Welcome to the Costa del Bulgaria

British tourists are flocking to this country's Black Sea coast, says Robert Nurden. But there are still some quieter corners to explore
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The Independent Travel

Astory going around says that Bulgaria decided to shun mass tourism on the Black Sea in favour of a more authentic, low-key product. Some in the industry say that the country has looked at Spain, shuddered at the sprawling expanse of hotels, and opted instead for low-impact development, while still offering cheap holidays by the sea.

The story has an element of truth, but it ignores the high-rise complexes at Sunny Beach and Golden Sands. Formerly called Slanchev Bryag and Zlatni Piasatsi, they were renamed to blatantly lure British visitors. And obligingly we've come running from the Spanish costas in droves.

The picture is complicated by the demise of Communism. Czechs, Poles and East Germans used to descend on the pristine white beaches of the Black Sea for totalitarian breaks at soviet prices. Now that the new capitalists of the east are exploring the hotspots of western Europe, the old-style summer playgrounds are being demolished to make way for basking Britons - more than 250,000 of them last year, 62 per cent more than in 2003. The chance to snap up a bargain property and the promise of double-digit investment growth also beckons.

Is it too late to find rest and recreation on Bulgaria's 350km (200 mile) coast? Luckily not. Down south, beyond Burgas, lies a huddle of peaceful villages next to the shore. (The Black Sea may be inland, but it's insulting to call it a large lake: waves regularly lash its high cliffs.) This selection includes Ahtopol, one of the last Communist summer camps still in operation, where old-timers from workers' co-operatives roll up every year to take advantage of the ridiculous prices and pitch their tents for weeks on end. If you speak Russian, you might be able to strike up a conversation. But five miles down the road at Sinemorets, it's a different story. There, English is widely understood. Amid a cluster of new guesthouses and gaudy second homes, hip Bulgaria is flexing its monetary muscles.

Mercedes and BMWs whisk their passengers from south Sofia's posh suburbs to this most exclusive of resorts, just 10 miles from the Turkish border. Sinemorets lies exposed on a windy hill, backed by the Strandzha nature reserve, with a panoramic view of the Black Sea. To the north lies one of the region's loveliest expanses of sand, a spit bordered to the west by the river Veleka, to the east by the sea. Top of the charts in the ornithological stakes, the protected wetlands of Strandzha are on the Via Pontica, one of Europe's motorways for migrating birds. You can see black storks, vultures, eagles, corncrakes and woodcocks. And if you take the six-hour trek into the remote mountains, you may see red deer, wild boars, martens, polecats, and even wolves. Only the Caucasus has a similar ecological profile. To the south, the green hazy coast with its countless inlets and windswept scrub is reminiscent of Kerry, Ireland, but without the rain. Soon the pinks, limes and lemons of the Bella Vista Beach Club are out of sight and you can walk for miles without seeing a soul. Paths weave their way through thickets of untouched oak and beech forest.

Tentcho, a 78-year-old retired neurologist who fills his days cooking for his young wife, Irina, while complaining about the past and present, put me up in his guesthouse overlooking the bay. Over a mid-morning rakiya, the professor reminisced, telling me he'd resisted joining the Communist Party, with the result that he never reached the top of his profession. "I know why," he said. "Afterwards I found out that 60 per cent of my colleagues had been informing on me."

I nicknamed him Great Uncle Bulgaria, and the next day we drove out in his rusty, Womble-like Lada to the Turkish border for lunch. For decades, this was banned territory as the authorities erected a four-metre high electric fence to stop East Europeans escaping to Istanbul. Now that Bulgaria is a candidate to join the EU, they fear migration in the other direction, so it was no surprise when we were waved through this false border with hardly a glance.

"Bulgaria is always at a crossroads," said Tentcho, tucking into his kavarma (meat stew), as a horse and cart laden with freshly cut hay rolled by. "Geographically, it's between east and west, and politically it never knows where it is. We are not embracing western systems as fast as our neighbours. We know there's something wrong with out-and-out development, yet we are still letting it happen. The truth is we don't know what to do. We've never fitted in. We are the awkward Slavs."

Travel cliches abound about wonderful friendly locals, but here they are true. I lost count of the number of times Bulgarians held out a helping hand, followed by an invitation to join them for a meal. Tentcho had a take on this, too: "Bulgarians love foreigners but hate one another."

The patchwork of development is easy to see on the route north to Varna. Benidorm-style high-rises are followed by untouched beaches and forests. Because Bulgaria uses no chemicals on the land, the countryside is awash with wild flowers. It is also possible to wander at will: you'd be hard put to find a fence.

The Black Sea was a favoured spot for the ancient Greeks, and their colonies can still be seen. At Nessebur, reached by a narrow isthmus, you can pick out the outlines of the 6th century BC fortress on the seabed. Thracians, Romans and Byzantines converged on this spot, too, and the murals and icons in the churches are some of the finest around.

But it's the Bulgarian National Revival architecture that's worth your time: marvel at the two-storey houses, the ground floor in stone with an outside staircase to the timbered first floor. These 19th-century bourgeois homesteads are named after their original merchant owners: Muskoyanis, Ivan Markov, Captain Pavel, the Pipchenkov. They open their doors for a nominal entrance fee.

Before venturing out to the toasting 35C, sun-drenched vistas, linger awhile in one of Varna's best restaurants, the Paraklissa. Don't be put off because it's in the courtyard of the Museum of Medical History: the food is fresh and succulent. Try the St George's lamb, Bulgaria's national dish. You'll need all the protein you can get for the sun-and-sand experience ahead.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Bulgaria Air (020-7637 7637; www.bulgaria-air.co.uk) offers return flights from Gatwick to Varna starting at £205.

Where to stay

Vila Kalifornia, Sinemorets (00 359 5506 6081) offers double rooms from €15 (£10) per night, without breakfast.

For more hotels along the Black Sea coast go to www.beachbulgaria.com.

What to do

The Strandzha National Park Administration is in Malko Tarnovo (00 359 5952229). It can arrange accommodation and treks in the protected area.

Further information

Bulgaria Tourism (020-7584 9400; www.bulgariatravel.org).

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