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Church of Christ Pantocrator was turned into an art gallery as early as the 1970s Church of Christ Pantocrator was turned into an art gallery as early as the 1970s

The crowd of tourists in flip-flops, faces glowing from sun-burn, is overwhelming. The cries of the touts trying to lure customers into this or that restaurant selling pizza or sweet-sour ducks in small portions at outrageous prices are piercing. Zillions of stalls selling kitschy souvenirs, beach towels, jeans and conveyor-belt-produced marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and 200-year old houses.

Many tourists are actually wondering what they are doing in Nesebar.

The obvious answer is they are visiting what is probably Bulgaria's best known and most visited UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sightseeing here, however, is impeded by the multitude of tourists who have come from Sunny Beach for a beer or a stroll. Bulgaria's most famous resort is only a short distance away from Nesebar, a tiny town on the southern Black Sea coast with about 10,000 inhabitants off-season.

The proximity of the resort, plus the uncontrolled and uncontrollable desire of locals to exploit the beauty and the UNESCO status of Old Nesebar has all but destroyed the town's erstwhile charm.

The authenticity, so valued by the international organisation and the contemporary traveller with a penchant for Instagraming, is hard to be noticed.

Nesebar has been a crowd-puller since 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 valued list.


This is what the causeway leading to Old Nesebar looked like in the 1970s


The city was founded about 3,000 years ago on a peninsula at the north end of the Bay of Burgas, connected to the mainland by a thin strip of sand. Its first inhabitants were Thracians, but Mesemvria really grew in importance after the 6th century BC, when Greeks settled on the peninsula. Over the following centuries the colony became a prominent centre of commerce. The importance of the city persisted well into the Middle Ages. Its mineral baths became 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 improving Mesemvria. They built dozens of exquisite churches, which now dot the Old City, and are a crucial part of Nesebar's charm.

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

In the 19th Century, however, 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.


Old Nesebar fishing harbour


This was good for Nesebar's architectural heritage. The lack of rich people wanting to build new houses, churches and public buildings led to the preservation of the older structures. This was how the ancient fortress walls, the medieval churches and the wooden houses have been preserved to this day.

The city did grow somewhat, but newer developments were confined to the so-called New Town, or New Nesebar, on the mainland. The ancient heart of the city on the island was left to poor and easy-going people.

All this, however, started changing with the advent of organised tourism. The first signs of the over-commercialisation of Old Nesebar became evident as early as the 1970s. Souvenir stalls appeared here and there, and packs of landladies with handwritten advertisements "Rooms To Let" clustered around the bus stop in New Nesebar.

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

The times of the property boom and of Sunny Beach becoming a party centre for international and not very well behaved crowds were yet to come. Yes, places, like people, change with time. But 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.

In 2010, UNESCO threatened to remove Nesebar from its World Heritage list, due to systematic violations against its authenticity. The locals protested, the authorities demolished some illegal extensions, and then everything returned back to "normal," with tourists and touts filling the lanes of the once beautifully ageing remain of Ancient, Mediaeval and Revival Period past.


 New Town beach



The whole coastal area between Nesebar and Ravda used to be sand dunes. Now it is hotels and asphalt roads



America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.New Town beach

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