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Sofia's choice.

Byline: By 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, most beautiful and varied landscape.

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 purple haze at 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.

A quick change of clothes, and the journey begins with the Orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio performing Dvorak's seventh symphony in a nationwide classical music festival.

The arts scene in the country has much to offer in spring and summer, with top-quality open-air music contests, film and theatre events to please the most capricious connoisseurs.

The following day I explore the town by myself. Its cobbled stone streets start to steam as the first rays of sun hit them and the racket of trams, cars and rickety buses is the sound of the city waking up.

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.

Popa, an affectionate title for a black granite statue of the scholar Patriarch Evtimii nearby, is a meeting point for virtually all teenagers in Sofia.

Then it's on to Rakovska Street, the artistic hub for fame-seekers keen to try their luck at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts. The street is also home to numerous theatres frequented by established and rising actors.

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.

Inside the cathedral's grand wooden door, icons of saints, kings and queens line the walls and ceiling, painted in the signature fashion of Eastern Orthodox church art. Frankincense burns during the service to drive the devil away.

My tour of Sofia's sights finishes at the main building of Sofia University, with statues of Greek canonized scholars Kliment and Methodius. Beautiful copper domes, green with age, finish off the grand look.

There's so much more to Bulgaria than just Sofia, however, so I board a coach to take me 500 miles east to 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 - the sharp-edged canyon of the river Iskur - appears to our right. Then the rounded peaks of the Stara Planina range appear, half bathed in crimson morning sunshine, half covered by shadow of faint blue clouds. Vast expanses of green mountain forest greet us as we follow the curving motorway. It isn't just breathtaking; this is scenery to lose your heart for.

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 townhouses dating from a mixture of centuries 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.

The lavish dark green beeches and maple trees in the park surround us as we make for the beach, passing 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.

We sit on steps carved into a stone block, our feet almost touching the water, watching the steel masts of cargo ships and cruisers in the harbour.

After lunch we turn back and climb the steep hill leading to the Gardens and head for the Leten Teatur (Summer Theatre) - an open-air venue popular with touring orchestras, ballets and bands in the warm seasons - for a colourful production of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

Varna has many faces and moods. A new life emerges after sunset as revellers flock to the seaside nightclubs and bars, where the entry

fee is a modest four leva, or pounds 1.50. More expensive night life can also be found at the seaside resorts north of Varna - among them Zlatni Pyasatzi (Golden Sands) and Slunchev Den (Sunny Day).

It is the town's clubs I opt for on a Friday night, where I perfect my salsa dance moves on the stone slate floors of a Latin fiesta club. A night to remember takes on a whole new meaning as we leave at 3am to the crash of waves on the seafront.

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. CHECK IN: Denny Vlaeva flew to Sofia with Bulgaria Air ex-Gatwick (020 7637 7637 or visit www.air.bg). Flights are now available from Cardiff International Airport. Other airlines flying to Sofia include British Airways (0870 850 9850) ex-Gatwick and Wizz Air (00 48 22351 9499) ex-Luton and via Budapest. Flights are now available from Cardiff International Airport.

Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114/ www.balkanholidays.co.uk) offers packages and tailormade holidays in Bulgaria from a wide choice of 22 regional airports in summer 2006. For the rest of summer 2005, lead-in price for seven nights' B&B at a two star hotel in the resort of Golden Sands near Varna is pounds 313 ex-Gatwick Sept 7, including transfers.
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 27, 2005
Words:1018
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