Is there ANY point visiting Bulgaria for a holiday?
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The strange thing about really crap places, is that they are still appealing. Really there's no logical reason to put up with Bulgaria and yet there is something unique about that crumbling concrete and hot dusty wasteland where a few teenagers ride mopeds too and fro all day.
It is tricky to make absolute value judgments about travel because sometimes the perfect places are the most boring and forgettable. If I never see another Caribbean beach I wont be sad... but it's the things that go wrong, the really rubbish attractions and the days of disaster that you remember longest.
Visit Bulgaria for concrete landscapes,
rusty Ladas and weird music...
I escaped from a dreary state-run hotel bar, leaving a brightly-lit room of miserable-looking diners sitting at rows of tables with purple tablecloths listening to a duo bash out Engelbert Humperdink and Doctor Hook classics at glass-rattling volume.
In an apparently peaceful wooden bar in the Bulgarian mountains I could read my book and have a quiet drink. I was looking forward to flying home the next day.
Too soon did I rejoice, however, for in shuffled three shady-looking locals in seventies cardigans and polished slip-on shoes. They looked like the cleaners. They turned out to be a local music group featuring a gadulka, a small stringed instrumented held upright in the lap and bowed.
The embarrassed trio assembled in a corner and hesitantly struck up a stuttering rhythm. A portly chap in a dramatically patterned shirt sauntered over from a table and started emitting a vocal noise which was like mournful humming with the occasional yodel.
‘Right, that’s it’, I thought with a grimace. ‘Time for an early night…’ but before I could drain my glass, the alien harmonies and manic untapable beats of this traditional Bulgarian mountain music started to grow on me. I ordered what everyone else had - creamy yoghurt with honey - and sat back to enjoy the show. By the end me and everyone else in the bar were banging our empty bowls on the table and cheering loudly.
Like the curious but beguiling folk music, most of Bulgaria made me grimace at first. Some of it, albeit only a small part, won me over in the end. For while most of the former Soviet block is gradually slipping into the same gear as the rest of Europe, Bulgaria seems to have stalled at the start line.
Here the communists changed their name to the socialists and remained in power until recently. Compared to a blossoming state like Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria seems barely a promising seedling.
Right from the start, there’s a depressing gloom in the air. And it’s not just the smoke of a thousand polluting factory chimneys. The view from the road into town, any town, is of decaying industrial complexes, stain-streaked prefab tower blocks and rusty Ladas driven by worried looking men with moustaches.
Take for example Plovdid, widely held to be Bulgaria’s most attractive city. The outskirts indicate that cement was clearly the business to be in during the sixties. Now, crumbling prefab tower blocks alternate with factories so tatty it’s hard to tell if they are still operating and windswept tracts of rough scrubland.
“We’ve given back all the land that was seized by the communists,” explained a local businesswoman. “Much of it is owned by families who have moved away. Everywhere there is a lot of land unused.”
Plovdiv has a busy colourful shopping street but the famed 'old quarter' is covered in graffiti while scary teenage boys hang around listening to heavy metal on really loud distorted radios.
Likewise, Sophia has seen precious little investment or progress. In fact the capital’s main saving graces are the imposing blocks of Soviet architecture that recall glorious days of goose-stepping parades and schoolchildren waving flags bearing quotes from Trotsky
Yet a determined traveller can find Sophia’s historic churches, like St Petra’s which stands under a maze of flyovers or St George’s which is completely surrounded by the slab-sided ministry buildings.
And if you can read a Cyrillic road map you can get out to the monasteries too, like Boyana which houses Europe’s first ever portrait paintings dated at 1259 or the 11th century Bachkovo Monastery with exquisite icons but toilets that probably aren’t as good as they had in the 11th century.
The Bulgarian authorities are desperate to create a money-making tourist industry but they are still dominated by the remnants of Balkan Tourist, the old state tourism operation. I was enthusiastically dined by both the Tourism Minister and the former Tourism Minister who both said all the right things.
But on the ground, out in those concrete streets where it matters, how slick is their operation?
Well, my three-star business hotel in Sophia had bedroom doors made from brown painted chipboard; my driver carried a truncheon just in case there was trouble; and the man who welcomed me at Sophia airport handed me his business card on which his previous job had been crossed out and replaced by “state expert” scribbled in biro.
Gangs of Mafia-style thugs barge their way along crowded pavements or demand the best tables in restaurants - I once had to move table to let someone with more clout take over mine. The specialist skiing and beach resorts can just about hold it together despite this sort of rickety infrastructure - but the rest of Bulgaria can't.
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Are you Bulgarian? Or are you a big fan of Bulgaria? Sorry if I have offended you but those were my experiences in the country. I'm quite prepared to go back however and give it a second chance...