Colourful history of Bulgaria’s Black Sea
Brian Caldecott enjoys a holiday with history flying from Norwich to the old town of Nessebar on Bulgaria's Black Sea.
Black Sea resorts have become well known to holidaying Brits for their white-sand beaches that are ideal for sun-worshipping and, for the more adventurous, windsurfing and water-skiing, paragliding and yachting.
Perhaps the best known are Sunny Beach and Golden Sands but for our first visit to Bulgaria Tricia and I chose to go in search of a good helping of history. Our destination was the ancient town of Nessebar, only a short distance south of Sunny Beach but both a resort town and an open-air museum.
Measuring just 850m long and 350m wide, the Old Town of Nessebar is located on a romantic rocky peninsula, once an island but now connected to the mainland new town via a narrow manmade causeway. It was the ideal place from which to explore the coast and the mountainous interior – and we were blessed with glorious weather.
Often referred to as the Pearl of the Black Sea, Nessebar is a rich city-museum defined by more than three millennia of ever-changing history. Its abundance of historic buildings prompted Unesco in 1983 to include the Old Town in its list of World Heritage Sites.
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As we took our first stroll from our new town hotel towards the waterfront there were dramatic glimpses of the old settlement across the bay. We crossed the causeway promenade, past a striking wooden windmill, and the beautiful Old Town became even more of an eye-opener. Soon after passing the Town Gate and the ancient fortress walls that are visible at various points we were in an area of cobbled Roman pavements and winding narrow streets and alleys densely packed with wooden houses and the remains of churches built of striking white stone and red brick.
In the Archaeological Museum we browsed its collection of red-glazed pottery, gold coins and delicate jewellery, iconic art, carved stone figures and religious relics. We marvelled at the ruins of the three-nave Old Metropolitan Church, or Basilica, that contain a large central apse which is a venue for plays and concerts. The New Bishops' Residence, or St Stefan, features realistic murals representative of Bulgarian art in the 10th and 11th centuries and elaborate woodcarvings from the 18th and 19th centuries on the bishop's throne and the pulpit. Our tour ended at the Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, a structure made of brick, clay, and stone and with colourful rosette embellishments.
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We pressed on through streets lined with art galleries and craft shops selling ceramics, lace work and jewellery before taking a break at a pavement caf� for refreshments and a spot of people-watching. The area was buzzing and within just a few minutes we had identified a range of accents from west European to North American, the Far East and Australasia.
Checking the menu we discovered that a salad starter accompanied with a firewater rakiya liqueur cost about �3, a litre of local beer cost less than 50p while a beer and a gin and tonic set us back about �1.70. Eating out was generally very cheap, the restaurant bill for a modest three-course meal usually coming in at �5-�6 and rarely adding up to more than �10 a head, including a tip. Service was very good and, as in most of the establishments catering for tourists, English was widely spoken and understood. After a day or two we were able to decipher essentials in the Cyrillic alphabet but most signs were also in English.
Our new town hotel, the 238-room Festa Panorama, was ideally located in an area offering a huge choice of cafes, bars and restaurants and presenting an easy 25-minute stroll into the Old Town. There was also the option of taking a 45p bus ride across the causeway to the Old Town Gate. As well as an information desk, where our Balkan Holidays rep Galina was able to assist, the hotel offers exchange facilities and internet access, children's playground, disco/nightclub and indoor and outdoor pools.
The outdoor pool, where snack meals are available at the bar, has a furnished sun terrace complete with parasols while the indoor pool has a whirlpool and other spa facilities Our comfortable room came with a seaview balcony overlooking the pool area where the recreation team offered daily exercise and sports activities and entertainment for all ages.
The buffet restaurant offered a good selection of breakfast, lunch and evening meals and there was always something to tickle the palate. At dinner we enjoyed the choice of soups, speciality stuffed peppers and vine leaves with meat, rice and spices. The cheeses were good and the local sweets, baklava and the like, made with filo pastry with ground nuts and smothered in honey were a treat. Fresh cherries and peaches were always available.
Our tour options from Nessebar included a trip into the Balkan Mountains which proved an excellent choice. Our guide, Zdravko, was knowledgeable about the attractions of the Blue Mountains national park and took us first to Zheravna which is considered the best preserved village, with more than 200 typical dwellings. The two-storey houses were built in the early 18th century to provide kitchen and general facilities on the stone-built ground floor and living space on the wooden first floor which often projects outward over the street.
Our coach tour continued through forests, vineyards and fields rich in fragrant herbs and mushrooms to Ichera, a mountain village with a long history and strong traditions.
Tiny cobbled streets wind steeply uphill past wooden houses with large verandas. The church of St Dimitur dates from 1842 while the local community house, founded in 1820, still functions alongside a library. In a village restaurant we enjoyed a alfresco feast that opened with a delicious bean soup; then a shopska salad of chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and onion topped with white cheese – accompanied, as is the custom, with a glass of rakiya; then a dish of pork, stuffed vegetables and potatoes; and, to finish us off, pancakes.
By the time we were preparing to leave the blue sky had darkened and storm clouds were building. 'Don't like the look of this,' said Tricia, perhaps thinking of our planned drive into the mountain peaks and chairlift descent. Sure enough, there was a fierce electric storm with hailstones and strong winds and the road became a torrent of water. Conditions did improve but the chairlift was ruled out – which Tricia celebrated at the Blueridge winery of Domaine Boyar in Sliven.
Cheers! Na zdrave!
Brian and Tricia visited Bulgaria with Balkan Holidays. Their week in early June began with a flight from Norwich which landed at Bourgas after just over three hours. A 30-minute coach journey delivered them to the Festa Panorama in Nessebar. Seven nights at the four-star Festa Panorama costs from �557 per person all-inclusive, including return flights from Norwich departing September 11. Flights are available from 21 UK regional airports. Price quoted includes a discount for booking online. Visit www.balkanholidays.co.uk, telephone 0845 520 1263 or contact your local travel agent. DK Eyewitness Guide to Bulgaria (traveldk.com; �13.99) is an excellent companion for visitors, with photos and maps, cutaways and floorplans of major sites; scenic routes and thematic tours; sights, beaches and festivals are listed town by town; and there's good information on hotels and restaurants. The currency is Bulgarian lev – 10 leva is �4.50.