Through decades of turmoil, Bulgaria managed to preserve its culture and natural environment. Leave the big cities behind and head for the rural areas to find the ultimate eco-traveler's experience.
— by Pamela Grant
For centuries, Bulgaria experienced a seemingly endless series of invasions, conquerings, rebellions and periods of isolation from the world, all capped by 40 years of Soviet domination. As a testament to the indomitable spirit of Bulgarians, it is now the Republic of Bulgaria and a member of the European Union.
Its history is filled with stories of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, until finally a new constitution proclaimed Bulgaria a parliamentary republic. Joining the European Union in 2007, the light shining on this remarkable country is growing brighter, revealing the full extent of the Bulgarian devotion to protecting its cultural and natural treasures.
1.4 Million Years and Counting
Bulgaria has been inhabited for more than 1.4 million years, and Sofia is Bulgaria's capital city with a population of 1.2 million. Located in the Sofia Valley, it offers a vista of the Vitosha and Balkan Mountains and frequent bus trips to coastal areas like the Golden Sands Beach and Sunny Beach.
The second largest city is Plovdiv with 338,153 people. This city is known especially for its cultural festivals held throughout the year and its cultural sites like ancient Roman ruins.
Third in line is Varna with 334,870 people. Varna is the largest seaside resort in Bulgaria and is located on the Black Sea Coast.
That is an overview of the cities most frequently visited, which seems obligatory to provide. But it is time to get off the beaten tourist path and become an eco-traveler who searches out the cultural and natural gems found throughout the country.
You can begin in Sofia, if you want to take a little time to begin the immersion process. In Sofia, you can visit one of the world's most magnificent cathedrals, the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with its gold domes. Built in honor of Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman Empire rule, the church is a testament to endurance. The 30-year project has elaborate architecture; 12 bells that are heard for miles; and features like Italian marble, Indian alabaster, and a collection of unusual icons.
Sofia also has a beautiful pedestrian walkway called Vitosha Bolevard, lined with street artists, shops, and cafes, and other venues like Borisova Garden and the National Historical Museum for history buffs (especially those who want the pleasure of seeing Thracian gold).
For nature buffs, the Vitosha Mountains Nature Park is the oldest such park on the Balkan Peninsula. It contains the Bistrishko Branishte Reserve, a haven for wildlife that includes brown bear and 200 bird species. The mountains have plenty of hiking or mountain biking trails, ski slopes, and adventurous opportunities like snow-kiting and rock climbing.
Following in Ancient Footsteps
Leaving the capital city in search of a deeper cultural experience takes a traveler to Plovdiv, one of Europe's longest continuously inhabited settlements and named one of the 2019 European Capitals of Culture.
There you can follow in the footsteps of ancient Romans at the second century Ancient Theater of Philippopolis. Amazingly, theater productions continue to be held there to this day. Of course, in the Roman days, the theater likely was also the place where people went to watch gladiators and hunting games.
In Old Town, stretched along three hills, you truly get a sense of how people lived during the medieval ages as you pass under the Hisar Kapia medieval gate (one of three such gates) into alleys between ancient fortress stone walls built on streets paved with stones. Preservation of history rules in Old Town with its mixture of medieval stone buildings intermingled with traditional Bulgarian architecture added in the 18th century during the Bulgarian National revival.
Bulgarians are proud of their heritage and have focused on preserving their past culture while also demonstrating their current creative abilities. The Kapana neighborhood has stone-paved streets lined with cafes, boutiques and artist shops. Though many people despise gentrification of old areas, Kapana demonstrates it can also be a process enabling cultural revival. The pedestrian areas was once mostly crumbling buildings, but today it offers live music, local festivals, traditional handcrafts and opportunities to enjoy a craft beer with the locals while sitting on a patio.
Leaving the Cities Behind
Let us leave the populated areas and find the hidden treasures of Bulgaria.
First there are the villages where the hectic city life is unknown. There is an incredible sense of calm in cozy villages like Ribaritsa, situated at the foot of the Stara Planina mountain ranges, and Delchevo, perched on a mountain ridge. The small villages offer true cultural experiences that reflect history and a way of life, rather than a desire to please tourists. You can sit in healing thermal mineral water in Ognyanovo, or watch the ancient ritual of firewalking in Balgari, the last and only village that continues the practice.
Eco-travelers will find an endless supply of opportunities to get back to nature. There are more than 70 caves, crafted by Mother Nature herself, that offer a fantastic journey into the depths of Bulgaria. The Utroba Cave is called the "Eyes of God" because the 56-meter tall ceiling is marked by two large openings. There are incredible stalactites in the Ledenika Cave and prehistoric cave paintings in the Magura Cave. The earliest human remains in Bulgaria were found in the Paleolithic site of Bacho Kiro Cave, along with the bones of a giant bear.
Bulgaria is one of the places on earth where you should proactively search for cultural opportunities hidden in its nooks and crannies. This is not to suggest avoiding the cities. It is only to say that there is so much more that Bulgaria offers eco-travelers.
Searching for Authentic Cultural Experiences
Bulgaria is still developing its tourism industry, and it is still not fully effective at fully conveying its natural wonders to the world.
This means you can visit rural Bulgaria and learn more about the history of culture of Bulgaria than you will sitting in a city restaurant. Rural areas are filled with UNESCO World Heritage sites, like the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk and the Pilin National Park.
Cultural preservation does rule in Bulgaria, but you need to search it out to enjoy the true Bulgarian experience.