Bulgaria: history, culture...and wine!

Monday, 23 January 2012 3:13 PM

Bulgaria in autumn

Bulgaria in autumn

Frances Leate discovers Bulgaria has much more to offer than just good wine.

Bulgarian wine is rumoured to be hangover free.

As a journalist and, of course, a great fan of wine, I thought it my duty to go there and find out.

I had previously disregarded Bulgaria as being a bleak country still struggling economically after years of communist rule.

But after a five day trip, I discovered that Bulgaria had much more to offer than just good wine.

Bulgaria can offer sun seekers a budget beach holiday in the summer months along its easterly Black Sea coast or skiing holidays in its many ski resorts in the winter months, which are currently one of the only ski destinations in Europe to offer full package deals on skiing holidays and at a significantly cheaper price than their flashier European counterparts.

Now having well and truly shaken off its communist shackles the tourist board are welcoming people into the country with open arms, keen to show off their up and coming holiday destination.

Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, at first glance seems a gritty and no-frills city which doesn’t initially feel all that inviting.

However, what you get in Sofia, is authenticity.

If you can see past the grafitti scrawled run down buildings now littered with familiar western logos and signage, Sofia is a rough-round-the-edges hub of activity just waiting to be discovered, with an atmospheric string of quaint streets to explore by day and a vibrant clubbing scene to sample by night, the city really is worth a few days of perseverance.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia (photo: Thinkstock)

There is also a cosmopolitan side to the city, with art galleries, trendy bars and cafés catering for the growing student population as well as casinos which have sprung up everywhere, popular for visitors from neighbouring Turkey since gaming was banned in the Muslim country.

And whatever Sofia may lack in visual appeal it more than makes up for with its rich history dating back thousands of years.

A visit to the stunning marble-floored National History Museum a short drive from the capital is well worth doing for its displays of more than 3,000 ancient gold objects as well as pottery which was discovered by archaelogists digging up nearby burial sites (pictured below).

These findings, some uncovered as recently as 2005, offer a fascinating insight into Bulgaria’s decadent past which historians believe was wiped out by some kind of natural disaster.

From September this year it will even be possible to visit some of these ancient tombs found underneath a church in the capital, the Basillica of Hagia Sophia.

Located 150 km from the capital the next largest city, Plovdiv, is full of all the charm and character any traveller in search of aesthetic beauty can hanker after.

In the historic old town you can make your way through a myriad of small streets, aptly nicknamed “the trap” to marvel at carefully preserved 17th and 18th century Bulgarian homes with their distinct and unique architecture of the period characterised by their protruding upper floors and higgledy piggledy appearance.

A selection of these homes has been turned into museums that aim to give visitors an insight into the life and culture of Bulgarians during this period.

Perhaps the most breathtaking and unexpected attraction in Plovdiv is the truly stunning amphitheatre which dates back from 1014 AD.

The very first remains were uncovered by chance in 1965 and the beautiful outdoor theatre is now a 5,000 capacity venue that holds a variety of performances, public gatherings and concerts (pictured below).

Tom Jones was due to perform there the week I paid a visit, but with more important things in mind than the Welsh crooner I headed off to the nearby town of Assonovgrad, famous for its special “Mavrud” dark red wine.

The town’s deep and delicious wine has definitely put the town on the map but I was also surprised to discover that as well as having a more than generous helping of monasteries, churches and chapels the town is home to literally hundreds of wedding dress shops.

This is a result of a factory in the town that closed leaving behind unemployed workers who promptly set up their own businesses.

Just a mile out of town, in the Rhodope Mountains, the remains of a Thracian fortress is also worth seeing.

About 12 miles from Plovdiv I ventured to the town of Brestovitsa, also renowned for its world class wine.

By far the most enjoyable part of my trip to Bulgaria I stayed in the Todoroff Hotel which is also a working winery.

The classy, cosy and well-furbished hotel offers a variety of spa treatments using their own variety of wines.

Visitors can choose from a host of wine themed spa treatments, including white wine facials and Chardonnay body wraps and you can even have a bath in Cabernet Sauvignon.

I am a great believer in the healing properties of wine, however, I am more inclined to think it works better when swallowed, but I did agree to be scrubbed over with grape seeds which left me feeling re-energised and ready for some more drinking!

Subsequently, I discovered that Bulgarian wine is not, as the old rumour promises, “hangover free” and although very nice, it will give you a pounding headache if you over-indulge...

It seems some things are just too good to be true.

By Frances Leate

Fact Box

For more information about any of the destinations or attractions mentioned in this article visit www.bulgariatravel.org.

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