When I visited Bulgaria in the late 1990s at the same time as Romania, It was a shock. Not least because it was my first time having to deal with Cyrillic. There were no Latin signs or language anywhere. It meant that pathetically I had to get a cab to a map shop. Like most foreign places that use non-Latin characters, it's a case of learn quick or stay lost. Nowhere has been as bad as South Korea for this so far. Nowadays, Bulgaria has Latin script more widely, and I'm also much better at reading cyrillic. So getting around was a breeze. What was odd, and something I didn't like, was seeing so many adverts in English. As if making an advert in English made the product better. A conspiracy theorist might say this is a way of trying to increase the number of people who learn the language. In Serbia they have a similar situation, and are abandoning cyrillic for Latin script.
It's interesting to see the changes in Bulgaria in the period of time since I was there last. Like other former Communist countries, it has changed considerably over the years, gone through tough times. Those born since the fall of Communism are very aspirational to Western Capitalist lifestyles, where the youth are into pop and rap bands, fashionable clothing and gadgets. The white earbuds of the iPod are widely prevalent for example. This leaves quite a distinct gap between those brought up in the Communist years. When in Poland I saw an old couple sat in a modern shopping mall totally bemused. The old chap in the photo walks past graffiti painted by the aforementioned Post-Communist youth in Sofia. In order to supplement his income he is resigned to selling cheap hand windmills.
As one would expect, the years have shown signs of widespread affluence. When I drove from Sofia to Ruse before, I would see a number of clapped out Lada's parked up on steep sections of roads, bonnet's up. This time I didn't see one. I also didn't have to deal with a corrupt speed cop either. Keen to hold onto my passport while I went into town to draw out some cash for him. All the time being watched by a line of prostitutes on the dual carriageway on the outskirts of the city of Ruse. The prostitutes were also gone. As were the ones that enticed drivers into rural fields for servicing. A lot has changed in Bulgaria, and there is still more to come.
Language: Bulgarian (Cyrillic is the written script).
Currency: Lev (BGN)
Visa: Most Western countries don't require a visa
Plug: European standard two round prongs, 220v
GMT: GMT +2
GDP Ranking (IMF): #69 £8,610 (Similar to Iran and Panama)
Communications: Country code is + 359
Health: No vaccinations or out of the ordinary precautions are needed for Bulgaria.
When to Visit: Bulgaria has northern hemisphere seasons, which include hot summers and cold winters. Therefore, spring and autumn are the best time to visit. Unless seeking sun and beachlife, in which case the summer months of late June to August.
Personal Safety: Bulgaria has cleaned up most of it's corruption problems, but it still exists. Mafia activity is also prevalent, but will rarely involve tourists. Car accidents are common, and road deaths are high, so be careful if driving. If you have an expensive car, avoid leaving it in public locations at night. Most people don't trust credit/debit cards, and rely on cash. Stripping cards for details at tampered ATMs or other card points is common. F&CO up to date advice is available here.
Getting Around: Bulgaria has a rail network, although it's quicker by bus. Tickets can be booked here, advisable for the two main overnight routes from Sofia to Bourgas and Varna. Domestic air travel is possible to Varna and Bourgas. Car hire is a valid option, although bear in mind safety information above. Road signs on busy roads are usually in latin and cyrillic script, but out of the way roads will likely be cyrillic only. Taxi's are in most cities, although bare in mind English is not widely spoken, and latin script even less.
What to see/do: The Black sea resorts are ware sunseekers will head. Slanchev Bryag's Cacao Beach is perfect for those seeking sunbeds and umbrellas, Shkorpilovtsi Beach is an ecologically sound resort beach and less built up. Near to Sinemorets one can find the Mouth Beach for those wanting a more rural out-of-the-way beach. Away from the summer heat, hikers have a multitude of options. The Balkan, Rila (home of the seven lakes), Pirin and Rhodope Mountains all offer many trails, and in winter skiiing options. Pamporovo, Bansko and Borovets are the big three ski resorts. For those based around Sofia, Mt. Vitosha is a short bus/car ride away, and features walks and ski facilities.
The Aladzha monastery dates to the 5th Century, and is built into the cliffs. Monastery fans can also check out the popular UNESCO protected Rila Monastery in the mountains of the same name. Those wanting even more religious tourism, can visit the rock hewn churches of Ivanovo, featuring frescoes from the 14th Century. If you can't get out of Sofia, then Boyana Church is UNESCO protected, and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a beautiful example of Bulgarian Orthodoxy. Veliko Tarnovo is a former capital of Bulgaria, and has the beautiful Tsarevets, a medieval stronghold that is mostly in-tact. Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, has 6000 years of history and features a couple of Roman theatres and odeons.
Food & Drink: Bulgaria is big on salads, and Shopska salad is one to start with, before moving onto Lyutenitsa and Shepherds salad. Warmer fare includes Moussaka (minced meat, potatoes a& white sauce), Sarmi (cabbage or vine leaf wrapped rolls), Srob Sarma (lamb liver & lung, served with rice) and Gyuvetch (a traditional beef stew). Stolichno T’mno (Bock) is a highly rated beer, and punchy at 6.5%abv. Kamenitza T’mno is also a good oopper ooloured beer.