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Bulgaria - Great-value skiing, glorious beaches and marvelous monasteries
March 5, 2017, 5:27 pm

With several dramatic mountain ranges, superb beaches, numerous historic towns and a web of working villages with traditions straight out of the nineteenth century, Bulgaria has a wealth of attractions crammed into a relatively compact country. More than anything else, this is a land of adventures: once you step off the beaten track, road signs and bus timetables often disappear, and few people speak a foreign language, but almost everyone you meet will be determined to help you on your way.

Sofia: With its drab suburbs and distinct lack of charming old buildings, Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia can appear an uninspiring place to first-time visitors. However, much has been done in recent years to revitalize the heart of the city. Once you have settled and begin to explore, you will find that Sofia has some good suprises to offer. With its lush public garden and pavement cafes, on a fine day, Sofia springs to life.

Plovdiv: With an easy grace, Plovdiv mingles invigorating nightlife among millennia-old ruins. Like Rome, Plovdiv straddles seven hills; but as Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, it is far more ancient. It is best loved for its romantic old town, packed with colorful and creaky 19th-century mansions that are now house-museums, galleries and guesthouses.

Black Sea Coast: Bulgaria's long Black Sea coastline is the country's summertime playground, attracting not just Bulgarians but tourists from across Europe and beyond. The big, purpose-built resorts here have become serious rivals to those of Spain and Greece, while independent travellers will find plenty to explore away from the parasols and jet skis.

Emen Canyon: Thrashing beneath lofty limestone cliffs, the Negovanka River has sculpted deep creeks and pretty waterfalls in this captivating nature reserve, 22km west of Veliko Târnovo. For soaring views across Emen Canyon, hike the Negovanka Ecotrail along 90m-high bluffs. The trail begins with a steep clamber up rocky steps from Emen Cave  to a spectacular vantage point over the gorge. The path then weaves among tree-shaded clifftops before a muddy descent to a 10m-high waterfall.
Tsarevets Fortress: The inescapable symbol of Veliko Târnovo, this reconstructed fortress dominates the skyline and is one of Bulgaria’s most beloved monuments. The former seat of the medieval tsars, it boasts the remains of more than 400 houses, 18 churches, the royal palace, an execution rock and more.

Rila Monastery: Rising out of a forested valley in the Rila Mountains, Bulgaria’s most famous monastery has been a spiritual centre for 1000 years. Rila Monastery’s fortress-like complex engulfs 8800 sq m, and within its stone walls you will find remarkably colourful architecture and religious art. Visitors cannot fail to be struck by its elegant colonnades, archways striped in black, red and white, and the bright yellow domes of its main church, beneath which dance apocalyptic frescoes. All of this splendor, against a backdrop of mist-swirled mountains, has made Rila Monastery hugely popular among both pilgrims and curious visitors.       

Bachkovo Monastery: About 30km south of Plovdiv stands the magnificent Bachkovo Monastery, founded in 1083. Most of the complex dates from the 17th century onwards, with the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa (1604) as its colourful centrepiece. The church is decorated with 1850s frescoes by renowned artist Zahari Zograf and houses a much-cherished icon of the Virgin Mary. More beautiful murals can be found in the former refectory.

Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument: Visible within a 30km radius, this tremendous Soviet-era monument was opened in 1981 to commemorate the First Bulgarian Empire’s 1300th anniversary. Enormous futurist sculptures depict Bulgaria's medieval rulers, and the complex includes the Balkans' largest outdoor mosaic triptych. Statues of Bulgarian khans tower 18m high around this angular complex, constructed with 50,000 cu metres of concrete and 2500 tonnes of steel.
Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari: The highlight at this Unesco-protected Thracian settlement is a nearly perfectly preserved three-chamber burial tomb from about 300 BC. The high quality of the construction, the fine artwork and reliefs adorning the tomb, and the exquisite burial gifts attest to the advanced state of the civilisation. Visitors are free to walk throughout the compound and visit a Muslim shrine from the 16th century. It is located about 8km from the town of Isperih, in the village of Sveshtari.
Archaeological Museum: Exhibits at this vast museum, the best of its kind in Bulgaria, include 6000-year-old bangles, necklaces and earrings said to be the oldest worked gold found in the world. You will also find Roman surgical implements, Hellenistic tombstones and touching oddments including a marble plaque listing, in Greek, the names of the city’s school graduates for AD 221. All of the exhibits are helpfully signposted in English, with excellent explanatory text.
Etâr Ethnographic Open-Air Museum: If ambling down cobbled lanes with a stick of halva in hand sounds like an agreeable foray into Bulgaria's past, a day in Etâr will delight. Nearly 50 shops and workshops cluster along the lanes of this historic complex, set between trees along a tributary of the Yantra River.
Officially an open-air museum, Etâr feels like a movie set with its costumed performers and traditional handicrafts.  Etâr’s 19th-century National Revival–style buildings, gaily painted in peach and periwinkle blue, house the workshops of bakers, cartwrights, cobblers, furriers, glass workers, hatters, jewellers, leather workers, millers, potters, weavers and more.  Aside from shopping, it is possible to peer inside traditional cottages, watch an old sawmill and pause inside the Holy Epiphany Church, a replica of an 1868 temple in Radovtsi village.

Summer Palace of Queen Marie and Botanical Gardens: At the far western end of the seafront, this palace was completed in 1926 by King Ferdinand of Romania for his English wife, Queen Marie, when Balchik was part of Romania. Size-wise, it is a relatively modest villa, though the architecture – a blend of local, Gothic and Islamic styles topped with a minaret – is unique. Behind the palace are the extensive botanical gardens. The complex also includes a water mill, a winery and the tiny Chapel of Sveta Bogoroditsa. The half-dozen or so rooms on show contain original furnishings, including paintings by Marie, and several photographs of the queen striking dramatic poses on the grounds. Also here is a curious collection of local archaeological finds, including Roman pottery and mammoth bones. In the garden, around 600 species of flora are featured throughout a series of themed terraces, including an impressive collection of cacti.




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