Godfrey Hall is an award-winning UK based travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He has been in search of elves in Iceland, traveled to the depths of central Australia and been off the beaten track in Bulgaria.

Over the past few years Bulgaria has undergone some major changes and is now developing its tourism alongside many of its European partners. A member of the European Union since 2007 it can be found between Greece and Romania. To the west lies Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia, whilst to the east you will find the very popular coastal resorts along the Black Sea. One area worth exploring is the south west just under two hours by road from the capital Sofia. This region, close to the Serbian and Macedonian borders, includes the famous Rila Monastery, the delightful alpine resort of Bansko and the attractive town of Kyustendil with its open air cafés, traditional market and parks. Bulgarians are very good hosts and should you get the chance to visit someone in their home then you will be really welcome.

Bulgarian Countryside (Godfrey Hall)

Bulgarian Countryside (Godfrey Hall)

Places to See

A good place to start any exploration of this area is in the town of Kyustendil. Away from the tourist hotspots, here you will find a café culture which is rapidly spreading all over the country. The town has some wide boulevards with plenty of delightful places to eat and drink. Just a short walk from this main area is the market which runs along several of the back streets. The market has a range of locally produced fruit and vegetables as well as clothes, honey and regional items. It is a wonderful place to meet the locals and get a real feel for the town. The countryside around the town of Kyustendil consists of meadows and rivers with views of the mountains in the distance. Tiny villages can be found dotted alongside the roads and at certain times of the year you will notice a number of storks’ nests on the top of buildings and telegraph poles.

From here you can cut across country to meet up with the main route south into Greece. This road takes you past the turning to Rila and onto the monastery, which you will find some distance from the town of the same name but just keep going! The Rila Monastery which is open to the public has some magnificent buildings and is in a sensational location. Dating back to the 10th century it moved to its present position in 1335. A severe fire destroyed a lot of the buildings in 1833 but it has been lovingly restored and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you are visiting in high season get here early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

Rila Monastery (Godfrey Hall)

Rila Monastery (Godfrey Hall)

Other attractions in the region include the delightful skiing resort of Bansko which can be very busy in the winter. It is however a great place to see in the summer months when the town takes on a different feel altogether. There are some excellent cafés in the centre, with lots of historical places to visit and shops to explore. The road up to the resort is excellent, or if you want to be more adventurous take the train from Sofia. Try and time your visit for the end of the week or weekends, as it tends to be livelier.

The countryside outside the town is beautiful with plenty of mountain views.

Whilst the monastery is located in the Rila mountains, Bansko is situated in the Pirin Mountains further south.

I would thoroughly recommend that you visit this area very soon as many of the old ways are quickly disappearing as the country gets more in tune with its European neighbours.

Kyustendil (Godfrey Hall)

Kyustendil (Godfrey Hall)

Also take a couple of good guide books as well as a phrase book with you. Bulgaria uses a Cyrillic script as well as a western alphabet. Remember young people may speak English but out in the villages sign language or your trusty phrase book will be essential. A word of warning shaking your head left to right means yes and nodding means no!

Accommodation

If you go to this region in the summer you should find some very good deals in hotels and villa complexes. These can often be rented on a daily basis and can be found at the resort of Bansko and nearby in Razlog. Kyustendil also has several hotels. It is possible to stay at the Rila Monastery but you should be prepared for simple conditions. A visit to Bulgaria is very different to many other European countries and whilst it is currently making great strides to improve conditions, life in the rural areas can still be somewhat basic and reminds one of former times!

Razlog Holiday Resort (Godfrey Hall)

Razlog Holiday Resort (Godfrey Hall)

Renovated rooms at the Hotel Velbazhd in Kyustendil are reasonable and worth considering whilst the Family House Lavega above the café of the same name is a possible alternative. Visiting Bulgaria should in some respects be considered not only as an experience but also somewhat of an adventure.

There are also some very good offers at hotels near Sofia International Airport.

A good place to search for accommodation is on www.budgetplaces.com or www.trivago.com.

Food and Drink

Bulgarian Salad (Godfrey Hall)

Bulgarian Salad (Godfrey Hall)

Over the past few years the standard and presentation of food in Bulgaria has improved enormously. Once upon a time you were restricted to just cheese salads and simple basic foods but now there is an extensive range of international dishes available. Whilst this may be suitable for some travellers there is still the chance to try some of the local food. Shopska salad, which is eaten by most people as a starter, consists of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, peppers and sirene cheese (a white cheese rather like feta cheese). Another local starter is tarator, a thin yoghurt and cucumber soup which is served cold. An acquired taste you may prefer to try is some of their grilled meats or fish. Main courses include kapama which is meat with rice and sauerkraut cooked and then simmered in a clay pot.

Bulgarian bread is incredibly tasty and there are many different varieties you might like to sample. Note that if you are offered bread with a meal in a restaurant then you will probably have to pay extra for it.

They eat a lot of snacks and one local dish which can be found everywhere is banitsa. This is a flaky pastry which can be stuffed with cheese or ham. There are also dessert versions of the same snack. One of my favourites is mish mash: scrambled eggs with chopped up tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.

Baklava is very popular as a sweet made with honey and nuts.

Mish Mash and Salad (Godfrey Hall)

Mish Mash and Salad (Godfrey Hall)

The national drink is rakia which can be made from plums, grapes or a variety of other fruits. It is often drunk before a meal or when you meet with friends. Families often produce their own variety which can be very strong so be careful when drinking it! Bulgarian beer tends to be sold in 500 ml bottles and is produced all over country. International beers are usually available in larger towns and cities. Bulgarian coffee can vary in quality however one good brand is Spetema. A lot of Bulgarians drink espresso which can very strong. Herbal and fruit teas are also very popular.

Ordering food out in the countryside can be an interesting experience and you may have to wait a while as it is usually freshly cooked. I have had meals in the wrong order in some isolated areas or different dishes to those requested. It is best to stick to something simple and maybe order what the locals are eating and drinking. Don’t be surprised to find that the television is on continually in the corner of the room.

Off for a Bulgarian Picnic (Godfrey Hall)

Off for a Bulgarian Picnic (Godfrey Hall)

Eating out in Bulgaria, like the accommodations, can be a really entertaining experience and one you will not forget. However if you are not feeling too adventurous you should be able to order a pizza or hamburger in the larger towns and cities.

Breakfasts have improved a great deal and where once you would have just been offered some bread and coffee, now you may get an omelette, French toast or even some cold meats and cheese.

Bulgarian wines are very acceptable and becoming more and more popular outside the country.

Nightlife

In this part of Bulgaria the nightlife will probably be limited to the local bars, restaurants or cafés but in cities such as Sofia you will find plenty of live bands and trendy clubs. As well as this there are cinemas in Sofia which screen English films with Bulgarian subtitles. However local music is probably the most likely form of entertainment in the south of the country except for the ski resorts which in winter provide a wide range of après ski night time entertainment. Local musicians will often suddenly turn up and provide entertainment during the evening. The best idea is to ask around and find out what is happening that evening. Bulgaria has a habit of coming up with the unexpected so be prepared.

Bansko (Godfrey Hall)

Bansko (Godfrey Hall)

Transportation

Sofia has its own international airport which is now served by a new metro taking you into the city centre. The two terminals are connected by a shuttle bus which can be a bit unpredictable; however there is also a local bus that makes a connection between the two. There are flights from the USA via several European hubs and onward travel can be made by coach or train. Taxis can be cheap but it is best to get an idea of the fare charged before taking a journey.

The roads in Bulgaria vary in quality but recently more and more new motorways have opened up. When these are finished they will provide an extensive network all over the country. Trains can be rather slow so give yourself plenty of time, Coaches on the other hand connect most larger towns, Hiring a car is not difficult (just be patient) and roads are quite empty outside major centres.

Always respect the rules of the road and keep your papers with you at all times.

British Airways, easyJet and Bulgarian Air all fly into Sofia from London.

For more information visit the Bulgaria Tourism website.

Rila Monastery (Godfrey Hall)

Rila Monastery (Godfrey Hall)


Fly.com Expert Tips


How To Get There: As noted by the author, Sofia Airport (SOF) is the primary international airport for Bulgaria. There are no direct flights from the U.S., so you’ll have to connect through another European city such as London or Frankfurt. Sofia is serviced by over 20 European and Middle Eastern airlines including Air France, British Airways, El Al, Lufthansa. Located just 3 miles east of Sofia, the fastest way to travel between the airport and the center of Sofia is the 18 minute train ride onboard the Sofia Metro Line 1. To get to the Sofia Central Bus and Railway Stations, transfer to Line 2 at Serdika Metro Station which will take another 10-15 minutes. Information regarding area transportation is available here.
Best Time To Visit: The peak travel season in Bulgaria in the summer time, like most of Europe, when attractions and activities are in full swing, but the weather will be hot (but dry) with the average in July and Aug. being in the high-70s. The shoulder seasons of spring (April & May) and fall (Sept.-Oct.) are quieter and cooler temps, with the average daytime temperature ranging anywhere from low- to high-60s, and being chillier at night.

Sample Fares: Calendars display lowest roundtrip fares over the next 90 days to Sofia from:

* All fares are roundtrip including all taxes and are accurate at time of publication. For updated pricing, conduct a new search on Fly.com.


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Featured Image: Rila Mountains, Bulgaria (Shutterstock.com)

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