With the cold in and the tourists out, old city gleams undisturbed
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. In the warm months this UNESCO listed town of ancient fortifications, mediaeval churches and Revival Period mansions is packed with visitors from the nearby Sunny Beach resort and from the whole of the Bulgarian Black Sea area.
The winter cold, however, utterly transforms it.
Visitors are nowhere to be seen and, if you do not mind that the cafés, bars and hotels are closed, you have the old town all to yourself. Winter sets you free to explore the snow covered remains of the 2,600 years of history that have been accumulating in Nesebar since the ancient Greeks founded a colony on this rocky promontory which provided a secure trading and seafaring location on the Western Black Sea coast.
The most impressive remains of the times when ancient Greeks and Romans as well as Bulgarians, Byzantines and Ottomans used to control Nesebar include the 5th century Old Bishopric church, the wood-and-stone mansions from the 18th-19th centuries, and the 14th century Christ Pantocrator with its delicate brick-and-stone façade.
Nesebar's true delight, though, is not in visiting a particular building, but in immersing yourself in the old town's labyrinthine lanes, and enjoying the cold salty air, the smell of ageing wood, and the hungry cries of the gulls. The hush of winter makes this place more charming than on even the best day of summer. The stalls with kitschy souvenirs no longer obscure your view, and the boats in the harbour are picturesquely covered in snow and ice.
In such circumstances it is easy to forget the crowds in Nesebar in high season and the threats the town faces. Since the early 2000s, the tourism boom has led to overdevelopment, which has turned the new part of Nesebar into a nightmare and seriously damaged the Old Town, which is an architectural reserve. A century-old windmill has been incorporated into an ugly new hotel, and many locals who let rooms in the old city have illegally rebuilt old mansions to create more rooms and pack in more customers. UNESCO is unhappy with this development and on several occasions has threatened to strike the city from its prestigious World Heritage list, if more rigorous measures for the protection of Nesebar's heritage and landscape are not taken. Locals, for their part, are unhappy with UNESCO's requirements.
Will the desire for greater profits or the preservation of a gem of history, architecture and old-time charm prevail? Having lived in Bulgaria for long enough, one is sceptical about the outcome of this conflict but, while winter rules over old Nesebar, why not enjoy the tranquility of a town that looks as if the past century never happened?