Bulgaria was one of those countries where I didn’t really know what to expect when visiting. I hadn’t really developed any preconceived ideas and my planning had been very limited. As a tourist destination, Bulgaria felt somewhat under the radar. Certainly, it is fairly popular as a seaside destination in summer, but I wasn’t aware of it on the same scale as its Mediterranean cousins. Visiting Bulgaria then was eye-opening as I began to learn more about this extraordinary country, its history, people and culture. I honestly can’t wait to return and further explore this little corner of Europe. For those venturing to Bulgaria, here are 9 endearing or important things to know about visiting.
1. More than its Coast
It’s fair to say that Bulgaria’s coast is the most popular part of the country with tourists. But this pains me, as there are just as many fascinating spots throughout the rest of the country. Sure, the country’s coast on the Black Sea is home to plenty of nice sand beaches and historic port towns. However, inland you can find plenty of other remarkable destinations as well. From the historic former royal capital of Veliko Tarnovo, to the immensely cool city of Plovdiv, tourists have their pick of fascinating cities to explore. There are also the smaller locales hidden away within the country’s dynamic countryside, like the Monastery of Dryanovo or the unique Sand Pyramids of Melnik. Bulgaria really is quite a diverse country and I encourage visitors to try to experience that.
2. Entry and Visa
While Bulgaria is part of the European Union, it is not yet part of the Schengen Area that allows free movement between countries, something many EU countries currently benefit from. This means that when entering Bulgaria you will go through passport control and visa requirements vary. For visa information, here is one place to start, but at the time of writing travellers from Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and most of Europe did not require visas for stays under 90 days.
Crossing the border from Romania to Bulgaria, our coach was stopped and border police came aboard. They collected passports, took them away and then returned them. This may seem alarming for some people, that people would take off with your passport without saying anything, but it is fairly common practice in Eastern Europe.
3. Getting Around
For those looking to take public transport around Bulgaria there are some things worth keeping in mind. Firstly, while I never once used the country’s train network, I did not hear good things about it. The people I talked to who used it encountered significant delays and were told by locals that they often don’t use it. This makes sense when you consider the quite extensive bus network there is crisscrossing across the country. The buses are fairly good value and for the most part punctual. One thing to keep in mind is that most major cities have multiple bus stations, so do check which stations you are departing from and arriving at. Information can be found online at Bgrazpisanie or Balkan Viator, but it always pays to check at the station as I encountered the occasional discrepancy.
Once you’ve arrived, most cities and towns have local bus networks that are pretty straightforward to use. While many were moving towards new ticketing systems, as of July 2016 in Varna, Nesebar, Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo you could buy tickets from ticket ladies aboard the bus. Tickets are generally cheap at about 1 lev.
4. Nod for No
Quite possibly the most confusing cultural difference I encountered in Bulgaria. Yes, in Bulgaria you nod for No and shake your head for Yes. In a country like Bulgaria, where English isn’t all that widely spoken, you have to rely a lot on gestures and body language. That means, simple gestures like nods and head shakes become even more critical. This will take some time to adjust to during your visit, but I found it always helps to rethink what answer you were given to ensure you understood it properly.
5. Communist Remnants
Bulgaria was one of many countries that was under socialist rule during the latter half of the 20th century. During the period, the country saw a lot of construction in the very Soviet/Brutalist style that was in vogue at the time. Today plenty examples of this period are able to be seen when exploring Bulgaria’s bigger cities, particularly in the nation’s capital of Sofia. Many of the large government buildings in the centre of Sofia are large, monolithic and thoroughly soviet. There are also monuments, such as the half-dismantled one found in Sofia’s NDK Park. Sofia is not the only place however, Veliko Tarnovo has its fair share of relics from this period. Look no further than the brutalist Interhotel by the river or the incredibly secular church atop Tsarevets Fortress. Further afield, there are supposed to be abandoned bunkers and the like, for those who willing to explore.
Bulgaria is another Eastern European country where your Euro is not of much use. The national currency of Bulgaria is the Lev (BGN). Thankfully, the Lev seems to have a fixed rate against the Euro at 2 lev to 1 euro, making the mental currency conversion pretty easy. For those out on the coast, you may not even need to do your own arithmetic as many signs and restaurants are also shown in Euros or Pounds. It is also on the coast where you will encounter the most currency conversion shops, although be wary of the rates you’re getting.
7. Revival Architecture
One of the charms of visiting many places in Bulgaria, at least to me, is the wonderful historic architecture on display. This historic architecture is reminiscent of the Ottoman architecture found throughout the former Empire, but here is known as Bulgarian Revival. The term Bulgarian Revival refers to the Bulgarian National Revival movement that grew through the 18th and 19th centuries, ending in the country regaining autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. These houses are able to be found both along the coast, in towns like Nesebar and Sozopol, as well as in land in cities like Plovdiv and Veliko Turnovo.
The language of Bulgaria is – you guessed it – Bulgarian. The language is heavily Slavic, but with enough twists to distance it from most other Slavic languages, eg. Czech, Russian, Croatian. As such, it’s not the easiest of languages to swiftly pick up by English speakers. While English is generally spoken in the tourist-heavy parts of the coast, particularly in Sunny Beach, it is far from guaranteed. Away from the coast, younger people are more likely to know some English but it’s far less common found. As for second languages, Russian is definitely the most common across the country, with German probably next.
The other major hurdle for tourists is that Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic Alphabet. While probably best known for its use in Russia, cyrillic was actually developed in Bulgaria in the 9th century. Not that that knowledge will help you read it any better. After 3 weeks in Bulgaria, I got halfway decent at reading cyrillic even if I had to sound it out one letter at a time. It will take some getting used to, but to help you start the following letters are the same as they are in Latin: ‘A‘, ‘E‘, ‘K‘, ‘M‘, ‘O‘, ‘T‘. Also, the following translate easily: a cyrillic ‘P‘ is latin ‘R‘, ‘C‘ is ‘S‘, ‘H‘ is ‘N‘, ‘X‘ is ‘H‘. So for example, you now know the first 4 letters of ‘HOTEL’ in Cyrillic are “XOTE”. Good luck with the rest!
A few basic phrases to help you get by include Dobŭr den which means ‘Good Day’; Blagodarya for ‘Thank you’; Molya te for ‘Please’; and Da and Ne for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
One of the smallest cultural habits I came across time and time again visiting Bulgaria was the Martenitsa bracelet. As it was told to me (it differs slightly across the country), this long held Bulgarian tradition involves people giving loved ones bracelets of red and white yarn at the start of the month of March. The bracelet’s colours represent vitality and purity and indicate a wish for the wearer to be healthy for the coming year. The bracelets are worn until the first sighting of spring blossom, swallows or storks. At this point, the bracelets are taken off and afterwards tied to trees, passing the wishes of vitality onto the tree. During my visit in July, you were still able to find many trees decorated with Martenitsa.
What other things would you like to know before visiting Bulgaria? Have you visited Bulgaria and have other insights to share? Please share them in the comments below.
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