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While Bulgaria may not be Europe's most obvious tourist destination, it does warrant some attention. Since the collapse of Communism and the establishment of a democratic government in 1990, Bulgarians have worked hard at rebuilding their war-torn nation. In Sofia, historic buildings are being renovated in a push by the EU to restore Bulgaria's beauty.
Thankfully, Bulgaria's natural beauty requires no such renovation: majestic snow-capped peaks tower above the land and the beautiful Danube straddles the border with Romania. Bulgaria's mountainous terrain makes it an excellent skiing destination. For those travellers in search of a summer getaway, Bulgaria's Black Sea coastline is rapidly becoming a popular destination. Add to all this natural beauty the remarkably cheaper prices than its popular neighbours and Bulgaria starts to rear its head as an attractive tourist spot.
Prehistoric cultures in the Bulgarian lands include the Neolithic Hamangia culture and Vinča culture (6th to 3rd millennia BC), the eneolithic Varna culture (5th millennium BC), and the Bronze Age Ezero culture. The Karanovo chronology serves as a gauge for the prehistory of the wider Balkans region.
In 632 the Bulgars, originally from Central Asia, formed under the leadership of Khan Kubrat an independent state that became known as Great Bulgaria. Its territory extended from the lower course of the Danube to the west, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea to the south, the Kuban River to the east, and the Donets River to the north. The history of Bulgaria as a separate country began in 681 AD. After Old Great Bulgaria disintegrating due to Khazar expansion from the east, one of the Bulgar leaders Asparuh crossed south of the Danube, into the territory of present-day Bulgaria, and defeated the armies of the Byzantine Empire. In 680/681, the East Roman Emperor was forced to sign a peace treaty recognizing the First Bulgarian Empire as an independent state situated on the conquered Byzantine lands with their local Slavic populations.
A country in the middle of the ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria has seen many twists and turns in its long history and has been a prospering empire stretching to the coastlines of the Black, Aegean and Adriatic Seas. The First and Second Bulgarian Empires served as cultural centres of Slavic Europe, but the land was also dominated by foreign states twice in its history, once by the Byzantine Empire (1018 - 1185) and once by the Ottoman Empire (1396 - 1878). After the Serbo-Bulgarian War and unification with Eastern Rumelia in 1885, the Bulgarian principality proclaimed itself a fully independent kingdom on 5 October, 1908, during the reign of Ferdinand I of Bulgaria.
In the years following the achievement of complete independence Bulgaria became increasingly militarised. The First Balkan War (1912–1913) proved a success for the Bulgarian army, but a conflict over the division of Macedonia arose between the victorious allies. The Second Balkan War (1913) pitted Bulgaria against Greece and Serbia, joined by Romania and Turkey. After its defeat in the Second Balkan War Bulgaria lost considerable territory conquered in the first war, as well as Southern Dobrudzha and parts of the region of Macedonia.
In early September 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria and invaded it, meeting no resistance. This enabled the Communists (the Bulgarian Workers' Party) to seize power and establish a communist state. The People's Republic ended in 1989 as many Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, as well as the Soviet Union itself, began to collapse.
In June 1990 free elections took place, won by the moderate wing of the Communist Party (renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party - BSP). In July 1991, the country adopted a new constitution but the 1990s featured high unemployment, unstable (and often high) inflation rates and discontent. The reform package introduced in 1997 restored positive economic growth, but led to rising social inequality. Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004 and of the European Union in 2007.
Bulgaria shares international borders with Romania, Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Macedonia. Only about 30% of Bulgaria is made up of plains and other low-lying areas, while plateaus, hills and mountains account for around 40% The mountainous southwest of the country has two alpine ranges - Rila and Pirin - and further east are the lower but bigger Rhodope Mountains. The Rila mountain range includes the highest peak of the Balkan Peninsula, Musala, at 2,925 meters above sea level. The Balkan mountain chain runs east-west through the middle of the country and hilly countryside and plains lie to the southeast, along the Black Sea coast, and along Bulgaria's main river, the Danube, to the north. Strandzha is the highest mountain in the southeast, so outside of the main mountain ranges in the central and western parts of the country. Few mountains and hills exist in the northeast region of Dobrudzha and along the border with Romania.
Located near the village of Sveshtari in Razgrad Province is an amazing Thracian Tomb. Only found in 1982 this 3rd century BC tomb has the fundamental structural principles of a Thracian cult building. The decor of the tomb is considered unique with polychrome half human and half plant caryatids with painted murals. A great feature is the ten female carvings in high relief on the walls of the main central chamber. This is a great example of pre Greek, Persian or Roman cultures in Bulgaria. The Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari is considered an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Originally a Thracian settlement in the 2nd millennium BC Nessebar eventually became a Greek colony. It fell to Roman rule in 71 BC and was fought over by the Byzantines and the Bulgarians from the 5th century AD onwards. This ancient city is littered with hundreds of amazing churches, temples, theaters and walls from civilizations as old as Ancient Greece to churches built in the 19th century. There are aslo several nice beach resorts with the largest being Sunny Beach. In 1983 the ancient city of Nessebar was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Church of St. George might be the oldest building in the capital Sofia. Built in the 4th century AD by the Romans this church is primarily known for its famous 12th to 14th century frescoes covering the central dome. Although three layers of frescoes have been discovered, with the earliest dating back to the 10th century. These frescoes were only discovered in the 20th century because during the Ottoman period the frescoes were painted over when the building was being used as a mosque. Presently the church is a museum, is surround by the ruins of the ancient town of Serdica and situated behind the Sheraton Hotel.
St George the Conqueror Chapel Mausoleum located in Pleven was built between 1903 and 1907 in Neo-Byzantine style in order to honor the soldiers who died for the Liberation of Bulgaria during the Siege of Pleven in 1877. The bodies of several hundred soldiers are preserved in the mausoleum. The mausoleum is dedicated to St George who is the patron saint of the Bulgarian army.
The Seven Rila Lakes are in the Rila Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria. The lakes are of glacial origin and are located high in the mountains at between the elevation of 2,100 metres to 2,500 metres. The highest lake is Salzata (The Tear) because of its clear waters and shape of a teardrop. The second highest lake is Okoto (The Eye) because it has an almost perfectly oval form, it is also the deepest lake (37.5 metres). Lake Babreka (The Kidney) has the steepest shores. Bliznaka (The Twin) is the largest by surface area. Trilistnika (The Trefoil) has an odd shape and shallow shores. Ribnoto Ezero (The Fish lake) is the shallowest lake. Lake Dolnoto Ezero (The Lower Lake) is the lowest lake and all the other lakes collect here and then flow into the Dzherman River. This is one of the best places in Bulgaria to do some hiking and mountain climbing. The most popular routes around include day-hikes to the Rila Monastery and Malyovitsa - one of the most beautiful ranges in the Rila Mountains. The area of Seven Rila Lakes is one of the most visited places in these mountains so it can get crowded during peak tourist times. Especially in August, when a religious community, called The White Brotherhood, organizes their biggest annual event there. Thousands of followers of Petar Dunov, the founder of brotherfood's believe, are dressed in white and meet at the lakes, considered as a holly area for them, to perform their special ritual, called "Panevritmia", a way to show their worship to the sun.
The Rojen Festival, or Rozhen National Folklore Fair is probably the biggest folklore event in Bulgaria and is organised in Rhodope Mountains every two years in the last week of August. It takes place at Rojenski Meadows, a high mountain area near the biggest Rhodopean town, Smolyan. Thousands of visitors and hundreds of performers from all over Bulgaria, both individuals and ensembles meet there for a two-day folklore marathon. The most famous are the "Hundred Kaba Backpipes" orchestra, but also all the great Bulgarian folklore vocalists usually participate. The festival is organised for the first time in 1898, only a decade after the liberation of Bulgaria, and in peoples minds it became one of the most important events that ensures the preservation of the national culture, traditions and spirit. Nowadays it represents not only the traditions in singing, dancing, performing music and dressing of the Rhodope region but of all of the country, which provides a great variety of attractions for the visitors.
The Festival of Roses takes place every year in the so called Valley of Roses - a region in Central Bulgaria at the foot of Balkan Mountains. The Bulgarian rose oil industry has old traditions and the country is currently one of the biggest producers of rose oil in the world. Climate in the towns of Kazanlak, Karlovo and the villages around turned to be more favorable for rose cultivation then in their country of origin - Tunisia. The festival was held for the first time in 1903 in Kazanlak and since then it is organized regularly, usually at the first weekend of June - a period associated with the beginning of rose harvesting. From 1967 it is considered as a national festival. Manufacturers from the whole valley, together with masked dancers, called “koukeri” are singing and dancing during the whole event, different rituals connected to rose-oil producing are represented and the Queen of Rose is elected – the most beautiful girl in the valley. The culmination is a traditional folklore dance in a circle, called “horo”, preformed by all the participants. The festival is viewed as a tribute paid to the beauty of the roses every year.
The Bansko Jazz Festival is one of the biggest summer musical events in Bulgaria. Bansko is a small town in the foot of Pirin Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria, home of Bulgaria's most modern ski resort. The concerts take place in an open-air stage at the central square of the town and are free for the public. The 5-day festival has a programme that features styles and groups representing most of the jazz trends. It is held every year from August 8 to 13.
Bulgaria has a continental climate with warm to hot summers and mostly cold winters, although coastal areas are somewhat milder during this time. Average daytime temperatures in summer (June to September) are between 25 °C and 30 °C, but over 40 °C is possible more inland. Winters last from December to March with mostly temperatures above zero during the day and frost at night, but higher in the moutains colder weather and much more snow is possible. Precipitation is faily even throughout the year, although summers have a bit more rain.
Sofia Airport (SOF) is located about 5 kilometres from the centre of Sofia and has many flights. It is the hub of Hemus Air and Bulgaria Air (which is owned by Hemus Air). Sofia Airport services flights throughout Europe northern Africa and the Middle East. Low-cost Airline Wizzair has an increasing number of flights, including to/from Barcelona, Brussels, Dortmund, Eindhoven, Forli, Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Rome, Valencia and Venice. Budget airline EasyJet flies into Sofia from Manchester and London Gatwick Airport two to three times a week, all year round. Budget airline Ryanair flies into Plovdiv from London Stansted Airport once a week.
To/from the airport
Two bus routes (#84 and #284) connect the airport to the Sofia University area of Sofia city centre, and there are additional small shuttle buses (#30) connecting the two terminals with the city centre as well. Taxis and car rental agencies are widely available. And although for know there is no rail services, the metro line will connect to the airport hopefully before 2015.
Bulgarian State Railways provide all the international connections.
The Trans-Balkan Express travels between Bucharest in Romania and Thessaloniki in Greece, travelling via Ruse, Pleven, Sofia, Blagoevgrad and Sandanski. From Sofia, the journey time to Thessaloniki is roughly 15 hours, but there are direct summer services (June-September) taking only about 10 hours. For Macedonia travel to Nis in Serbia first (from Sofia). The Bulgaria Express runs between Sofia and Moscow, via Bucharest and Kiev, daily. The journey from Sofia to Bucharest takes around 12 hours.Connections are also possible from Varna/Burgas/Ruse to Bucharest and onwards to Prague. The Bosfor links Istanbul with Bucharest, passing through Stara Zagora, Veliko Târnovo and Ruse. The Balkan Express leaves Sofia and travels through Niš to Belgrade. Finally, the Balkan Express also goes daily between Istanbul and Belgrade, with onward connections to Zagreb and Venice, via Bulgaria. It passes through Plovdiv and Sofia and the journey from Sofia to Istanbul takes about 16 hours.
Buses go almost anywhere in Europe, including places as far away as Berlin, Paris and even Rome. Check Eurolines for more information regarding schedules and prices. They leave mostly from Sofia but also from Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. Places closer by include Sofia/Plovdiv to Athens/Thessaloniki. From Sofia there are also connections to Macedonia, including Skopje and Ohrid. Buses connect Bucharest and Sofia and Plovdiv, but you can brake it up in stages, as several minibuses travel from Ruse as well. There are quite a few buses to Istanbul from Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas as well.
Ferries operate from Varna seaport, via Constanta (Romania) to Odessa (Ukraine) twice a week. Currently they leave at 2:00am on Tuesdays and Saturdays. See Istravel for more information.
Bulgaria Air has a number of domestic flights. The most useful flights include those between the capital Sofia and the Black Sea cities of Varna and Burgas. Plovdiv has a few flights as well, but other than that distances are relatively small and trains are efficient as well.
Bulgarian State Railways operates a network of railways througout Bulgaria. Many trains originate or terminate in Sofia or Plovdiv and link the interior and mountains to the coast of the Black Sea. On longer trips a first class sleeper is recommended. Be sure to reserve a few days in advance, longer in summer.
Although the main roads are generally in a good condition, road conditions elsewhere are not of the usual European quality yet, but improvements are made since the country is a EU member. Still, driving skills and lighting at night are both poor, so watch out. You can rent cars from international and local companies at major airports, cities and a few resorts at the Black Sea. You need a national driver's licence or international one if you are not from the EU. Be sure to have sufficient third party insurance as well (green card is compulsory). If bringing your own car, have your document of ownership in order.
There are few noteworthy ferries for travellers, but a trip on a yacht on the Black Sea is probably one of the best possibilities. UKR Ferry serves Odessa in the Ukraine from Varna.
If you are a European Union (EU) citizen, you may enter without any restriction as per your EU citizenship rights. If you are not an EU citizen and Bulgaria is the first stop on your visit, you will need to obtain a Schengen Visa. This visa is valid for any country in the Schengen zone.
See also: Money Matters
The Bulgarian Lev (ISO code: BGN) (plural: Leva) is the official currency of the country. One Lev is divided into 100 stotinki (singular: stotinka). Banknotes in circulation are 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 leva. Coins are in denominations of 1 stotinka; 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 stotinki; and 1 lev. The lev is living in its last days though. You can exchange money at the hotel, at a change bureau or at the bank. There are hotels in which the change bureau works 24/7. You won’t need a passport in order to exchange money. Stay alert - some exchange bureaux are still trying to rip off the gullible tourist. That’s why it is advised to not be shy to scrutinise the board with the announced exchange rates on it. Also bear in mind that according to the law, it is only after you sign the issued document with the received from you amount of leva, when the deal becomes valid.
The oldest Bulgarian university is the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" that in 2008 celebrated 120 years from its foundation. It is considered to be the largest and most prestigious university center. There are many newer centres of education in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Shumen, Veliko Tarnovo and Blagoevgrad, among a few others. For most subjects, programs are available in Bulgarian or English, depending on the university. Elementary and middle schools are supported by local authorities budget. As with most nations, teachers complain about small salaries. Literacy is nearly universal. Bulgarian people speak mostly English, German, French and Russian. Some of the universities that offer education entirely in English are the American University in Bulgaria, the New Bulgarian University and the Technical University of Sofia. The last one offers also degrees in German language. The American College in Sofia offers secondary education in English.
Bulgarian is the official language - it's a Slavic language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, developed in 10-Th century AD. Turkish and Gipsy minority languages. English, German, French and Russian are spoken in major tourist areas.
Bulgarian cuisine is a representative of the cuisine of Southeastern Europe. It has some Turkish and Greek influences, but it has some unique elements. The relatively warm climate and diverse geography produce excellent growth conditions for a variety of vegetables, bean cultures, herbs and fruits.
Finding an accommodation in Bulgaria is very easy, for any price. You can find everything - from hostels in Sofia and Plovdiv, very cheap boarding houses along the coast to inexpensive hotels in all cities and luxury hotels in large cities. There are many mountain huts or villas available for rent all around the mountains in the country. Overnight accommodations can also be acquired at about a dozen of the monasteries. There are also plenty of guesthouses and villas. Bulgaria is famous for offering quality budget accommodation for rural and ecological tourism in charming small towns in its mountains as well as at the seaside. In some of the coastal villages, elderly ladies often approach tourists disembarking from coaches and trains, offering accommodation in boarding houses. These can often be excellent value for money (from as little as €5 a night) and can offer an authentic experience, however check these out before you agree on a stay.
The national drink of Bulgaria is called Rakia. It is an alcohol beverage produced by the distillation of fruit. Fruits can be grapes, plums, apricots, pears, apples, etc. The most popular sorts are Grape Rakia (Grozdova rakia) and Plum Rakia (Slivova rakia, Slivovitsa). It can be white or yellow in colour, depending if any herbs were added or if the liquid was kept in wooden (usually oak) barrels. The alcohol content is usually about 40%, but the home made drinks can be up to 50-60% or even 80%. Rakia is often served together with pickled vegetables or Shopska salad (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and cheese, the most popular in the country) as a starter. In winter rakia is sometimes heated and mixed with sugar or honey and spices and used as an anti-flu weapon. There are even traditional celebrations, like Trifon Zarezan (14th of February), devoted to the process of turning the grapes to an alcoholic drink. The process of distilling rakia is called Pechene (baking) and is done in a copper barrel, heated by woods, where they put in the fermented fruit. The first output usually contains some methyl alcohol and is used only for medicine purposes. Most of villages have a common barrel and rakia producing is an important task for the men of the village every year, where trying the drink during the distillation ensures that all the small details of the process are performed well.
Bulgaria is the leader in wine producing among all East European countries. Its history dates back to the times of the Tracian tribes that inhabited the region (2,000 years BC). There is grape plantations all around the country, but officially 5 viticultural regions are distinguished. These are:
Beer is a very popular drink in Bulgaria, the most famous breweries that make lager beer are Kamenitsa (made in the city of Plovdiv), Zagorka (made in the city of Stara Zagora), Shumensko (produced in the city of Shumen), Pirinsko (produced in Blagoevgrad) and Ariana (in Sofia). Many of the breweries are owned by foreign companies and offer both local brands and international ones, such as Stella Artois, Heineken, etc.
Boza is a drink that you can buy in the pastry shops in Bulgaria. It's a fermented beverage, brown in colour and with thick consistency, made by different sorts of flour, usually millet or wheat, and sugar. It has a very low alcohol content (<1%). Ayran is a yoghurt drink, popular in summer - it is made by mixing some yoghurt, cold water and salt. Both drinks are popular throughout much of West Asia and around the Balkan country.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Bulgaria. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Bulgaria. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Bulgaria is generally a safe country, and people are quite friendly. You should however behave according to common sense when you are outside of the main tourist areas, i.e. don't show too openly that you have money, don't dress too much like a tourist, watch your things, don't walk around the suburbs (esp. those of Sofia) at night, avoid dark streets at night. Stepping in a hole is a much greater danger in Bulgaria than getting robbed.
Stray dogs are common all over Bulgaria. While most are friendly and are more scared of you than you are scared of them, they have been responsible for a number of accidents, so do keep on guard. There is rabies in Bulgaria, so any animal bites should receive immediate medical attention.
Internet access is widely available in Bulgaria, although about 60% of the population has regular access. Broadband internet is available through cable, ADSL, fiber optics, WiMax and LAN connections. You can also access internet with your mobile phone, via GPRS or 3G. Speeds are pretty fast in the capital. Outside Sofia, speeds are significantly lower. Internet cafes are available in most towns and cities, and in some villages. Computers are usually not available in libraries, or in public places such as train stations, but free wireless access is often available in such public places and in gas stations. Many pubs and hotels will also have WiFi that is free of charge to use. In recent years, wireless access has been growing, especially in biggest cities, but is still rather limited. Paid wireless access is also available. Speeds in Bulgaria are surprisingly good! In fact Bulgaria is in top 10 of the countries with fastest wireless Internet speeds worldwide.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Bulgaria is: 359. To make an international call from Bulgaria, the code is: 00
There are three mobile operators in Bulgaria: Globul, MobilTel & Vivacom. You can buy phone cards from post offices, kiosks and other street vendors.
The pan-European standard number 112 for all emergency calls is working everywhere in Bulgaria since September 2008. If, for some reason, you can not connect to 112, dial 166 for police, 150 for ambulance and 160 for the fire department.
Bulgarian Posts is the national postal service of Bulgaria. Services are fairly reliable and have been getting better and faster of the years. Still, it takes anywhere from days (domestic) to weeks (intercontinental) to send postcards, letters and/or parcels. They also have a very handy price calculator for all items, both priority as well as non-priority. Bulgarian post offices generally are open from 8:00am to 6:00pm, though some are also open on Saturday (mornings) or keep longer evening hours (mostly the central post offices in big cities or in tourist areas along the coastline). You can buy stamps and postcards at the post offices or at newspaper kiosks. Single stamps for domestic services start at 0.45 leva, for international destinations prices vary by region. For sending packages, you can also use more expensive but faster courier services offered by for example UPS or DHL. TNT and local ones like City Express or Econt are also options.
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