BULGARIA – Europe’s most under-rated country?
When I told friends and family that I would be visiting Bulgaria.. most either gave me a blank look or puzzled stare : WHERE ???.. was the usual response. .. sigh.. So I had to explain. “ In Eastern Europe .. kind of bordering both Greece and Turkey to the North”. They just looked at me – some nodded politely, some blurted outright “Never heard of it!!!”
Seriously, BULGARIA is one of the most under-rated countries for tourism in the world! Not many know it is even part of Europe, and best of all visiting Bulgaria is super cost friendly.. at a fraction of what travellers would usually have to fork out visiting the more popular (but ultra expensive) first-world Western European countries (UK, France, Germany etc) . Yet; one would be greeted with impressively preserved rich Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman and Celtic culture & history in the forms of orthodox medieval churches, cobble-stoned streets, fortresses, museums as well as distinct cuisine and culture,folk music, majestic mountains and probably some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
On my maiden trip to Bulgaria; 3 cities were on my list – SOFIA (capital city), PLOVDIV (2019’s European Capital of Culture) and the medieval city of VELIKO TARNOVO (undisputedly one of Bulgarian’s prettiest).
SOFIA blew my mind. Bulgaria having left the Soviet Communist bloc well over 30 years ago; Sofia is now very modern and cosmopolitan with international cuisine, metro public transport and malls. Yet, its’ status as the second oldest city in all of Europe (with over 30,000 years of civilization) means there is PLENTY of history on display. Excavated ruins from bygone empires are on full display around the city’s public spaces (including metro stations). And being predominantly Eastern Orthodox; there were also many beautiful religious architecture (my favourite being the golden-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) as well as Rila Monastery up in the mountains (best for day trip from Sofia).
I then travelled via local bus for 3 hours to PLOVDIV (selected European Capital of Culture for 2019). Bulgaria’s second largest city; some of Plovdiv’s most famous tourist attractions are its’ Roman amphitheatre and stadium, ancient baths, thermal baths and various other archaeological sites. However; I am much more impressed with its’ cobbled-stoned Old City featuring beautiful buildings from the Bulgarian National Revival period (a movement that saw the Bulgarians take back their cultural identity from the Ottomans). The colourful houses with attractive wooden balconies are so pretty!
My last stop in Bulgaria was to VELIKO TARNOVO. This picturesque city located along the Yantra River is famous for its’ arts, paintings and literature.The capital of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire; one of Bulgaria’s most famous medieval monuments is located here atop 3 hills. I love my visit to Tsaravets Fortress (best done first thing in the morning when there are no crowds). Once home to the royal palace; the massive fortified stone walls are not only well-preserved, but the cathedral at the top is also really one-of-a-kind (you gotta see it to believe it!) with it’s wacky religious artwork.
To me Bulgaria is honestly one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Everywhere I go; I only see locals and other European tourists (mainly Caucasian faces). It is a real wonder how Bulgaria has managed to keep off the global tourism radar for so long when it has SO MUCH to offer (thankfully minus the overwhelming crowds of London, Paris or Rome). Well, it doesn’t matter if the world has not discover Bulgaria.. I did and with this article I sincerely hope fellow Malaysians will, too!