Our route home from Bangalore this summer started in Armenia to see a friend, then Georgia because it was convenient from Armenia and sounded amazing. Our next stop was determined by Melissa’s desire to swim in the Black Sea, so Bulgaria it was! Our eight days in Bulgaria were less about doing and more about being, as we simply soaked up the charms of this ancient, fascinating culture.
We started with four days to relax in the Black Sea resort town of Varna. Our Airbnb was perfectly located on a quiet residential street just a short walk from the city center sights in one direction and the beautiful Sea Garden park and beach in the other direction. We explored the huge 2nd century Roman bath complex as well as the smaller 4th century one that replaced it. We marveled at the archaeology museum with relics back to the stone age and the well-told story of the successive cultures that have occupied the region. We loved the wine, enjoyed the shopska salad, and started each day with banitsa (a cheesy, flaky filo dough treat). And we spent one decadent afternoon in a shady cabana where we could sip our drinks while gazing at the beautiful sea.
From Varna we took the train through dozens of fields of sunflowers to Plovdiv, the current European Capital of Culture and a delightful place to explore. Its tangle of curving streets and hills made it confusing to navigate, but while lost we happened upon ancient excavations and stunning revival architecture so didn’t mind a bit. In retrospect, we wished we’d spent more time in Plovdiv, or, at the very least, arranged our trip to allow us to see a concert in the ancient Roman theatre that hosted an opera the night before we arrived and a jazz symphony the day we left. Plovdiv had better food, better wine tasting, and even more amazing Roman ruins than Varna.
We finished our time in Bulgaria with about 24 hours in Sofia – not nearly enough! We thought it would just feel like any other European city, but it definitely has its own character, with incredible parks and pedestrian streets, spectacular religious buildings (from one square you can see a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral, and an Eastern Orthodox church – all of them architectural masterpieces), charming cafes, and Roman ruins everywhere. Add some wonderful wine tasting and we were smitten, fantasizing about moving there some day. Who knows what the future holds?
The food in Bulgaria is definitely not vegetarian-centric. On our way in to Varna, we asked our cab driver what traditional Bulgarian dishes we should eat, but when we told him we are vegetarian, he said, “Oh, that’s tough. There aren’t any.” While he wasn’t far off, the shopska salad, when done well, is delicious. It is basically the basic Indian green salad of cucumber, tomato, and onion, but with roasted bell pepper and a salty cow cheese, and usually with tomatoes oozing with flavor. Banitsa was delightful in all of its forms, including a very spanakopita-like version. Varna’s restaurants are meh. We went to one highly regarded restaurant, Di Wine, which was good enough, maybe better if you eat meat, but most of the restaurant scene is very much centered around the resort-ness of it all, not foodies. We went to two great restaurants in Plovdiv, Hemingway and Smokini.
Bulgaria was the third country of our trip to claim to be the first to make wine. The most amusing piece of this story came in one of the museums, where the story of wine in Bulgaria included a statement that while we all know wine has been made in Bulgaria for 7,000 years, the only hard evidence we have takes it back 6,000 years. That 6,000 year timeframe happens to be how far back wine has been made in Armenia and Georgia, as well. The history of wine in Bulgaria is checkered by the Soviet era, when Bulgarian wines supplied most of the Soviet Union (of which Bulgaria was not an official part despite two applications to become so), when quantity became more important than quality. At our tasting in Sofia, we asked about the transition back to quality, and our host insisted that they are still working on that transition. We tried to stick to Bulgarian wine in each restaurant, including a full-on tasting at The Sea Terrace in Varna. We also visited Dragomir winery in Plovidiv and a wine store that pours tastes in Sofia. We fell in love with several uniquely Bulgarian types: Melnik, Mavrud, and Rubin, a cross-breed between Nebbolio and Syrah. All in all, there is a lot of really high quality wines in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria felt like a bit of a risk in our planning, a little bit off the beaten path of the traditional tour. It is an amazing country. Now we’re off to Italy!