Black Sea bliss

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

The ancient Black Sea resort of Sozopol has a wealth of history and culture, and it’s just so amazingly cheap – at least until Bulgaria joins the euro zone. ADAM ALEXANDERis sold

HE PROBLEM with trying to write a piece about Bulgaria is that once you’ve discovered just how cheap the beer and wine are, the chances of remembering anything else about your time there becomes pretty slim. Which is perhaps why Bulgaria remains something of an enigma: a place where the locals apparently nod when they mean no and shake their head when they mean yes. This is a potentially dangerous aberration, as refusing another drink is, therefore, taken as a yes.

But I have always wanted to know something more about Bulgaria, a nation tucked away between Turkey and Romania which for many years was veiled by the Iron Curtain, familiar only to visitors from the east. And now might be a good time to find out, before Bulgaria joins the euro zone in January 2015, ending its reign as possibly the cheapest holiday destination in Europe.

Having chosen to holiday in the ancient Black Sea town of Sozopol, I did have one pressing question. Is the Black Sea healthy to swim in, or is it, as one Guardian travel piece referred to it not long ago: “a big, fat radioactive lake”?

Situated on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea, Sozopol seems a rather strange place at first. The old wooden houses look like medieval Finnish saunas perched in the air, and coffee machines are dotted around the cobbled streets almost like telephone boxes. But one cannot deny the place has charm, especially at night, when the Black Sea truly is black and quite bewitching, and when the streets are abuzz with busy art galleries, the sound of jazz and salsa, and even an irresistible Cinema Paradiso touch in the form of an open-air cinema under the stars.

Nessebar, a similiar town some 70km away, enjoys World Heritage status and is said to be as pretty as a postcard. Sozopol, however, is considered by many to be the better choice, especially by the in-crowd, glad to be clear of the tourist hordes that descend every summer on Nessebar, and the pushy tourist touts and souvenir tat there to receive them.

Sozopol, unlike Nessebar, also has a decent beach. Two in fact – and one of them right in the centre, perfectly positioned between the old and new town. As the oldest settlement on the Black Sea, Sozopol also slightly pips Nessebar with the history. Founded by Thracians in 611 BC, it was originally known as Apollonia in honour of the god, Apollo, and counted among its early citizens the famous philosopher and astronomer Anaximander, who probably came here for the cheap booze as well.

Ransacked by the Romans in 72 BC, the town went into serious decline as it found itself on the frontline too many times, especially between the Greeks and the Turks, until nothing was left but a tiny fishing village. Today, owing to its discovery by Russian and German tourists, the town is taking off again, inspiring it to not only dig up its treasured past, but also to showcase its bright future through one of Bulgaria’s biggest annual cultural events, the Appolonia Arts Festival.

I manage to arrive slap-bang in the middle of this festival, and am treated to a Bulgarian film festival, a Beatles revival, and a rousing finale from the Dublin Gospel Choir.

Nothing however, no matter how culturally sophisticated or historically significant, can detract from the first (and lasting) impression of just how cheap everything is. Mind-blowingly, opinion-distortingly cheap.

How wonderful it is to be in a country where you don’t have to worry about the price of anything. Where you can get a decent hotel room for €20 a night and a room for rent in an old townhouse for half that – even in a tourist hot-spot like Sozopol; where good coffee in a cafe can be had for as little as 75 cent. And, where a meal including a beer, a glass of red wine, lobster and garnishes, costs me less than €10, including an extravagant tip. For the average Bulgarian, however, who has to make do on about €200 a month, life here is anything but cheap. And so after relearning that getting completely Sozopolled on cheap booze is not terribly clever at all, I decide to opt instead for quality over quantity, as befits my cultured surroundings.

But what, finally, have I learned about the Bulgarian people? And the even more unfathomable Black Sea that surrounds them here in Sozopol? Most seas I’ve paddled in have things like fish in them. I saw none here, only a suspicious green algae that, while not as unpleasant as it sounds, suggests something is not altogether right. This doesn’t stop it looking perfectly inviting, or the tourists here from bathing in it and eating the local Black Sea mussels, which I begin to imagine are already cooked by the time they come out of the water.

As for the Bulgarians, what is most clear is that they are a genuinely warm and welcoming people, with a deep appreciation of culture and a love of life.

But with a whole country out there I haven’t yet explored, a place that promises ski resorts and seaside retreats, bears and wolves, sleepy mountain villages and cosmopolitan cities – like Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna, from where Bram Stoker’s Dracula set sail to find his beloved Mina – I leave convinced they are still an enigma. But perhaps this is only because I’m dearly looking for an excuse now to come back again.

Sozopol: Where to...

TO STAY:

The Villa List ( hotellist-bg.com; 56 lev/€28). Everyone raves about the three-star Hotel Selena next door, but at half the cost and with one extra star you might consider this hotel, where even a one-hour luxury massage costs less than €20.

Dessy Hotel (tel: 00359-886-165177; 25 lev/€12.50). Typical of the self-catering accommodation you can now find all over Sozopol’s old town: lovely, quiet, clean.

TO EAT:

Ksantana bistro ( ksantanabistro.com). Directly overlooking the sea in the old town; warm, cosy atmosphere. Bulgarian rabbit stew highly recommended; lobster less so.

Kapubu pizza restaurant. 4, Appolonia Street. A stone’s throw from the beach; great for pizza, fish, barbecues, and fresh salad. It also does a delicious cold walnut, cucumber and yoghurt soup – a Bulgarian speciality.

Tea house, Burgas ( facebook.com/teahouseburgas).

This is in Burgas, a pleasant city half an hour from Sozopol. If you pass through, check out this sophisticated place for a great salad or one of its incredible array of teas from Hindustan to the Himalayas. If I lived here, I’d never be out of it.

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