Forget Communists and old tractors, sunny Bulgaria is the new Benidorm

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The Independent Travel

It is the land of the Festival of the Measuring of the Milk. And in the good old days of the Warsaw Pact it was the favourite holiday destination for Britain's Communists and Trotskyites, the kind of people for whom visiting the local tractor factory was a cultural highlight.

But this winter, British holiday companies such as Thomson and First Choice are promoting Bulgaria's more conventional attractions of sunshine and sandy beaches to customers who might otherwise take a summer holiday in Greece, Spain or Turkey.

More than 120,000 British tourists visited Bulgaria between January and August this year, a 40 per cent increase on the previous year. Numbers are expected to increase by between 20 and 30 per cent next year. Thomson has put Bulgaria top of its list of 10 hot destinations for next year.

While some of this is clearly a self-fulfilling prophecy - if travel companies promote a destination, more will go there - they may have discovered an untapped market among those who find the usual Mediterranean hotspots too expensive or predictable.

The travel industry sees Bulgaria as joining a list of former Communist countries where tourism has grown. Prague is well established, Croatia is back on track after the return of peace to the Balkans, Slovakia is earning a decent reputation and Romania may be next.

Frances Tuke of the Association of British Travel Agents said: "Bulgaria has always been well known to a few people as a good-value-for-money destination. It appeals to those who are feeling a bit more adventurous and don't necessarily want total luxury, which they won't find. It is the kind of people who went to Turkey about 15 years ago when the industry was still developing, although Bulgarian hotels are better.''

Tourists will find a warm climate, plenty of alternatives to the beach, a thriving black market in CDs and the palate-cleansing local brandy. The cuisine falls between Middle European paprika-flavoured meat stews and the kind of staples found in Turkey - salads, stuffed and baked vegetables, skewered meats and fish. A pint of beer is about 50p, a meal for two about £5 and a bottle of decent Bulgarian red about £2. Bulgarian prices are low because it is out of the eurozone, where prices have risen and become more equal across Europe since the introduction of the euro. But this may not last. One reason holiday companies are promoting Bulgaria is that it is improving its infrastructure because it hopes to join the EU in 2007. If it is successful and adopts the euro, prices will almost certainly rise.

But by then, they hope the British will be sold on the delights of Black Sea resorts such as Duni and Albena, with their long sandy beaches flanked by large modern hotel complexes. The second reason for the Bulgarian boom is that many of the hotels, built just after the collapse of Communism, have been recently refurbished by European companies squeezed out of the Spanish market, where hotel developments are restricted. This room capacity has then been sold in bulk to companies such as Thomson. Ms Tuke said: "It's a chicken-and-egg situation. If the companies buy hotel space they have to sell it, but they won't do it if people haven't indicated they want to go there.''

The Bulgarian government is anxious to convince the world that things have moved on from the days of Communism. "Things have changed radically in our country and that may not be well known in the rest of Europe. We want to get that message over to people,'' said a spokeswoman for the Bulgarian embassy in London.

Well, just about. The Black Sea resort of Bourgas warns visitors that nightlife is not as sophisticated as they might expect but says there are usually folklore and Russian dancing evenings. After which it's off to the tractor factory, no doubt.

Tourist information: Culture, mountains and milk

By Gary Calder

¿ If you get bored with the beaches, head for the mountainous interior, a wonderful hiking destination.

¿ If hiking isn't your scene, the area is popular for caving and mountain-biking, and skiing in winter.

¿ For more cultural pursuits, Bulgaria's big four monasteries at Bachkovo, Rila, Rozhen and Troyan are attractions.

¿ The capital, Sofia - motto: raste no ne staree ("grows but does not age") - is home to the striking Aleksandar Nevski cathedral.

¿ Ignore the predictable Western-style fast food and go to one of the traditional mehanas for dishes such as gyuvech, a rich stew of peppers, aubergines and beans, served in earthenware pots, and kavarma, a spicy meat stew akin to Hungarian goulash.

¿ The Measuring of the Milk, or Predoi, festival in highland villages in May is intended to ensure good milk yields and includes milking a ewe so the milk dribbles through the wedding ring of a young bride before falling into the pail.

¿ Bulgarians shake their heads for "yes" and nod for "no".

¿ The Prime Minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, elected in 2001, is the first ex-monarch in post-Communist Eastern Europe to return to power.

¿ The currency is the lev, divided into 100 stotinki.

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