeological layers from the Palaeolithic to Antiquity. A lack of signage diminishes the experience.
Less than 20 kms south is Shabla. The town is unpromising but its fishermen's' quarter will easily become one of the highlights of your journey. Marked by the red-and-white-striped lighthouse, it stands by a big sandy bay and stinks of sulphur wafting from the piped hot mineral springs. The lighthouse, which was built in 1857 and is the easternmost in Bulgaria, is the official landmark here. The unofficial ones are the rusting remains of a pier and Bay Pesho "The God," the flamboyant owner of a tiny restaurant famed for its fish and apricot rakiya.
Cape Kaliakra combines amazing scenery, diverse wildlife and tragic legends
Immediately after leaving Shabla, rusty tanks begin to appear here and there in the fields. These are the remains of the ill-fated attempt at developing oil industry in Bulgaria, which started in the 1950s. The deposits, however, didn't match the enthusiasm, and thousands of drills and tanks were left to decay in the fields. Many of them have been removed in the past three years and, among the fields of rapeseed, wheat and sunflowers, have appeared the beacons of the new Bulgarian energy craze, wind turbines.
The village of Kamen Bryag would be a complete waste of time, if it wasn't for the Yaylata plateau. Magnificently unspoilt, this reserve combines steppe, rocky and marine ecosystems and an astonishing biodiversity. The area is also an archaeological site. Every 30 June, crowds gather here to drink and have fun for the whole night, and then greet the sunrise by singing Uriah Heep's July Morning song. The event, called Dzhulaya, came into being in the 1980s as a protest against the system.
The fortress at Kaliakra Cape, less than 20 kms drive from Yaylata, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the area. In the 13-14th centuries it was the stronghold of a Bulgarian aristocratic family, one of whose members, Despot Dobrotitsa, gave his name to the whole region: Dobrudzha. At the end of the cape, there is a chapel with the supposed grave of St Nicholas. It is also the place where – according to the cape's most famous legend – 40 Bulgarian maidens braided their hair together and jumped to their deaths to escape capture from invading Ottomans.
Kavarna is the closest city, and for a long time was only a place to pass through. Not anymore. In 2003, newly-elected mayor Tsonko Tsonev organised a concert of rock and metal groups who had long passed their zenith of popularity in the West, but had never been seen live in Bulgaria. Thousands of fans gathered, and the concert turned into a festival, Kavarna Rocks. It has now lost some of the initial momentum, but it is still a major event. Kavarna called itself the Rock Capital of Bulgaria and Socialist-era blocks of apartments were covered with murals of visiting rock stars. After Ronnie James Dio died in 2010, a statue of him was placed in the city park.
Sozopol gets crowded in high season, but its old quarter is still pleasant
Even if you are not hungry, take the steep winding road to the nearby mussels farm of Dalboka. Established in 1993, is has gained popularity for its varied dishes made from locally farmed mussels and has turned into a place to see and be seen. In summer and at weekends, it is overcrowded, but the scenery is superb at any time.
The next big attraction on your way is Balchik. Overdevelopment has taken its toll on this once idyllic city at the foot of high white cliffs. Luckily, the lovely summer palace of the Romanian Queen Marie, built as a retreat in the 1920s, is still unspoilt. Marie was a Bah'aist and believed in the validity of all faiths, so she planned her palace as an embodiment of this principle. There is a "Roman" water temple, a garden dedicated to Allah, a chapel, and a fine collection of Moldavian stone crosses. The Botanical Garden next door is a nice addition, and if you are after picturesque views of the bay, take the road towards the old Muslim cemetery. It is on the top of a hill overlooked by the Hollywood-style sign of Balchik and is easily recognisable, as part of it has been turned into a lorry park.
The next place of interest again has a Muslim connection. It is the tekke, or shrine, of the 16th Century sage Ak Yazılı Baba in the village of Obrochishte, near the resort of Albena. Only the beautiful stone türbe, or tomb, and the walls of a big public kitchen have remained of what was one of the great centres of Alevism in Bulgaria. This branch of Islam believes in equality of religions and has borrowed some of their rites from Christianity. Even under the Ottomans, local Christians believed that St Elijah was buried in Ak Yazılı Baba tekke, and it was a place of pilgrimage. The shrine is still venerated by Muslims and Christians alike as both light candles to the memory of the saint.
Then comes Varna. Bulgaria's largest seaside city is a place of contrasts. It is big and congested, and most of the holidaymakers on the municipal beaches are Bulgarians from the countryside combining a visit to their Varna-resident relatives with sunbathing. But Varna is also a place of pleasures, with one of the nicest restaurant scenes and the most beautiful Maritime Garden in Bulgaria. A leisurely stroll along the tourist-crowded pedestrian area is fun, and the Archaeological Museum has the world's oldest gold treasure, from the beginning of the 4th Millennium BC.
The mouth of the Kamchiya River, about 35 kms south, is the opposite to the buzz of Varna. The river flows slow and wide, its banks covered with lush greenery. Around it, there are sandy beaches, but mosquitoes are a major drawback. They are so nasty that they have become the object of local lore which claims they are big enough to scare small dogs and lift your blanket so they can bite you in your sleep.
Very close is Karadere, probably Bulgaria's most unspoiled beach. The road to it can be found between Byala and the village of Gorchitsa.
Cape Emine, about 25 kms south, is where the Stara Planina range finally meets the Black Sea. The cape is also the geographical division between the north and the south Bulgarian Black Sea coast, and with its 60 metres of steep rock rising above the sea is an arresting sight.
After Emine, the most developed part of the Bulgarian coast begins. Resorts like St Vlas and Sunny Beach are well known for their crowds. Nesebar, however, an UNESCO world heritage site, deserves a few hours. Situated on a narrow promontory, it is a place of ancient fortress walls, medieval churches, Revival Period houses and all the touristy kitsch you can squeeze in between.
Ahtopol, the Bonito Capital of Bulgaria, still preserves its erstwhile spirit of a laid-back fishing community
Once Nesebar is behind you, you pass through Pomorie whose newest hotels aspire to look like Las Vegas, but do stop at the nearby ancient tomb and, after that, at Burgas. The largest city in the area has been proclaimed The Best Place to Live in Bulgaria for yet another year. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, you can spend an easy afternoon in Burgas, walking through the Maritime Garden, and mingling with the crowds in the pedestrian area. Around the city, there are several lakes which are good for birdwatching.
Sozopol, at the southern end of the Bay of Burgas, is almost as ancient, as charming and as overdeveloped as its rival, Nesebar. The city is engulfed in a sea of finished and unfinished hotels and holiday homes, but the tiny streets of the old quarter are still a pleasant experience. For more views of the area, take a boat trip.
Development spreads far south after Sozopol and your first gulp of calm sea air will be at Ropotamo. The protected area covers the mouth of its namesake river, and natural phenomena like the Lion's Head and the Arkutino swamp. The mouth of the Ropotamo River is a popular sunbathing spot, and a picturesque one at that. Surrounded by thick oak forests, it overlooks the small Snake Island, the only place in Bulgaria where wild cacti grow. The island takes its name from the water snakes which inhabit the waters around, but don't be scared – they are harmless.
Mass tourism prevails over the following 35 kms, with centres in Primorsko, Kiten, Lozenets, Tsarevo and Varvara. Ahtopol is similar, and yet it stands out. The unofficial Bonito Capital of Bulgaria still preserves the charm of a fishermen's' settlement. Like Sozopol and Nesebar, Ahtopol was founded by the Greeks during their Black Sea colonisation in the 7-5th centuries, and the remains of ancient fortifications still loom among the tiny houses in the old centre. The bay with its fishing boats and lighthouse is one of the most romantic places on this part of the coast.
Sinemorets is a place of dubious charm. This tiny village was one of the first victims of ill-conceived mass tourism in Bulgaria, and in the early 2000s a hotel adorned with... a duck's and a ram's heads was built on one of its beaches. Others (with different decorations, though) followed. Yet, Sinemorets is worth the trip because of its natural features. The northern beach is a combination of a liman and a picturesque bay, but swimming in it is tough as the liman water squeezes under the sand and flows into the sea, creating a strong underwater current. The south beach is safer – and more crowded. From it, a walking route along the coast starts, which leads you to some interesting rock formations and educates you on the geological past of the area.
The path – and the more convenient road – end at Rezovo, Bulgaria's last village before the border with Turkey. Unlike Durankulak, there is no border crossing there, which is a shame as the Rezovska River mouth, which forms the border, is narrow. The small local beach is too muddy for swimming, but the feeling of having reached one of Bulgaria's extremities is a sufficient justification to have travelled all the 378 kms from Durankulak.