If you have visited the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in the summer, calm is the last word you would use to describe it. At this season, the resorts and beaches teem with tourists, and suffer from noise and rubbish pollution. In such circumstances, the feeling that you have stumbled into some sort of a hell on earth is inevitable.
Visit the Black Sea in winter, however, and you will experience a very different place. Gone are the crowds, the bars are closed, the resorts empty. The sky is grey, and so is the sea. Driven by the strong, freezing wind, rumbling waves crash onto beaches, promenades and jetties, filling the air with foam and the tang of salt and seaweed. Even the gulls' cries are different in winter: deeper, hungrier, more menacing.
Winter also transforms the big cities, Varna and Burgas. Swept by the winds, these are now hushed, quieter, more pleasant places to walk around, discovering their fin-de-siècle architecture and their beautiful maritime gardens, their modern graffiti and their sites of interest, like the improved port at Burgas and Varna's Archaeology Museum, where the oldest gold treasure in the history of the world is on display. Walking around these cities in winter, sharing streets and empty beaches with locals, their children and their dogs, makes you feel part of the place, something impossible to achieve in summer, with all the souvenirs, bars and visitors.
This feeling of belonging grows stronger in smaller towns like Sozopol and Nesebar, Ahtopol and Balchik. They rely heavily on tourism and winter is the time for them and their inhabitants to take a break from the hospitality industry. They go fishing. They spend hours drinking (if male) or chatting (if female) with their friends. If you have ever experienced overt or covert hostility during the high season, the attitude towards visitors is now reversed. In such an atmosphere, it is much easier to succumb to the pleasures of these places: exploring the mediaeval churches and Revival Period mansions of Old Nesebar and the steep lanes of Old Sozopol, or surrendering yourself to the romanticism of Queen Mary's Palace in Balchik or watching the winter waves crashing onto the waterfront at Ahtopol.
Sad and scary legends about saints and maidens running from the invading Ottomans are told about the Cape Kaliakra fortress
Winter transforms the natural wonders of the Black Sea – and the fact that, out of season, many of them are free makes things even better. The Pobiti Kamani, a rocky phenomenon near Varna, look even more surreal when there is snow. The Yaylata Plateau near Kamen Bryag is but a barren nothingness, until you reach the edge of the cliffs and stop there mesmerised by the scary magnificence of the waves pounding against the red rocks dozens of metres below. In winter Yaylata, Europe's southernmost steppe, is a place of dark beauty, but it has a spot of warmth and shelter: Ogancheto, or The Fire. This natural gas leak burns constantly and several years ago visitors built a primitive protective wall around it from boulders. Having a picnic here is an excellent idea.
On the south Bulgarian Black Sea, winter is the time to visit the Begliktash Thracian sanctuary in the dense Strandzha forest, without being pestered by nasty midges.
Winter, in short, is the best season to get to know the Bulgarian Black Sea coast without the summer abominations. There is yet another reason: in the cold months your chances of eating fresh local fish, almost nonexistent in summer, rise significantly. Why? Because just like the savvy visitor, the schools of fish come here in winter.
Burgas, the biggest city on Bulgaria's southern coast
The winter Black Sea is often inhospitable, and is especially harsh on Bulgaria's north coast, like in Varna (pictured)
Winter makes the Pobiti Kamani natural phenomenon, near Varna, even more eery
Nesebar is blissfully quiet outside the summer season
In summer, Tsarevo is abuzz with people. Outside the season, you will be the only one exploring the 1894 Assumption Church
Ogancheto, a leak of natural gas, brings warmth and light to the wind-swept Yaylata plateau
The Quiet Nest Palace of the English-born Romanian Queen Mary is Balchik's major landmark