The Malta Independent 10 December 2018, Monday

FIRST: A road trip through Bulgaria

Gabriel Schembri Wednesday, 21 November 2018, 12:24 Last update: about 26 days ago

Gabriel Schembri writes about his visit to one of Europe’s most underrated holiday destinations

Some countries are better explored on four wheels, and Bulgaria should be at the top of your list for a light European road trip. The country is cheap, the food is mouth-wateringly good and the mountain views are like something on a postcard. It has only recently become one of the most sought-after skiing destinations in Europe, but the country is very enjoyable even in the hot months. By hot, I mean 38ºC or more. Before visiting Bulgaria, I must admit that my expectations were not high, but by the end of my seven-day road trip I had been very positively surprised.

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A seven-day itinerary: from nightlife in Sofia to the serene mountains of Rila

I was told beforehand that Sofia offers nothing much, so I planned the route to include as little time in the capital as possible. But our one night in Sofia turned out to be fun. We landed in Bulgaria in the middle of July and the heat was exhausting, but in the evening a relatively quiet capital comes to life.

 

Vitosha Boulevard

This is a long, pedestrianised road in the heart of Sofia. It is close to the University district and the local population is generally young, with hundreds of restaurants, pubs and street buskers ruling the area. We had managed to find a decent apartment literally five minutes away from this hotspot and the rent was reasonable. Rents are generally between €25 and €40 per night. The food available in the area is not what one might consider 'traditionally Bulgarian' and you will have to get away from the city lights for more genuine cuisine. But for one night, Sofia is worth visiting for good pubs and a pleasant atmosphere.

In the summer months, the sun sets late - at around 10pm - so if you do get the chance, check out the city's main attraction: St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is close to the Boulevard and really is an architectural marvel not to be missed.

 

Village hopping your way to Rila

There are loads of ways you can get around Bulgaria from Sofia, and doing a bit of planning beforehand can get you to some beautiful - and not so touristy - places. From the research I did for my trip, I knew that Rila was one of Bulgaria's top attractions, but before heading for this jaw-dropping mountain range, there are a couple of not-to-be-missed places you really should drive through. What follows is the sequence of places through which you can pass in your car.

 

Koprivistcha

From Sofia, head for Koprivistcha - a drive of some two hours by car. This small village is a serene gateway to the bustling city. Its old houses dominate the village centre and good traditional restaurants serve all kinds of Bulgarian food. Even in summer, this area can turn quite cold in the evening, which is an enjoyable surprise if you are visiting it at this time of the year. Being a small village, there is little to do apart from relax and enjoy the food and scenery, and a one-night stay is probably enough.

 

Veliko Tarnovo

A three-hour drive from Koprivistcha will get you to Veliko Tarnovo, a town that you simply have to include in your trip. With its multiple attractions, such as the Tsarevets Castle, and the actual site of the town itself, Veliko Tarnovo has to be one of the most attractive places in the country.

The town is not arranged with the usual town centre in the middle and other buildings emerging from it. Instead, it has a semi-circular shape, just round the bend in the river that divides the place in half. On one side of the U-shaped city is the magnificent Tsarevets Castle, while at the opposite end you will find old houses sitting on pebbled streets.

Getting into the narrow roads with a car can be quite tricky, but it will all be worth your while, once you arrive at your accommodation.

The nightlife in Veliko Tarnovo is bustling. There are some good restaurants - one of which is 'Rich Restaurant', with amazing views of the bend in the river. There are also some good bars or cocktail lounges that can make for a good night out.

 

Plovdiv

The drive from Veliko Tarnovo to Rila can easily take more than four hours, perhaps a bit longer that you would want on a short European holiday. So we chose a place in which to stop half-way through our journey, somewhere that would serve for a nice, one-night pit stop.

Being a traveller who does not usually like bustling cities, I wanted to keep Plovdiv out of my road trip map. I now realise that this would have been a huge mistake. The old centre of Bulgaria's second-largest city has a lot to offer. Apart from the amphitheatre and the old, traditional Bulgarian houses, this city offers a buzzing nightlife with a handful of cool pubs in the Capana area - which consists of a couple of intersecting streets with masterpieces of graffiti adorning the otherwise boring walls.

 

Rila

Rila is definitely worth a two-night stay. When I was researching this area, I found myself seriously confused as to what exactly I was supposed to do. I knew that there was the famous Rila Monastery and the Seven Rila Lakes, but the big question was where would I stay? Now that I've actually been there, I can give you some useful tips.

First things first: the Rila Monastery and the Seven Rila Lakes are almost two hours by car apart. The second point you need to keep in mind is that the two, separately, would require a day each. Now, where is the ideal place to stay if you want to see both?

 

Panishiste would be good. It's a small place up in the mountains, accessible by car, with beautiful hotels in which to stay. The Panorama Hotel and the Vila Ema, for example, are each only 20 minutes away from the lift to the Rila Lakes and an hour or so from the Rila Monastery. There is also the option to sleep in one of the huts up in the mountains.

 

Trekking the Seven Lakes.

Never would I have imagined that the seven lakes of Rila would offer such a feast for the eyes. The whole trek (which will include all seven lakes) will take between four and six hours. The first stop can be reached by a lift which takes about 20 minutes and the rest will depend on the strength of your feet.

The track is a mix of uphill walking, plain terrain and rocks - and all in the scorching heat of the sun if, like me, you are going in summer. The possible heat stroke will be worth your while. The views are amazing and if you are lucky, you might even get to see some beautiful wild horses.

 

Just some good old trekking tips:

Wear good shoes

Use sun protection

Take plenty of water

Take some food with you as there is nowhere to buy snacks at 2,500 metres above sea level!

 

I did not include other very famous places to visit in Bulgaria, namely towns on the Black Sea coast such as Varna, Sozopol and Nessebar. Seven nights proved to be too not enough to include these in my itinerary. So my suggestions, in my opinion, this underrated Eastern European country can easily turn out to be a 10 to 15-day trip. One thing is for sure: renting a car for mobility is essential. 


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