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Off-the-Beaten Path: the Sofia to Istanbul Journey

When you first set down in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, the first thing that strikes you is how strangely alluring the country is. Not weird, not scary, just a little odd. The locals eye you with curiosity, no doubt wondering how – as foreigners to their Cyrillic alphabet – we’ll decode their street signs or menus. Flash Mercedes argue for road space with horse and carts whilst navigating around huge potholes. Towering Soviet-style apartments dwarf shanty houses, in a city where Islamic mosques and Orthodox churches share equal tourist attraction. Step out of the city, and you discover a land where vast forests turn into golden plains, shanty villages lead to overbuilt seaside resorts and vast mountainous reserves trail off into a network of rivers.

But this is Bulgaria! Oddly contrasting, wonderfully multicultural and overall, massively endearing to daring travellers unafraid to shake their heads for yes, nod for no, and accept that lambs liver soup is the best cure for a hangover after drinking too much Rakia.

Flights into Sofia from other European cities are cheap. Avoid the ski season and you can get EasyJet or Wizzair flights for as little as 30 Euro one way. Alternatively, brave an overnight coach or train trip from Athens, Budapest or Belgrade, for example. Conditions are basic – think rattling windows and rock-solid seats – but nevertheless quaintly charming.

The airport is a fair distance from the city centre, so you’ll need to take a tram or taxi to see the sights of Sofia. Take the wrong taxi, however, and you’ll end up paying up to 30 leva, or 15 Euro for the 10km trip. Be sure to ONLY get in an OK Taxi, but make sure it’s the OK Taxi with the phone number ending in 973 2121 – as there are many other pretenders that will overcharge. The average legitimate OK Taxi to the centre will cost 14 leva, or 7 Euros. Trams cost one Lev per ride, no matter how far you go, and you’ll need to take two from the airport to the centre, changing at ‘Eagles Bridge’, or ‘Orlov Mosht’. Be very aware that any baggage over 60x60x40 cm will cost you a Lev too, so if there are several of you travelling with backpacks, for ease and cheapness it’s better to take a taxi.

Sofia has something for everyone. There are numerous museums and art galleries, such as the eerie National History Museum and the National Gallery of Arts, interesting sights such as the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the hot mineral springs, the nightlife is thriving, there is a palette-satisfying mix of traditional Mehana and Western restaurants, and it is also set beneath the magnificent Vitosha national park, complete with cable car and ski slopes. For the full Sofia experience, stay a few days (there are plenty of hostels to choose from [1])

The central bus and train station is just a short walk from the centre. The tried and tested next stop for most backpackers is the second largest city in Bulgaria – Plovdiv. This ancient Roman city has a wealth of pretty buildings and protected sites – such as the antique theatre and the numerous 19th century churches, making it ideal for culture vultures but not so great for those seeking major retail or a thumping nightlife.

Plovdiv serves as a major transport hub, providing trains and coaches to all major Bulgarian cities as well as pan-European trains to Salzburg, Belgrade, Dresden and Istanbul – but we wouldn’t recommend leaving Bulgaria just yet! Stara Zagora is the next common stop, found half way between Sofia and Bourgas.

At over eight thousand years old, Stara Zagora is one of the oldest settlements in Eastern Europe – the Thracian tombs, Roman baths and Samarsko Zname Monument are testament to this. You’ll only need a day to look round the city’s sites, but it’s well worth booking yourself into one of the reasonably priced hotels[2] to take a day trip northwest to Kazanlak, particularly if your trip coincides with the Rose Festival in the first weekend of June.

From Stara Zagora eastwards, there is an increase of wine-growing spots, due to the climbing temperatures and breeze of the Black Sea. “Slavyantsi” is a simple yet well-stocked winery on the way to Bourgas, where you can stop in and sample a mix of red, whites and Rakias, with a plate of local meats and cheeses, for as little as 12 Leva (6 Euros).

Upon reaching Bourgas, take some time to wander up and down the sea gardens, where Soviet sculptures mix with contemporary art, and stop-off booths for ice-creams and refreshing Kaminitza lager can be found every few yards. Although the city doesn’t have much choice for budget accommodation[3], it makes up for that with diverse restaurants and lively nightclubs. The three-day Spirit of Bourgas festival, held in August, definitely shouldn’t be missed either.

For some proper sightseeing, venture out of Bourgas northward for a day trip to Nessebar. This UNESCO heritage site is home to over 40 churches and for those that like shopping for interesting antiques or other knick-knacks, the market stalls and quaint shops provide everything from Soviet memorabilia to seashell jewellery.

South from Bourgas, there are a number of small but perfectly formed seaside resorts – the best being Kiten. Kiten is a favoured holiday destination for Turks, so most of the signs and menus will be in Turkish or Cyrillic – making it all the more interesting when ordering food! It’s worth stopping a night or two in one of the 8 Leva beach huts that back onto the golden sanded beaches to enjoy all that Kiten has to offer. At night, the streets spring to life with old-school fairground games and bustling cafes, and by day you can spend the day on the beach, trying out the pedalos or jet skis.

Catching a coach from either Bourgas or Kiten will take you directly to Istanbul for around 120 leva (60 Euro), where you will gradually see the remarkable change from the East, to the West.

[1] Hostel Mostel, 2A Makedonia Blvd, +359 889 223296 / Art Hostel 21/A, Angel Kanchev St, +3592 987054 / Internet Hostel, 50A Alabin St, +359 889 138298

[2] Forum, 94 Hadji Dimitar Asenov, +359 42 631616/ Mania, 46 Khan Tervel St, +359 42 2678 58

[3] Bulair, 7 Bulair st, +359 56 844389 / Prestige, 41 Perushtitza St +359 56 816567 / Aqua, Lazur residential quarter, +359 56 833535