VIBRANT COMMUNITIES

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024

When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

Tryavna

What: One of the best preserved Revival Period towns in Bulgaria

Visit for: Atmosphere

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BRUTALIST BULGARIA

A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing. Looking from the lower ground of the Serdica station, the building, Unicredit Bulbank's headquarters, resembles a giant ocean steamer which is about to crush the Largo, the vast space surrounded by the Stalinist Council of Ministers, the Office of the President and the former Communist Party House, now parliament.

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LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE

Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it. This is why today in Sofia you will spot an odd French name here and there: the Léandre le Gay Street in the centre, schools named Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, a metro station is known as Frédéric Joliot-Curie. On noticing this, you may be reminded of the words of the late Bulgarian President, Zhelyu Zhelev, who infamously stated that Bulgarians were... Francophones.

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WINTER NESEBAR

Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar. In the warm months this UNESCO listed town of ancient fortifications, mediaeval churches and Revival Period mansions is packed with visitors from the nearby Sunny Beach resort and from the whole of the Bulgarian Black Sea area.

The winter cold, however, utterly transforms it.

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DEMON CHURCH

Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art. You will mostly see them in moralistic murals painted on the exterior walls of churches.

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DEAD POETS SOCIETY

It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels. This notion may be a bit outdated in a world run by social media where electronic "devices" by far outnumber fountain pens, and where a "content creator" makes more than a teacher of literature. But it is still at least indicative. Bulgaria, whose writers and poets have been translated into English only sporadically, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is very proud of its literary heritage.

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HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES

Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order. But what once was, often no longer is – especially in Bulgaria, a country which, during its long history, has seen multiple conquerors and empires come and go. Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Ottomans and, more recently, Russians are among the foreign forces that have overrun Bulgaria.

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DOORS WIDE SHUT

Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance. Some of these are closed to the general public because of preservation issues. Others have been neglected for years and have become unsafe, while yet others belong to the military.

Here is a list of some of the most fascinating forbidden sites in Bulgaria.

Memorial to Anton Ivanov partisan unit 

Where: Vacha Reservoir, the Rhodope

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WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten. It took place 100 years ago, yet researchers disagree on how to label it. Some call it an uprising, a word that evokes the gravity of organised and targeted efforts to achieve a clearly set goal. For others, it was an ill-fated rebellion of a handful of peasants foolish enough to believe the sweet talking of a political power outside of Bulgaria, Moscow's Communist International.

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IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES

Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where conventional buildings would be hard to construct. Since the dawn of religion they have enlarged existing caves into rooms that resembled church interiors, complete with naves, altars and apses, and murals. They also lived in caves, in cells scattered around these churches, often forming large compounds.

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WHERE IS GOD'S BRIDGE?

Lilyashka Bara, the brook that flows near the village of Lilyache, a few kilometres from Vratsa, is a quiet and peaceful stream. It would be no different from dozens of other rivulets that flow past dozens of other villages, if it wasn't for a quirk of nature. Lilyashka Bara may look mild and gentle, but sometimes it overflows suddenly, surging in an unstoppable tide, sweeping away everything in its way – from mills to bridges.

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SOFIA'S TOP 10

Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country. Many prefer to head elsewhere to avoid the heat (in summertime), the slush (in winter) and the pavements (year round), and for those who opt to stay in the city, the capital remains a blur of experiences: the potholes and the noise, but also the pleasingly affordable bars and restaurants, the odd glimpses of interesting buildings, usually the St Alexandr Nevskiy cathedral.

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AMERICAN DREAM UNDER WATER

The meadow opposite the church in Gumoshtnik, the village whose name is unpronounceable for either locals or foreigners, resembles churchyards in many other Bulgarian villages. Two monuments stand there, honouring soldiers killed in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the First World War. Again, as in most Bulgarian villages, the meadow is usually deserted. When the wars began, this particular hamlet near Troyan, in the Balkan Mountains, had eight lively neighbourhoods. Urbanisation after 1944 reduced that number to six. Now, according to the last census, about 240 people live there.

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SLOW TRAIN COMING

How long does it take to cover 125 km? In a mountain range such as the Rhodope this is a difficult question. Even Bulgarian drivers who like to fly a

long roads as if they were exempt from the laws of physics have to slow down a bit along the winding roads of the Rhodope mountain range.

The Septemvri-Dobrinishte narrow gauge railway redefines the concept of slow travel. It takes the 125 kilometre long route in... 5 hours.

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BULGARIA'S BEST BEACHES: SOUTH

The beaches on Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast are under threat: every year developers take new ground to build hotels and bars on. Sand dunes, which are protected by law, overnight turn into plots ready for the diggers to arrive, and new buildings rise right by the sea on the site of former cliffs, marshes and wetlands.

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SORRY FATE OF BULGARIA'S 'SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS'

Bulgarians are present in many fields of modern science and engineering, from medicine to space exploration, pushing new boundaries and breaking new grounds. If you have not heard much about it, it is because the great majority of them work for foreign universities, scientific institutions and R&D teams. As a result of the decades-long neglect of the fundamental and the applied sciences and of engineering in Bulgaria, academically gifted Bulgarians go abroad the moment they graduate from secondary school.

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IN DEEP PURPLE

A small, neat bag filled with dried lavender is an ubiquitous souvenir in many Mediterranean countries. It should be in the portfolio of Bulgarian souvenirs too, along with the vials of rose water.

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BULGARIA'S BEST BEACHES, PART 1

Until the 2000s, the sandy beaches that dot the Bulgarian coast were among the best places around the entire Black Sea to stretch your towel. Covered in golden sands, they spread in long straight strips and form crescents along coves sheltered from the open sea by steep cliffs. Untamed vegetation and wildlife called them home, from thick floodplain forests to gentle sand lilies and migrating birds. There were beachgoers, but even in big resorts one could find a spot to bathe in relative calm.

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AFTERLIFE IN KAZANLAK TOMB

What happens after death has fascinated people since the dawn of humanity. The earliest accounts of what they thought was the answer paint a glum picture. According to the ancient Mesopotamians, the dead inhabited a grim realm where they had only dust to eat and drink. Ancient Egyptians striving for an afterlife had to be mummified and to undergo a strict vetting process, under threat of being eaten by a monster in case they failed. The ancient Greeks were aware that even the greatest heroes would be reduced to nameless shadows in the Kingdom of Hades.

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MICHAEL ZAIMOV'S SOZOPOL

Overcrowded, overdeveloped, simply put overwhelming: in summertime, Sozopol is the definition of a place you must avoid if you are looking for some semblance of tranquillity at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Off season, the town is more bearable, but reminders of the tourist industry are everywhere. In the picturesque old quarter, clinging to a narrow rocky peninsula, there is hardly a lane free from signs advertising rooms to let, or restaurants with plastic window frames closed for winter, or hip art galleries.

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