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Introduction to Bulgaria

Bulgaria has changed swiftly over the last decade, though in the villages you can still find folk who ride the donkey to work, eat homegrown potatoes and make their own cheese. The difference now is that they wash it all down in front of a satellite TV.

When Bulgaria ran away with the topsy-turvy capitalist circus, no-one told its people they were swinging without a safety net. But what the visitor encounters now is a country struggling valiantly to adapt and people who remain remarkably hospitable in the face of social and economic chaos. Urban Bulgaria, especially Sofia, is much changed.

Of course, what high inflation means for visitors with stronger currencies (that's most of you), is that the ski and beach resorts are ridiculously cheap. And you don't need wads of cash to appreciate Bulgaria's dramatic mountains, haven-like monasteries, churches, mosques, Roman and Byzantine ruins, and the excellent coffee you'll be offered wherever you go.

Full country name: Republic of Bulgaria

Area: 110,910 sq km

Population: 7.35 million

Capital City: Sofia

People: 88% Bulgarian, 8% Turkish, 3% Roma, 1% Armenians & Russians

Language: Bulgarian, Russian, French

Religion: 85% Bulgarian Orthodox, 13% Muslim

Government: parliamentary democracy

Head of Government: President Georgi Purvanov

GDP: US$49.23 billion

GDP per capita: US$6,500

Annual Growth: 2.5%

Inflation: 5.9%

Major Industries: Food processing, machine and metal building, electronics, chemicals, textiles, ferrous and nonferrous metals

Major Trading Partners: Italy, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Russia, USA

Member of EU: No

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Most nationals of EU countries are admitted without a visa for stays of less than 90 days. Nationals of some countries - including the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada - are admitted without a visa for stays of less than 30 days. Alternatively, a 90-day visa costs between 30.00-60.00 depending on the country where you apply. Visitors of most other nationalities are issued visas on a shifting fee scale depending on the type of visa sought - transit, tourist or business. Visitors must hold sufficient funds or return/onward tickets, other documents required for final destination and valid health insurance.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2

Dialling Code: 359

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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Public holidays include New Year (1 and 2 January), Liberation Day (3 March), Cyrillic Alphabet Day (24 May) and Christmas (25 and 26 December). The reason for the two Christmas days is that religious Bulgarians were forbidden to practise during the Communist era, so they invented a secular - and suspiciously Christmas-like - celebration on the following day. Since the collapse of Communism, the original Christmas Day has been celebrated as before, but the invented holiday has been sensibly retained. Bulgarians observe a number of traditional customs. Trifon Zarezan on 14 February is the ancient festival of the wine growers. Vines are pruned and sprinkled with wine to ensure a bounteous harvest. On 1 March Bulgarians give one another martenitsi, red and white tasselled threads which are worn for health and happiness at the coming of spring. When wearers see their first stork of the season, the martenitsa is tied to the nearest tree.

At the Koprivshtitsa International Folk Festival, which is held every five years, some 4000 finalists compete for awards. There is a biennial festival in Pernik at which participants, wearing traditional masks and costumes, perform ancient dances to drive away evil spirits and ask the good spirits for a plentiful harvest. Kukeri is another spring festival, most avidly celebrated in the Rodopi Mountains. The Festival of Roses is celebrated with folk songs and dances at Kazanlāk and Karlovo on the first Sunday in June.

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Best time to Visit

Bulgaria has a temperate climate, with cold damp winters and hot dry summers. Spring (April to mid-June) is a good time to visit, with mild and pleasant weather and a host of cultural events taking place. Summer (mid-June to September) has reliable weather, perfect for hiking and outdoor festivals but the beaches on the Black Sea coast can get insanely crowded, and accommodation and camping grounds in coastal resorts tend to fill up. The coast is virtually deserted from mid-September to mid-May. The ski season begins in mid-December and can last until April.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Bulgarian Leva


Budget: Lv2-8

Mid-range: Lv8-10

High: Lv10-20

Deluxe: Lv20+


Budget: Lv10-40

Mid-range: Lv40-70

High: Lv70-100

Deluxe: Lv100+

Despite a 20% value-added tax, you'll probably find that souvenirs, admission prices, food and drink, and all forms of transport (including taxis) are cheap. Anything you can get for the same price as a Bulgarian will be cheap, but when there's a higher tourist price (as there is for almost all accommodation) things can get expensive. You can get by on a budget of USD20.00-USD40.00 a day, depending on the level of comfort you require.

Cash is easily changed at numerous small exchange offices, usually for no commission. Travellers' cheques are more of a hassle as many banks do not accept them, and those that do will charge a commission of around 5%. ATMs are a common sight in Sofia and at Black Sea resorts, and cash advances on credit cards are also available in these areas. Still, it's best to bring plenty of cash to Bulgaria.

Waiters and taxi-drivers expect the bill to be rounded up to the nearest convenient figure. With non-metered taxis you needn't add a tip to the fare you agreed on beforehand.

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Sofia's city centre is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, largely rebuilt after WWII bombings and complete with a yellow-brick boulevard. The city's compactnes and diversity make it a great place to get your bearings before heading off to discover the real Bulgaria.

The central train station is on the north side of the city centre. From the station, bulevard Mariya Luisa runs south to Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, restored after a 1924 bomb attempt on Tsar Boris III in which 124 people (including most of the cabinet) were killed. The 14th-century church of St Petka Samardjiiska is nearby. The inconspicuous exterior gives no clue to the lovely frescoes in the dim, spooky nave. On the other side of the cathedral, is Vitosha bulevard, the fashionable avenue of modern Sofia. The National Museum of History is housed in the former residence of communist leader Todor Zhivkov.

The eastern end of the city centre is dominated by the neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Church, a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the fight for Bulgaria's independence. Ploschtad Batenberg to the east is home to some fine gardens, a vast improvement on the ugly Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum that used to dominate the area. Dimitrov was prime minister of Bulgaria from 1946 until he died in 1949. Until mid-1990, when his embalmed body was cremated, the public was allowed to file reverently past the deified figure while an honour guard looked on. Across ploschtad Batenberg to the north is the Former Party House, an oppressive Stalinist construction which was sacked and partially burned by demonstrators in 1990. It subsequently served as a cinema, bazaar and disco, but government business is once more conducted here.

Mt Vitosha, the rounded mountain which looms on the southern outskirts of Sofia, is a popular ski resort in winter, while in summer a chairlift operates for the benefit of sightseers. Vitosha is accessible by local bus, making it an extremely popular Sunday outing for the locals, so take the trip on another day if you can.


In 510 BC the Greeks founded Nesebār, ancient Mesembria, on the site of a Thracian settlement. The town sits on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. There are still remnants of the second-century city walls, and stone and timber houses line winding, cobbled streets.

It was once of great importance to Byzantium as a trading town, although many of the 40 churches built in Nesebār during the 5th and 6th centuries are now in ruin. Nesebār ceased to be an active trading post in the 18th century and today lives mostly from fishing and tourism.

Rila Mountains

The majestic Rila Mountains south of Sofia are a hiker's dream. The classic trip across the mountains to Rila Monastery can be done in a couple of days, depending on your mettle. The dedicated can start at the Borovets ski resort and climb Musala Peak, the highest mountain in the Balkan Peninsula.

Nestling in a narrow valley, Rila Monastery helped to keep Bulgarian culture alive during the dark age of Turkish rule from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The monastery was founded by Ivan Rilski in 927 and served as a retreat for hermits; it was moved 3km (2mi) to its present location in 1335.

Veliko Tārnovo

Veliko Tārnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1393), is laced with history. The Yantra River meanders through a gorge in the city centre and picturesque houses cling to the cliffs. The ruined Tsaravets Citadel, almost encircled by the river, was ransacked by the Turks in 1393.

The rebuilt Church of the Blessed Saviour at the top of the hill is great squizzing territory. You can look down on the foundations of the ruined Royal Palace, home to 22 successive tsars. Execution Rock is a daunting bluff just to the north, where traitors were once pushed into the Yantra River.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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