Bulgaria shares a border with Turkey, beckoning visitors with its natural beauty, forests and coastlines, as well as its historical sites and tourist attractions. It is a small Balkan country well worth one’s time.
The distance between İstanbul and the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, is only 300 kilometers, less than the distance from Istanbul to some other cities in Turkey. You can reach Sofia by airplane (it takes one hour), or via day-long bus or train rides.
Bulgaria is currently implementing national policies aimed at increasing its population. There is much respect and support lent by the state to children and to families with children. Pregnant women are given paid leave from their jobs, whether they work in the public or private sector, and after they give birth they receive both “motherhood” pay and money for the child. Any woman with six children receives automatic pension money, no matter her age.
Bulgaria is home to very colorful boulevards and streets. You can find all sorts of souvenirs being sold, whether traditional Bulgarian hand embroidery or the wood carvings the country is known for. There are so many alternatives, the only difficult part is deciding. Sofia, with its 7,000-year past, is definitely a stop on the international pathway.
Sofia is the city that best reflects Bulgaria’s history and state. Sofia is the country’s fifth capital and currently has a population of around 1.3 million. Sofia is one of Europe’s greenest and most beautiful cities, taking its name from the Greek “sophia,” which means “knowledge” and “tranquility.” Sofia is also a name for Jesus Christ. When the Sofia Church was built, it was reportedly based on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Lying right smack in the center of Sofia is the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, the largest active cathedral in the Balkans. There are often lines of tourists in front of this cathedral, with people waiting to get inside and look around. At the very top of the 52-meter dome is a gold-plated cross. The dome itself is covered in 8 kilograms of gold. The Alexander Nevski Cathedral was completed in 1912 by architect Alexander Pomerantsev in memory of the Russian soldiers killed during the 1877-78 Ottoman-Russian war. The bells that toll from the cathedral can be heard from as far as 30 kilometers away.
Another tourist attraction in Sofia is the guards who stand at attention in front of the presidential offices; they wear official uniforms, and the daily changing of the guard has drawn onlookers for years now.
There are traces of the Ottoman Empire throughout Sofia, from the architecture to the traditional arts you can see on small side streets. You might even think you were in an a little Anatolian town when watching copper artisans in Sofia’s backstreets; that is, right up until you hear Bulgarian music and words. By the way, make sure you listen to Bulgarian music if you get the chance — one unforgettable dimension of Bulgarian national music is bagpipes, lending their inimitable sound to all the tunes.
Every nation has its own unique dance styles. In this regard, Bulgaria stands out. Bulgarian folk dances are remarkably varied, despite the relatively small size of the country. These dances present information about the people of the country’s different regions. Among Bulgarians, people from Sofia are known as being active and impatient, something you can see reflected in the folk dances from Sofia and its environs. For example, Sofia folk dances have a lot of hopping and jumping in them, something you don’t see as much in folk dances from others areas of Bulgaria. In contrast, folk dances from the Varna region (along the Black Sea) are slower and more relaxed, giving the idea that Varna natives are more relaxed and calmer than their Sofian compatriots.
You might happen to hear some Turkish words as you stroll along Bulgarian streets; this is another result of Bulgaria’s shared history with the Ottoman Empire. You might even notice while shopping in Bulgarian bazaars that many Bulgarians can speak and understand some Turkish. There are an estimated 3,000 Turkish words used in Bulgarian.
In terms of its alphabet (Cyrillic) and its grammar formation, Bulgarian is actually a difficult language to learn. Many people say that Sofians speak the most beautiful version of Bulgarian, making it the “official” form of the language.
Another interesting aspect of Bulgarian life that you may notice while walking the streets of Sofia is how many women there are in the workforce. Bulgarian women work in many sectors, from gas stations to tramway lines, even as street cleaners.
If you find yourself in Bulgaria during the wintertime, you certainly need to make sure you see one of the country’s most famous ski centers, Vitosha Mountain. This mountain overlooking Sofia is an extremely popular spot for not only tourists but also Bulgarians. “Vitosha” has many meanings in Bulgarian, but the most accepted one is “chasm.” On Vitosha, there is snow for at least 180 days out of the year.
The best way to make your way to the top of Vitosha is to hop on one of the gondola lifts going upward from Sofia. It will take you 2,280 meters up to the mountain, making it Europe’s longest gondola lift, at nearly seven kilometers. After a half-hour trip, you will reach the Aleko facilities at the top of the mountain. These facilities serve as a winter sports/ski center. Don’t think that there is nothing here to interest you if you don’t ski, though; if you have only five days, you can literally learn how to ski here before you return to your home country. The highest point of this ski center is Cherni Vrukh, or Black Peak/Summit. To reach this summit, you need to get onto another gondola lift. Remember to dress very warmly in the winter — as you head toward the top, the wind gets stronger.
Once you reach the top of Vitosha, you will see that fog and mist are everywhere, hiding much of the view of below. These conditions are prevalent throughout most of the year, even more so in January, Bulgaria’s coldest month. But you will get a thrill from the all-encompassing, white landscape — from the pine trees to the ice on the lift poles. People don’t live up here, but you will see the hill below you dotted with the forms of ski fanatics, as they race — even appearing to be dancing in the snow — down the mountain.
There are three different ski centers on Vitosha Mountain. Everyone, from the very young to the elderly, takes pleasure in skiing here. On the weekends, averages of 5,000-6,000 people visit these ski centers. But you will notice that despite the crowds, the ski runs are very well taken care of and snow blowers and eveners are always at work.
One of the best possible months to visit Bulgaria is April. This is a month wherein you’ll be able to see every imaginable shade of green possible; you won’t be disappointed. But if you can’t make it in April, or you really want to test the skiing opportunities on Vitosha, try the winter, or maybe even the summer, when the Black Sea beaches beckon.
Visas: Bulgaria requires visas from Turkish citizens. You can get your Bulgarian visa from the Bulgarian Consulate in İstanbul or the embassy in Ankara. There have been many complaints in the past from Turkish citizens over treatment they received while trying to obtain visas at the consulate in İstanbul; these complaints increased once Bulgaria was officially accepted into the European Union. Others reportedly having a difficult time in obtaining visas for Bulgaria are Russians and Arabs.
Another thing to remember with visas is that if a Turkish citizen already has a Schengen visa, he or she can stay up to five days in Bulgaria while in transit to a third country. Also, visas are not required for Turkish citizens already residing in European countries. There are no visa requirements for US or EU citizens.
How to get there: Daily Turkish Airlines (THY) flights from İstanbul to Sofia last one hour. There are also Bulgarian Airlines flights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Another option is to hop an a train from İstanbul to Sofia; it is an overnight trip, but one which takes you through all sorts of beautiful Thracian and Balkan landscapes.
The subdued beauty of Bulgarian cuisine: With the lasting effects of the Ottoman Empire still evident in Bulgarian cuisine, you will find that the foods Bulgarians eat are not very different from those of the typical Anatolian kitchen.
Where to stay: There are lots of different hotels in Bulgaria, catering to everyone from people who want to spend only 10 euros a night, to those willing to fork out 300 euros a night. In other words, there is something for every budget.
When to go: The best months to visit Bulgaria are between April and mid-June. But for those interested in cultural festivals, the time between June and September is a very rich time to see Bulgaria, though be forewarned: These are also Bulgaria’s hottest and most crowded months.