OLD NESEBAR

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Over-tourism threatens UNESCO world heritage site

old nesebar.jpg

The summer of 2019 was disastrous for Bulgarian tourism, with an overall 20 percent drop in holidaymakers. However, there was one place on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast which remains packed: Nesebar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site conveniently located next to Sunny Beach, this nation's largest seaside resort and one of Europe's cheapest holiday destinations.

A peninsula covered with ancient ruins, Byzantine churches and 19th century mansions, Nesebar is a true gem, but you cannot enjoy it properly in summer. When the tourist season is in full swing, crowds fill its narrow alleys. Touts try to lure patrons into the overpriced, fake traditional restaurants. Stalls selling Made-in-China Welcome-to-Nesebar souvenirs, beach towels and kitschy marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and the centuries-old houses.

Nesebar was founded about 3,000 years ago, when ancient Thracians settled on a rocky peninsula at the northern end of the Bay of Burgas, connected to the mainland by a thin strip of sand. The town, which at the time was called Mesemvria, grew in importance after the 6th century BC, when Greeks moved in. Over the following centuries their colony became a prominent centre of commerce, preserving its importance well into the Middle Ages. Its mineral baths were famous for their healing powers, and its strategic position on the coast was reason enough for countless battles between the Byzantines and the Bulgarians for control of the city. Meanwhile, Bulgarian and Greek noblemen and wealthy merchants poured money into Mesemvria. They built dozens of exquisite churches, which now dot the Old City, and are a crucial part of Nesebar's charm.

Old Nesebar

Old Bishopric

 

In 1453, then Byzantine Mesemvria fell under the Ottomans, together with Constantinople. The town remained a busy centre of trade and a lively port, supporting a population of rich merchants. Unable to build new churches, they invested in hiring the finest artists of the time to redecorate older churches with frescoes and fine carvings, and builders to create sumptuous houses of wood and stone.

However, in the 19th century Nesebar slowly turned into a backwater, overshadowed by the rising star of the new settlement of Burgas. The former major trading centre turned into a town of small-time fishermen and farmers cultivating the vineyards on the mainland.

This was good for Nesebar's architectural heritage. The lack of well-to-do people wanting to build new houses, churches and public buildings led to the preservation of the old structures. This was how the ancient fortress walls, the medieval churches and the wooden houses were preserved to this day. The city did grow somewhat, but newer developments were confined to the so-called New Town on the mainland. The ancient heart of the city on the island was left to its poor and laid back inhabitants.

Old Nesebar

Deadend street

 

Nesebar began to attract crowds at the end of the 1950s, when Communist Bulgaria created Sunny Beach as an international resort on the 8-kilometre-long strand north of the town. For the next three decades the resort expanded, providing hoards of Russians and East Europeans with an affordable way to have some almost Mediterranean sun and fun, without leaving the well-guarded borders of the Soviet bloc. Bulgarians flocked here, too, renting cheaper rooms in Nesebar itself, as Sunny Beach was too expensive for them.

In 1983 UNESCO included Old Nesebar on its list of world heritage.

Back in the 1970s and the 1980s, Old Nesebar still felt real and you could wander its lanes, marvelling at its beautiful churches and undisturbed mansions, before or after heading to a beach that was not unofficially parcelled out between flashy or not that flashy hotels and bars, buzzing with holidaymakers on an alcohol-fuelled vacation and toned women with fake breasts.

Yes, places, like people, change with time. Nesebar's transformation was too brutal. Comparing its Old Town in the 1970s to the 2010s seems to show not just a different place, but a different universe.

Old Nesebar

Eastern bloc tourists indulge in fried sprat and local no-name beer near the port

 

Old Nesebar

Old man from Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

Old Nesebar port

 

Old Nesebar

Bulgarian youth in Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

Makeshift stands along Nesebar's main road

 

Old Nesebar

Nesebar in the 2010s

 

Old Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

 

Old Nesebar

 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.

CITY OF EAGLES
As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos.

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS
Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match.

KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES
From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles.

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE
Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.