We drove a leisurely loop around much of Bulgaria, which is roughly 500 km by 350 km (320 by 220 mi), and found so much enjoyable both in town and countryside.
Near Sofia, we passed through a lovely valley which was a cradle of Bulgarian nationalism in the 19th century. Its center, the small town of Koprivshtitsa, is stuffed with large homes in the “new” Bulgarian Revival style, which we also found in other towns like Plovdiv. These homes were often painted colorfully and inverted, with the higher floor larger than the ground floor. Here, as elsewhere across Bulgaria, many farmers still trotted small carts along the roads.
Traversing its eastern border, the Black Sea coast, we stayed for a while in the charming, popular beach town of Sozopol, on a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. Why Black? The Sea’s name comes not from the color of the water, but the color of cardinal directions relative to Greece. Black signified the north.
While there, we plunged into the sea from a quiet, rocky section near our hotel rather than the much busier sandy beach. The mid-June water was a perfect temperature, refreshing in the heat, and not cold as we expected. The onslaught of Bulgarian and foreign tourists may be threatening its charm, but happily some locals seem to be holding onto homes – and lifestyle -along many of the narrow hillside streets.
In some towns – especially on the coast – old historical centers were replete with medieval Orthodox churches and old homes. Particularly impressive was one frescoed church in northern Bulgaria cut out of solid rock.
Many of the other stone and brick churches are still filled with colorful frescoes, restored to luminous quality, painted on the walls as far back as the 11th century to inspire faith among the Eastern Orthodox and tell spiritual stories.
Across the north and central sections, we passed through small tree-lined towns, each with just one mini-market and one surprisingly good restaurant/cafe/bar. Along the Danube, the northern border with Romania, tiny fishing villages were still quite picturesque.
But environmental troubles from human interference endanger the natural beauty as at the Srebarna wetlands, a reserve near the Danube. There birds live and migrate in plenty but the normal flushing action of the river has been harmed.
We passed through larger cities, whose mundane commercial districts alternated with sleek high-rise apartments and green boulevards.
And, by complete contrast, the ancient capital of the Bulgarian empire, Veliko Tarnovo. Occupying three hills and the steeply pitched valleys in between, Veliko Tarnovo seemed a topographical summary of much of Bulgarian history.
One hill featured medieval churches and frescoes as well as a renovated fort. Another featured remnants of a Thracian fortress. And the new town, with its Ottoman era bazaar and homes, flowed into a valley from the third hill.
Bulgaria shares in the Balkan mountains too. Our favorite part was the Rila Mountains, about a 90 minute drive from Sofia, which offer winter sports for locals or summer hiking/camping. In the late spring.
The gorgeous and historical Rila Monastery nestled in a valley nearby. It glittered in the sunlight for us just after we arrived during a rain shower following our hike of the equally famous natural wonder, the Seven Lakes.
We wondered which season we were truly in, among these bare, snow topped and foggy hills. We hiked for three hours around Rila’s Seven Lakes.
Chunks of ice still floated about the lakes, most of which drained into each other through narrow streams. One waterfall comprised both moving water and a glacial one.
Occasionally, a bit of blue sky and sunlight made reflections on the lakes sparkle.
Stomping through snow drifts, slipping along muddy paths, dodging tiny spring flowers, traipsing across an intensely green valley toward the end of the hike, staring meditatively at the clear reflective lakes, and even just outpacing the threatening thunder of oncoming clouds – we thoroughly enjoying this spectacular place.
The landscape of the Balkan mountains to the west of Bulgaria may be striking, the churches artistic triumphs, and the ancient cities impressive.
Yet, throughout the countryside, we delighted as much in the country’s more sedate plains – filled with amber waves of grain and corn, with dazzling crops like lavender and sunflowers, or, even more appealingly, with extensive vineyards to make good local wine.
(Also, for more pictures from Bulgaria, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the itinerary page.)