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Bulgaria's beautiful purple haze.

Byline: Denny Vlaeva

LEGEND has it that when God gave out pieces of the earth for peoples of the world to settle on, He left the Bulgarians till last - giving them the best.

But as I emerge from Sofia international airport for a waiting taxi into the capital, I have a little time to admire the sharp contours of Vitosha mountain, rising out of a purple haze in the north of the city.

I am staying with friends and family, travelling 500 miles from Sofia to the sea on an improvised backpacking trip across the north of the country.

Before I leave, I explore Sofia. On Graf Ignatiev boulevard, tempting smells waft from stalls selling zakuski - filo pastries and dough-based snacks stuffed with cheese or sweet fillings - which Bulgarians devour in the morning. Buckets of flowers are for sale by the traffic lights.

Climbing the hill, I get a superb view of St Alexander Nevski cathedral, its golden domes sparkling in the sun. Completed in 1912, the cathedral honours Russian casualties of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 which liberated the country after nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule.

But there's so much more to Bulgaria than just Sofia, however, so I board a coach for the coast, travelling in daylight to make the most of the stunning scenery on the six-hour drive to the sea.

Leaving Sofia, the ravine of the Iskurski Prolom appears to our right. Then the rounded peaks of the Stara Planina range appear, half bathed in crimson morning sunshine.

On the way to Varna, Bulgaria's third biggest city, we stop for a brief stint at the country's medieval capital, Veliko Turnovo, where cosy-looking houses perch on the slanting banks of the river Yantra.

With a constant, slow breeze from the coast, Varna is a cooler town next day. I follow the traffic of sandals, strappy tops and shorts along the pedestrian commercial area to meet a friend at the gates of the Morska Gradina, Sea Gardens, for a walk along the beach.

On the way there, we pass a string of Varna's famed seaside nightclubs, which function as casual restaurants and cafes by day. Here we feast on the essence of Bulgarian beach cuisine - a bowl of chips, piles of small deep fried fish, tzatza, and copious amounts of Bulgarian lager - for about pounds 2.50.

As legends go, Bulgaria's is one of the more extravagant ones. But there may well be truth in it, for few leave this country untouched by its unassuming beauty.

Denny Vlaeva

Denny Vlaeva flew to Sofia with Bulgaria Air ex-Gatwick (020 7637 7637 or visit www.air.bg).

Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114/www.balkanholidays.co.uk) offers packages and tailormade holidays in Bulgaria. It has eight flights a week from Manchester.

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TEMPTING SMELLS: Sofia, the historic capital of Bulgaria
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 27, 2005
Words:472
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