Bulgarian Mini Adventure

At first glance, Bulgaria may not seem an obvious place to go for an off the beaten track mini adventure. Its Black Sea coastal resorts, in particular, are attracting more and more foreign sun-seekers each year as well as being a highly popular location for Stag and Hen parties.  Yet despite its developing neo-tourist appeal, there is still plenty to see and do for those less inclined to lay on the beach or sampling the Bulgarian party nightlife.

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - Varna's Orthodox Christian Cathedral

Varna Cathedral

Famed for an abundance of over 160 monasteries and Cathedrals, roughly 330 museums and galleries and spectacular natural reserves, Bulgaria is also home to nine UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s therefore no surprise that the country is ranked third in the world for its archaeological and cultural importance.  Over one third of the Bulgarian countryside consists of rugged mountainous terrain popular with both skiers in the winter months and summer adventure seekers alike. The central provinces are also home to some of the most spectacular and unusual cave formations in the whole of Europe.

Although the country shares much of its land borders with Romania, Serbia and Macedonia, Bulgaria have a far more central European in feel owing largely to strong German commercial investment. But it is the Greek and Turkish influence from the south, coupled with a consistently hot summer climate, that gives Bulgaria an unexpectedly Mediterranean feel, hence its popularity with holidaymakers. One upshot in the growing number of tourists visiting the country is the number of low cost airlines now flying to major International airports. Despite being at the very extremity of Europe, at less than a three and a half hour flight from London, Bulgaria is now more accessible than ever.

I managed to pick up a cheap flight to Varna, Bulgaria’s principal coastal port close to the up-and-coming Blue Flag beach resort of Golden Sands and a perfect starting point for my Bulgarian mini adventure.  Due to the country’s late entry into the European Union and chose not to adopt the Euro, day-to-day living is still relatively inexpensive by European standards.  A night’s stay at even a modest three star hotel typically costs only 60 Leva (about £22) and a good quality three course meal with drinks is in the region of £10-12.  By far the easiest and most efficient way to get around is by hire car, costing around £20 a day or cheaper if hiring on a multiple day basis.  Although bus and train routes are reasonably well established and relatively inexpensive, they offer far less flexibility than a self-drive option.

No more than 10 minutes west of Varna Airport is the intriguing geological site of Pobiti Kamani or ‘Stone Forest’.  These naturally occurring limestone columns, some of which are over 7 meters high, have split the scientific community and their formation still remains largely unexplained.  With no other known geological example of its kind in the world, it is certainly a place worth visiting if not just to see the personified features of some of the most aptly named Fertility Stone, Soldier and Lonely Man.

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - The Stone columns of Pobiti Kamani the stone forest

The Stone Forest of Pobiti Kamani

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - The personified stone columns of The Fertility Stone, Soldier and Lonely Man

The personified stone columns of The Fertility Stone, Soldier and Lonely Man

If you do travel to the Stone Forest you should also make the trip 15 minutes further west to the town of Provadia. Believed to be the site of Europe’s oldest prehistoric town, it dates back to 4,700 BC.  Nestled atop the large hill side plateau directly to the east sits the 3rd Century Ovech Fortifications.  Most impressively, there is a 600-foot long rickety wooden ‘sky-bridge’ connecting the two main plateau sections, suspending all those that cross it high above the forest canopy and jagged boulders below.  Go Ape eat your heart out!

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - The Ovech Fortress and hill top sky bridge above Provadia

The Ovech ‘Sky Bridge’ and hilltop fortifications above Provadia

The Ovech Fortress can also be incorporated into a much longer backcountry trek around Provadia’s extensive hilly surroundings. With an abundance of places to make camp, there are also plenty of hillside streams, natural springs and waterfalls to cool off in.  But be warned, a walk around the rocky escarpments of the nearby gorge plateaus takes you dangerously close to some 400-foot high sheer cliff faces. With absolutely nothing to protect you from a perilous fall, it is less than ideal for those with an adverse affliction for heights or if accompanied by unruly toddlers.

Further north, just outside the resort of Golden Sands, you can find the 25m high Orthodox Christian Cave Monastery of Aladzha.  Carved into the chalky cliff side, the site dates back to the 12th Century and consists of various exposed corridors and chambers spread over several levels.  It can be reached on foot in under an hour if staying at Golden Sands or is a 15 minute drive north from Varna.  A further 40 minutes north of the Monastery you will find the very picturesque town of Balchik. Here you will find an abundance of archaeological sites, castle ruins and museums, as well as the very impressive Balchik Botanical Gardens set in the grounds of the ‘Quiet Nest’ Palace.  Take advantage of the excellent Black Sea panoramas and see in the evening over dinner and a bottle of Bulgarian wine.

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - Aladzha Monastery

Aladzha Cave Monastery

The reason why this post is titled Part I is that I fully intend to visit the country again in the not so distant future for another action packed Bulgarian mini adventure.

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - Mountain Spring near Provadia

Mountain Spring near Provadia

Bulgarian Mini Adventure – Top Tips

  • Taxis.  Taxis can prove an expensive option and drivers will more often than not try to bump up the fare during the journey or on arrival at your destination, even after agreeing on a price before departure.
  • Accommodation.  There is an abundance of inexpensive, good quality hotels catering for the growing tourist trade that are rarely ever fully booked.  So don’t worry too much about booking before you go, as better deals can be found on nearly every street.
  • Tipping.  Restaurants occasionally add a 10% service charge or round the bill up to a convenient figure with waiters pocketing the difference.  Always check your bill before considering tipping. If a waiter has been particularly attentive, then a 10% tip is appropriate. Although you will be surprised how little this actually equates to.
  • Exchange Rates.  For larger in-country expenditure such as hire cars, vendors will often quote in Euros, but you can also pay in the local currency of Leva.  Be sure to check which currency rates work in your favour before handing over any cash.

Bulgarian Mini Adventure – Must See Bucket List

Bulgarian Mini Adventure – Further Resources:

Bulgarian Mini Adventure - The Stone columns of Pobiti Kamani the stone forest

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