The museum at Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest town, dating back more than 3,000 years
Rila Monastery, about two and a half hours drive from Sofia, is a World Heritage site
© All photographs courtesy of the Bulgarian Tourist Board, except where noted
It is well worth visiting Bulgaria before it
joins the European Union, as one of the
delights of the country is that the prices
for many things are very cheap. In a good
restaurant you can expect to pay an average
of £3 for a main course, which will be
of a good quality, tasty and interesting.
There are also plenty of eating places
where the dishes are even cheaper. A
drinkable Bulgarian wine will set you
back around £5.50. Clothes, too, unless
imported, are very reasonably priced. I tried
on a nice trouser suit for £60. However, the
downside is that, except in hotels and some
restaurants, credit cards are not accepted.
Bulgaria shares borders with Greece,
Turkey, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia and
Montenegro and therefore its buildings
and history has benefited from various
cultures. As Turkey is both European and
Oriental, its influence can be seen in the
Liberated from communism in 1989 the
country was, until then, firmly integrated
into the Eastern block with no private
enterprise. Although this is slowly changing,
my first impression was still that of an
Eastern European country.
English is taken at school as a second
language so many of the younger people
now speak the language. However, the
street names are only in Bulgarian, which
can be a problem as they use the Cyrillic
rather than the Latin alphabet.
Even with a map, unless you can read
the language, you will need to keep asking
where you are. The hotel system, too,
is different to ours with their four-star
properties on a par with our three, and
the five-star our four. New properties,
however, such as the centrally located
Crystal Palace in Sofia, are being built with
the same expectations and standards as ours.
A girlfriend and I started our visit in
Sophia, the capital, a town established
in Roman times, and shielded by two
mountains. We were fortunate enough
to have a guide, Iliya, who had an
excellent command of English. A mine
of information, he was versed not only
on the country's history but also its culture.
During World War Two there was no
fighting in Bulgaria, and the only part
bombed was in Sofia in 1944, enabling
a lot of historic buildings to remain intact.
The Sheraton Hotel is centrally located
for the shops, and both the historical and
government buildings, and is therefore
used as a landmark. Our visit took us to the
Alexander Nevski Cathedral, the largest
Christian Orthodox cathedral on the Balkan
Peninsular, holding up to 5,000 people.
Built in three different styles, the interior
walls are adorned with frescoes.
The majority of the population are Greek
Orthodox, although all faiths are permitted
to practice. Nearby was a Sephardic
synagogue built in Spanish Moorish style,
as well as a Sultan-style mosque.
In front of the cathedral is the largest flea
market in the country, selling everything
from jewellery, icons, old instruments and
cameras. What was a bit disconcerting was
that there were pieces emblazoned with
Nazi swastikas as well as former Soviet
army hats and medals.
At the administrative headquarters of the
President, there are two guards inside and
two outside. They wear the uniform of the
freedom fighters who fought against Turkish
rule between 1396 and 1878, with their hats
embellished with a goose feather.
The country is a parliamentary republic,
so that although their President is Head
of State, the executive power lies with the
Prime Minister and his Cabinet, who are
elected by the people. Interestingly, the
current President, who is also elected, is
the present heir to the throne if there had
been a monarchy.
Within the area there are natural mineral
springs which bubble up at 58 degrees, with
numerous outlets, and Sofia's residents can be
seen here filling up their bottles. Throughout
our walk we were able to see various sites
dating back to Roman times. In the metro,
for example, are the ruins of the former
Roman fortified walls built between one
and four AD, which have been renovated.