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Friday, February 10, 2012
Better known for its ski slopes and stretches of golden sand on the Black Sea coast, Bulgaria has a rich history and culture crying out to be discovered.
Its rich red wine was written about by Homer and every year people are digging up intricate Thracian treasures in their back gardens.
Bulgaria is blessed with a dramatic and deeply contrasting landscape, from the mysterious Rhodope mountains in the south to the central Thracian plain, home to the Valley of the Roses, where you can spot one of the hundreds of migrating birds such as a buzzard or a great white egret perched on a motorway post.
The ski resorts like Pamporovo, blessed with mild and sunny winters, are popular with tourists, with the British making up the majority of winter sport travellers.
But the nearby capital Sofia is yet to be discovered by hordes of tourists making it an exciting and inspiring place to explore.
Sofia, at the foot of Mount Vitosha, has a strong street food culture and bustling markets as well as recognisable high street shops. In winter, hungry shoppers buy slices of steaming baked pumpkin from carts while in summer boiled corn is the snack of choice. And as every meal in Bulgaria begins with a salad, there are rows and rows of fresh fruit and vegetables. There are stacked boxes of pickled cabbage, cute kiosks selling dried fruits, nuts and seeds and mouth-watering displays of pastries and biscuits.
Emerging like something out of a Bond film, imposing and solitary in front of a misty hill is the breathtaking National Museum of History. The treasures inside the enormous marble-clad building match the majestic setting and rival those on display in any famous European museum. They include tiny intricate golden jewellery found in a necropolis in the village of Dubene in the Karlovo district in central Bulgaria that are so small – their diameter measures just 5.5mm to 10mm - they have to be viewed with a magnifying glass.
The 650,000 treasures ranging from the Prehistoric ages until the present day include a Royal ritual set thought to belong to the Thracian king Suethes III in the late 4th century BC. Weighing 6.146 kg of pure gold - the rhytons shaped as animals, jugs representing Athena, Aphrodite and Hera and the phiale decorated with heads - were unearthed by three brothers in 1949 in Panagyurishte, in the south.
The capital’s namesake, the Hagia Sophia Church, the second oldest church in the capital, dates back to the 6th century and is built on an ancient necropolis. Works are currently going on deep underground to open up the tombs to the public. Beside her is the symbol of Sofia, the colossal gold-plated St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Nightlife in Sofia is healthy even in the quieter residential streets where you can find a couple of bars open late but for more variety head to the area around Sofia University.
Further east is the Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, home to the Romanian amphitheatre, cobbled streets dotted with museums and colourful houses. Seen by many as Sofia’s prettier sister, its picturesque streets feel well trodden by visitors and its laid-back pace lacks some of the energy of Sofia.
A definite must-see for any tourist using Sofia as a base are the beautiful Rhodope mountains. Although package holidays bring throngs of tourists here in the winter for skiing, do as the locals do and hire yourself a place for a couple of days. There are plenty of hotels on offer or you could try a cabin which sleeps four for as little as £20 a night.
Step back in time and let the traditions seduce you. The haunting sounds the Rhodope bag pipes are played in the inns where a whole lamb is roasted on an open fire, the walls are covered in bright wool rugs and where each meal begins with the fiery warmth of the national drink rakia.
The medieval Asen’s Fortress, is built defiantly on a rocky ridge in the Rhodope mountains near the town of Asenovgrad. The terrifying walk on a narrow rocky path wrapped around a huge rock is rewarded with the site of the 13th century Holy Mother of God church perched miraculously on a rock. A climb up the narrow staircase reveals mural paintings from the 14th century.
Bulgaria offers a rich and rewarding experience topped off with great hospitality, where restaurant hosts hold out a loaf of bread to welcome guests which they can either dip in a herb-infused oil or some rich local honey.
Hotels used during the stay:
Crystal Palace Hotel, Sofia www.crystalpalace-sofia.com
Orlovetz hotel, Pamprovo
Todoroff Wine and Spa Hotel in Brestovitsa village near Plovdiv www.todoroff-hotel.com
European Union member since 2007
Under Communism from 1946 to 1990
Ottoman Bulgaria spans nearly 500 years, from 1396 to 1878
Currency is the Bulgaria Lev
Language is Bulgarian
Uses the Cyrillic alphabet created 10th century AD and named after St Cyril, a Byzantine missionary
Population is 83 per cent Christian Orthodox and 12 per cent Muslim
A must try is a wine from the Mavrud grape variety, unique to Bukgaria, which produces a rich and complex red
For more information visit www.bulgariatravel.org