Why Bulgaria should be your next European destination
Freelance writer and photographer Olivia Harlow recently joined BikeTours.com for a tour in Bulgaria. Here are some reasons why she thinks you need to see it too.
1. The food
The sustainable, locally grown food in Bulgaria is incredibly impressive. Never in my life have I picked up a full-sized tomato and bit into it like one would an apple, until now. Never have I sincerely enjoyed a mainly green meal—let alone a salad—until now. Never have I had someone throw pears to me from a ladder leaning into his tree, until now. Never have I seen every home in a neighborhood possess a blossoming garden, until now.
Bulgaria’s food is not only fresh and utterly delicious, but it’s available at your fingertips. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are abundant, and the taste is sincerely matchless. You want juicy peaches and perfectly plump grapes? Literally pull off the road, and you are sure to find a local market or one-person stand eager to meet your needs. And for cheap.
Normally a good quality honey costs about $9 in the states. Here, I was able to find a large jar of freshly made sunflower seed honey for just $2 USD. At one point on our trip, President of BikeTours.com Jim Johnson mistakenly purchased 5 kilos worth of peaches, instead of just 5 peaches: a mistake that would undoubtedly ring your wallet dry in the States. In Bulgaria this mess-up was hardly a bad thing. We had delicious peaches to feast upon for nearly a week, all for a mere $5 USD.
While the raw goods were incredible, the restaurant food and baked goods were equally delectable. From the obligatory bread loafs seasoned with fresh garlic and cheeses, to the homemade yogurts and perfectly stuffed pastries, to the Thracian style veggie bowls and house-made sausages, your mouth is sure to be watering.
What’s more, all the meat is ethically-raised. Coming from someone who usually only eats locally-raised or organic meats, I was impressed with the fact that this wasn’t even an issue in Bulgaria—simply because all meat is locally-raised and organic. Not to mention unbeatably delicious. Though I gained a bit of weight during my time abroad, every pound was totally worth it. Pigging out at every meal in Bulgaria is completely necessary.
2. The people
I can say with complete honesty that I did not meet a single unfriendly person while in Bulgaria. Although there is definitely a language barrier—especially in the more rural and remote areas—charades is always a laughable and entertaining form of communication. And the smiles of locals are reassuring that even when you appear to be a total idiot, they still want to welcome you with open arms. Their kindness, generosity, and hospitality are abundant. I was blown away.
3. The mountains
The Balkans are composed of numerous mountain ranges and extend from Yugoslavia to Bulgaria. The wooded, rocky mountains are stunning as a whole but are arguably particularly lovely in Bulgaria. The Balkans ranges found in Bulgaria are especially unique and absolutely breathtaking. In the words of Penguin Travel guide and world trekker, Lyuben Sinadinski, “I know I’m only 25, but I know the Balkans like the back of my hand. And I’m not just saying this because I’m from Bulgaria, but the mountains are the best here definitely.”
Whatever the season, the mountains are great for outdoor activity: hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, camping, or skiing. Home to quaint mountain villages, cobblestone paths, countless picturesque hiking trails, numerous caves, and gargantuan cliffs, Bulgaria’s mountains are stunning in every way possible and encompass all aspects of the word beauty.
4. The sunflowers
Bulgaria is the world’s top exporter of sunflower seeds. And that means sunflowers. Everywhere. Anywhere you go, you are certain to pass overwhelmingly beautiful, endless fields of these golden giants bowing their heads to a sun that shines an averaged 280 days a year. Seeing miles of these vibrant yellow beasts planted in perfect rows is truly breathtaking.
The best time to see these beauties in full bloom is during summer months, preferably early July. I unfortunately only was able to spot two full fields of still living sunflowers while I visited in mid-August. Let me say though, that those two fields were remarkable. I literally hopped off my bike mid-ride and ran across the street to get a closer look. Followed by shameless selfies among the large flora.
5. The monasteries
With iconic biblical figures painted in Thracian style, these 2,000+-year-old churches are beautiful revelations of Bulgaria’s culture and history. Many of these religious centers are uniquely sewn into mountainous surroundings, adding to their powerful beauty and spiritual stimulation. Whether you come from a Christian background or not, visiting Bulgaria’s monasteries can be a profoundly moving experience.
6. Geographical wonders
Bulgaria hosts thousands of geographical wonders. Lakes, caves, waterfalls, reserves, and rock deserts cover the country. The list is much too long to list them all, but the beauty of each and every natural wonder is evident and scenic in its own way.
Don’t be surprised if you see large groups of children jumping from bridges into crystal clear bodies of water. And don’t be concerned if you find yourself the only person present at a serene waterfall. There are so many beautiful, natural marvels that it’s normal to be alone. While many areas of similar splendor are tourist traps in the States, these hidden gems are so common in Bulgaria that it’s rare to ever feel like you’re a tourist. Spending time at a towering seaside cliff or roaring waterfall alone is the perfect way to meditate in nature. Prepare to be inspired and moved by the pure beauty.
7. The coast
All beaches in Bulgaria are lovely, with views of the infinite Black Sea. However, it’s the cliff-lined areas such as Tyulenovo and Kaliakra that set Bulgaria’s coastal regions apart. Watching waves thrash against massive, sharp cliffs is just one of the beautiful views. A myriad of wildflowers grow along the cliff tops, seagulls fly at eye level, and fishing boats glide across the horizon.
8. The birds
From colorful bee-eaters, to golden-eyed falcons and graceful swans, Bulgaria is an incredible country for bird watching.
White storks are known to migrate from areas of southern Africa in the spring, and their journey actually holds national significance in Bulgaria. In fact, locals traditionally will wear handmade white and red bracelets each spring season until their first spotting of a stork, at which time they then hang the bracelets from tree branches as a sign of hope and the turning of time.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating migrations to witness is that of red-breasted geese in the winter months, flying in massive flocks with their crimson chests flashing against a white snow.
This regional beverage is anything but mild. This precious alcoholic drink, though poured into a shot glass, is to be sipped, not shot back. Locally-made brandy doesn’t get much better than this. Strong, sweet, and made with love: you’ve got to try it!
The drink can be made from any locally fermented fruit, so the taste may vary from each barrel. Typically, rakia is made from plum, but be it apple, pear, cherry or fig, rakia almost always ranges from 80 to 100 proof, with alcoholic content between 40 and 95 percent. Authentic Bulgarian rakias are smoothe and possess distinct flavor.