The best Black Sea beaches are south of the border
Sick and tired of the building jungle at the Bulgarian seaside? Thankfully, the Black Sea's western coast still boasts some secluded coves and peaceful towns unspoiled by tourism, south of the border.
The New Testament parable about the man who built a house on sand is a metaphor about the foundations of faith. But, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it's also a literal account of developments on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Entrepreneurs anticipating the influx of an estimated 350 million tourists from the EU alone have built on every inch of shoreline south of Nesebar with an unrivalled enthusiasm that shows slender acquaintance with their bible.
The coast, once known for its tranquillity, is now a concrete jungle of 20-storey hotels, mud, concrete-mixers and pseudo-Egyptian statues. Critics call this architectural fusion Mutro-Baroque because of the lavish kitsch and garishness of the nouveau riche.
But do not despair! A mere 60 miles from these tasteless developments you can still find unspoiled Black Sea havens with quiet bays, small towns, delicious food and charming people, delightful areas where nature remains oblivious to the insidious march of commercial developers. A place where you'll find waterways littered with lilies as well as thick oak forests that will not be felled to make way for yet another aqua park. Welcome to Turkey.
Kiyikoy port and southern beach
Never heard of these places? That's not surprising because you won't find them in the best guidebooks. Cash-strapped Turkish holidaymakers, blessed with many coastal resorts to choose from the south coast of the Black Sea, the whole Sea of Marmora and their own part of the Mediterranean tend to consider a seaside sojourn west of Istanbul too extravagant. Hence the only holidaymakers you're likely to encounter south of the Bulgarian border are campers or those on a stringent bed and breakfast budget.
Even the Turkish road construction agency has neglected this area. The roads north of the Edirne-Istanbul motorway are well maintained but a panoramic coastal highway is conspicuously lacking. Whenever you want to drive to another bay or seaside town, you'll have to return inland and then to Vize, where all coastal roads join.
But your very first stop, the small town of Karaburun on the eponymous promontory, will make the drive back to Vize worthwhile. Karaburun is so close to Istanbul that on a clear day you can see the north edge of the Bosporus. Life is so calm that the rusting, sunken ship, tilted to one side by the harbour, looks like part of the town's natural surroundings rather than a piece of wreckage. The only signs of tourism are the modestly priced hostels that offer something increasingly rare in Bulgaria: the chance to walk a mere dozen steps before finding yourself on the beach. Karaburun's idyllic setting is only partially spoiled by the emergence of several hotels in the town's new quarter. Sadly, they look just like the monstrous structures that marked the beginning of the Bulgarian coast's overconstruction.
Turkish-style ad for your dream resort
Thankfully, these faint signs of tourist development disappear when you head north. Because there is no panoramic road, you'll have to drive around the Durusu Gölu lake from the south, via Subası, but the beaches there will make your detour worthwhile. You'll see hundreds of water lilies in the Hisarbeyli River – the few posies in the Ropotamo in Bulgaria are considered a landmark – before a delightful spectacle at the end of a dirt road beginning with an inconspicuous sign that says “Ormanlı Plajı”. Drive carefully. Then the sea will appear suddenly, after a sharp turn down a steep slope, leading to a beach so peaceful and picturesque that if film director Danny Boyle had known about it, he would probably have reconsidered his decision to shoot The Beach in Thailand's Ko Phi Phi.
The road to Ormanlı Plajı takes you to an endless expanse covered with golden sand and pebbles, featuring all the colours of the rainbow and stretching between the last lonely cliffs of the Strandzha Mountain. The only sign of human presence here is a café built entirely of wood.
However, Ormanlı Plajı does have one considerable drawback. Though beautiful, it is also dangerous because of the high waves breaking over the steeply descending seabed. If you continue north, this time without having to go to Vize but only to Saray, you will find coves more suited to swimming. They are small and tranquil, home to rivers and lagoons strewn with ferns and storks. Çilingoz is an ideal place to pitch your tent, situated near the pine forest. A picturesque rock rises from the sea in the small bay and the camp site staff are particularly helpful. The problem is that they only speak Turkish, so it's a good idea to arm yourself with a few key phrases like “Burda kamp edebilirmiyiz?” (“Can we camp here?”).
If you don't fancy camping accommodation, you will have to go back to Saray, from where there is a good road to Kıyıköy. The town, nestling between the bays formed by the mouths of the Kazandere and Pabuçdere rivers, is still often referred to by its Greek name of Midye. This may seem strange because the town has not been populated by Greeks since the 1920s when the Greek and Turkish governments exchanged their populations. However, most Bulgarians know the town's old name for another reason: Midye, named after the fine mussels collected by local fishermen, used to be the southernmost point on the Bulgarian littoral following the border agreement with Turkey after the First Balkan War of 1912-1913. In the Second Balkan War Turkey regained its territory and Bulgaria was left without the magnificent north beach of Kıyıköy and the fossils in its rocks.
If the town had remained on the Bulgarian side of the border perhaps it would not be so alluring today, filled as it is by charming wooden houses and local herdsmen's children bathing cattle in lagoons. Instead, greedy developers would probably have drained the waterways to make room for yet another hotel. They might also be charging visitors to the nearby St. Nicholas rock monastery, 300 yards up the Kazandere. And tacky vendors' stalls would undoubtedly clutter the town's winding streets. But, thankfully, history has smiled on Kıyıköy. Today's tourism consists of a mere dozen tents occupied by frugal Turkish families who prefer to holiday with just the goods they can load into their rickety Renaults.
But peace in Kıyıköy comes at a price. There are no cash dispensers here and the only way to acquire Turkish lira to pay for your accommodation is to return to Vize.
So don't be surprised that locals will fail to understand why you find Kıyıköy so interesting, recommending instead that you visit Igneada, the largest seaside resort on this stretch of the Black Sea. Igneada does have cash dispensers, as well as several hotels, beach cafés, two fish restaurants and prices to match. But the unfinished hotel in the town centre and the Turkish holidaymakers who prefer to eat sunflower seeds on the beach rather than swim indicate that the ambitious “Igneada resort” project is still far from reality.
Some enterprising locals are intent on changing the situation. Sit at one of the small restaurants offering izgara, or grilled meat, and a smiling man will probably approach your table within minutes. Employing the charm normally used elsewhere in Turkey to wheedle you into buying a rug, he will ask you, “Do you want to buy a house here?” Igneada is relatively close to Bulgaria and news of the massive profits from construction north of Rezovo has spread fast. The town already has a real estate agent and a legal consultant ready to deal with foreign investors.
But business has been slack so far. And if your encounter with Turkish entrepreneurs leaves you reeling, you'll recover as soon as you leave the north end of the long beach in Igneada with its two breakwaters and lighthouses. The nearby village of Limanköy has unpaved streets and no restaurants. But you will find some of the friendliest people in this part of Turkey in the café behind Ataturk's wooden bust perched on books. Its proprietor, Hasan, does not speak English (if you are lucky, his daughter, who studies in a secondary school in Edirne, will be there), but he knows some Bulgarian and is so expansive that you may be able to communicate. Hasan will be eager to show off his previous foreign guests' business cards (you may even see the name of a Bulgarian friend among them) and treat you to tea. It's easy to thank him, just give him your card.
In this part of Turkey, where there was a considerable Bulgarian population before the First World War, the Bulgarians and anybody coming from Bulgaristan is regarded as a close friend. So prepare to be treated as a komsu, or a neighbour.
Perhaps you'll regret that the nearest border crossing point in Bulgaria, leading to these alluring places, is not at Rezovo, but as far as Malko Tarnovo. The people in Begendik, the last village before the border, certainly do. “You come from Bulgaria? I was born in Ruse but I emigrated in 1952,” a man told us. Some elderly people in Begendik will engage you as soon as you sit in the café (and treat you to tea, of course). They will complain of the depopulation of the village and ask a crucial question: “Why don't they open a border checkpoint here? I'd go to Bulgaria every weekend. I hear it's cheaper there and there are lots of tourists. I'd go to Ruse too…”
During the Cold War the border, which passes along the Rezovska River, was a source of fierce contention. Neither ordinary Bulgarians nor Turks could approach it. In the 1980s it nearly caused a war. The Rezovska changed its mouth, affecting the territorial waters of the two countries, and Bulgaria and Turkey began a tragicomic attempt to reverse the situation. Its unnaturally narrow estuary stems from an attempt to manipulate the river's trajectory by piling stones. Today, however, there is a much friendlier relationship across the border. But the only road which leads to it on Turkish territory is inaccessible because it ends at an army barracks with the warning sign Dur! Asker!, or “Stop! Soldiers!”
Rezovo and Begendik continue to exist in two parallel worlds which are physically less than a mile apart, but are actually separated as if by a high wall.
But while you stand on the empty cliffs by the last vast beach on the Turkish part of the coast, contemplating the first signs of construction in Rezovo, you may conclude that borders are not such a bad thing. Dozens of former Czechoslovakians and East Germans may have lost their lives here while trying to escape to the West via Turkey during the Cold War. But today it is a welcome obstacle to Bulgarian entrepreneurs looking for new tourist beds on the few remaining empty beaches on the western Black Sea coast. This is how it should remain, at least until the owners of hotels and holiday developments south of Nesebar read the New Testament. It says that the house built on sand was quickly destroyed by a storm