Flying over UNESCO-heritage site on Black Sea is must-do, at least virtually
Looking for some peace and quiet on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in summer is a natural aspiration, even in a year of pandemic and reduced international tourism like 2021. But there are places by the sea where peace and quiet in summer are not to be found. Even in a "slow" tourist summer, they are abuzz with local and foreign visitors; lively and vibrant, sometimes vulgar and often irritating.
Nesebar is one of those places.
The UNESCO-listed town has an unbeatable combination of attractions for modern tourists. It is spectacularly located on a rocky promontory on the northern edges of Burgas Bay. Ornate medieval churches with decorative red-and-white facades mingle with spacious 18th and 19th century wooden houses. And then, there is the sea. North of Nesebar stretches Bulgaria's longest beach – the 8-kilometre strip of golden sand now mostly occupied by the concrete excrescences of the Sunny Beach resort. South of Old Nesebar there are some other locations, though much overbuilt, to unfold your beach towel.
Christ Almighty is one of Nesebar's most famed churches. Built in the 13th-14th centuries, it is a fine example of the late-medieval Byzantine architecture that favoured richly ornate façades
Nesebar became a summer crowd puller in the 1960s, when Communist Bulgaria created Sunny Beach. It had to cater to international tourists from the East bloc and also some West Europeans paying in hard currency, which was in high demand in the planned economy of Comecon. Bulgarians loved it, but as few of them could afford the new, flashy hotels at Sunny Beach, they opted for renting cheap rooms in Old Nesebar and around.
Nesebar's popularity grew steadily, and boomed in the 2000s, when uncontrolled construction of even bigger, flashier hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs took over in the now privatised Sunny Beach. The residents of Old Nesebar were quick to ride the wave of private initiative, free market and free travel. They added new rooms to their century-old houses and put up stalls to sell kitschy Made-in-China souvenirs and beach "essentials" at any available place.
The mayhem reached such an intensity that in 2012 UNESCO threatened to remove Nesebar from its famous World Heritage list. After some altercations between the authorities demolishing illegal construction in Old Nesebar and enraged locals, business on and around the promontory continued as usual.
The Old Bishopric used to be the town's cathedral, now it is engulfed in later buildings and souvenir stalls
So why visit Nesebar, especially in summer, a reader might ask themselves. Truth be told, crowds, business, trade and Nesebar have been inseparable since the town appeared on the promontory some millennia ago. Being quiet and museum-like is not in Nesebar's fabric; it is an aberration, a quirk. Nesebar was established by people who sought a quick profit, and it was continuously inhabited by their equally entrepreneurial descendants, who wisely used Nesebar's strategic location on the Black Sea coast to control trade and military routes. They built the beautiful churches and the houses, which now define Nesebar's townscape, mainly as a flashy status symbol of their wealth and power, a symbol as potent then as the grand hotels and the bustling bars in nearby Sunny Beach today.
Historians say that Nesebar was initially a Thracian settlement, but the people who really set things moving there were newcomers arriving from faraway.
In the 8th-7th centuries BC, ancient Greek cities in the Aegean were struggling to feed their growing populations. Colonisation of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea ensued, providing an outlet for the energy of the surplus young, and potentially rebellious, men from these cities. There was another benefit as well. The new colonies tapped the resources of foreign lands and established trade routes that supplied their hometowns with vital goods such as grain.
According to local legend, the medieval St John the Unconsecrated was never endorsed due to a fatal accident during construction. It suffered heavily from a devastating earthquake in 1913
The Greeks, who arrived in the late 7th century BC at the rocky promontory, were a part of this movement. They were quick to dig in its strategic location. How did the Thracians, who were already living there, react? We do not know. The fact is that the Greeks established a city on the promontory and started trading with the Thracians on the mainland. The Greek colony's name, Mesambria, preserved a trace of its Thracian past. Bria is one of the few Thracian words we know today. It means "town."
Greek Mesambria soon grew into a local power, a position it would hold for most of the following centuries. The exchange of Thracian grain, wood, wool and honey for Greek goods thrived. Profits were invested in the construction of strong fortifications and lavish temples. Mesambria continued to fare well after the Romans took over, in 72 BC, as a vital trading centre on the Black Sea.
The town struck it really lucky in the 4th century AD, when a single man changed the course of world history. In 313, Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity and in 330 moved the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople, on the Bosporus. Suddenly Mesambria, a city that for centuries had been on the fringe of civilisation, found itself within reach of the heart of a mighty empire. Its new, increased importance also made it a centre of Christianity.
In the millennium that followed, the city – whose name evolved to Mesemvria – witnessed the construction of at least 40 churches. Eighteen remain to this day. One of the oldest is the 5th century Old Bishopric, now a shell of a building and a favourite with modern tourists. However, the churches built in the 11th-14th centuries are the ones that leave the strongest impression: concoctions of white stone and red brick laid in stripes, with ornaments such as suns, "wolf teeth," and swastikas, embellished with blue and green glazed tiles. This decorative style was rather understandably borrowed from nearby Constantinople. Mesemvria's connection to Byzantium was so strong that, in spite of the Bulgarians' efforts during the Middle Ages, the city rarely found itself outside the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire. It even fell under Ottoman rule the same year as Constantinople, in 1453.
Unlike most churches in Nesebar, the Dormition of the Mother of God is a functioning house of prayer. It is also much newer, as it was built in 1873. A supposedly miraculous icon, dubbed the Black Mother of Christ, is kept in it and attracts crowds of pilgrims on 15 August
Location was location and trade was trade, regardless of the empire that taxed it. Mesemvria continued to prosper under the Ottomans, notwithstanding intermittent attacks by pirates. A decline started to creep in during the 19th century when a new trading centre, where Burgas is now, appeared south of the city. Gradually, Mesemvria turned into a fishing community whose inhabitants lived in beautiful wooden houses among the medieval churches.
When Mesemvria became a part of modern Bulgaria, in 1885, it was still predominantly Greek. This was soon to change, and it almost destroyed the town. In 1906, news about Greek atrocities against Bulgarian communities in Macedonia, which was then still under the Ottomans, galvanised Bulgarian society. Tensions rose in cities with significant Greek populations such as Varna and Plovdiv. Days later, the Black Sea Greek town of Anhialo (now Pomorie) saw violent clashes that killed 14 people and caused a devastating fire. Mesemvria was next to face conflict that could have turned lethal. Luckily, the local mayor reached a compromise with the Bulgarians.
Mesemvria was saved, but the Greeks did not stay there for long. After the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the Great War redistributed the Ottoman Empire's European lands, most Greeks left Bulgaria. In their place ethnic Bulgarians from Greek-controlled territories arrived.
In 1934, a nationalist Bulgarian government issued a decree to rename Mesemvria as Nesebar.
At the time Nesebar was little more than a backwater that relied mostly on fishing. Things started to change when the fashion for seaside holidays reached Bulgaria. In 1959 the first hotel of what would become Sunny Beach welcomed its guests.
Ironically, this decision by Communist Bulgaria to start a major resort turned the tide for Nesebar and gradually brought it back to its former self as a bustling centre of commerce and crowds. At least in summertime.
If you prefer to have Old Nesebar's churches, mansions and alleys mostly for yourself, do visit after mid-September, when holidaymakers pack up their cars and board charter flights and return to their homes in Bulgaria and abroad, and peace and quiet reclaim the rocky peninsula.