I’ve always thought the Black Sea has an exotic ring to it. Dramatic events have unfolded here: Gorbachev losing his job while holidaying in Sochi in August 1991, The Yalta Conference during World War II, Dracula arriving in Varna in a coffin on his way to Transylvania, Jason and the Argonauts searching for the Golden Fleece. This is exciting stuff.
Let’s get the not-so-great over first: Sunny Beach (Slanchev Bryag), the biggest resort in Bulgaria. Way back when, I found it to be about as exotic and interesting as Magaluf or Miami Beach – i.e. not very. Today, in 2020, with more than 800 hotels – 800! … that’s just a no from me. It caters mainly to young Europeans in search of cheap alcohol and loud, mind-numbing music, constantly blaring from every shop, bar and club. It’s never quiet. In Sunny Beach, you can never check out of Hotel California.
On the plus side, the beach is six child-friendly kilometres of white sand, and lifeguard towers are everywhere.
Notes from way back when
Crowded beaches hold no interest for me, but what I don’t suffer for my water-babes. While they’re splashing about in the waves, I’m minding the STUFF. All the stuff. Including about 5 000 toys – each one too precious to lose. Winds are heavy and our beach parasol requires some effort to keep from falling.
Six leva. About 3 €. Nothing really. But… out of sheer boredom, I bargain with the parasol rental guy. It doesn’t work. “This no expensive. I’ve been Spain and Portugal. Much cheaper Bulgaria,” he claims, all the while fixing me with his pale blue eyes. The colour of the ocean in early morning. They go well with his olive skin tone. Later, I discover this unusual colouring is rather common in Bulgaria.
Getting (temporary) tats in Sunny Beach
Locals speak little English and will sometimes reply in German, but most seem to speak only Bulgarian. No worries, though; signing, pointing or drawing always get the job done. Also, blagodaria, thank you, works wonders, especially when spoken by a four-year-old Chinese girl with a Scandinavian accent.
(Way back when was when, you ask? Well, the four-year-old is now 18.)
Let’s get out of this place
The wind wafts the scent of Nivea to my nostrils. Surrounding me are bodies of all shapes, with colourful bits of clothing – or without – speaking a wide variety of languages. Abandoned toys look lonely near the edge of the green ocean. Further out, the water changes to midnight blue, almost black, and the old wooden boats plying between Sunny Beach and Nessebar, almost tip in the waves. Across an expanse of black ocean, red tiled roofs beckons.
Enough of this lounging. We’re going across. And it’s my turn to decide. The kids had the morning. Also, I’m the oldest and control the funds. After depositing toys and wet swimmers in our room, we head for a wooden boat. It’s still blowing friskily, and the boat tosses precariously about in the waves. But the skilled captain finally manages to lay her ashore.
Stepping off the boat has to be timed with the motion of the waves. An elderly German woman misses her moment and brutally tumbles ashore. To avoid a horrible death by drowning, I decide we should take the mini train instead. My official reason is it’s cheaper – 10 leva for the three of us rather than 10 leva per person. Yeah, I know. Sorry excuse. Call me chicken. My kids do.
One of Europe’s oldest cities, Nessebar is situated on a small, rocky peninsula, linked with the mainland by a 400-metre long isthmus. The city was founded by the Thracians around 3 500 years ago, and people have lived here continuously since. The Thracians were farmers and accomplished artists, and their name for the city was Menebria. Invading Greeks changed it to Mesembria and the Slavs transformed that to Nessebar.
I keep listening for the correct pronunciation, and hear it said with the emphasis on any of the three syllables, perhaps with a slight bias towards the last. For several centuries, the little town passed between Bulgarian and Byzantine hands, finally ending up in the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Today, the city has a charming mixture of Greek and Byzantine architecture and the Ancient City of Nessebar was added to UNESCOs World Heritage list in 1983 because of the sheer number of interesting historic buildings.
Serenaded by an old bagpiper, we enter Nessebar through the ruins of the medieval fortified walls that run along the entire city. Walking the narrow cobblestone streets, tiny squares appear around every corner. The upper floors of the half-timbered Black Sea houses jut out above the streets, the wood offering protection from harsh winds. Narrow, external staircases lead to the top floors, many of the houses have lovely flower gardens. It looks very romantic.
Iskra, a Nessebar local, tells me the houses are from the National Revival period. The lower stone floors were used for storing fish, wine and farming equipment. The top floors had halls and bedrooms, as well as a kitchen and pantry. The rich even had indoor toilets, an unusual fixture in 18th century Bulgaria. In 18th century anywhere.
‘Jorkshire’ pudding, shopska and churches
Roast beef and ‘Jorkshire’ pudding are on offer practically everywhere, with plenty of sunburnt happy Brits enjoying the fare. Across the street, the Bayerischer Hof is full of beer-swilling Germans. Opting for the Honolulu and a table overlooking the ocean, we have the traditional, delicious Shopska salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and grated Sirene, a white goat cheese, not unlike Feta. If there’s nothing else in a Bulgarian fridge, I hear, there’s always a chunk of Sirene.
You really can’t get lost in Nessebar, as all roads lead to the ocean. At the tip of the peninsula, I spot a lovely little beach. Cosy pubs and taverns abound, many with ocean views. I would have liked to sit and slowly sip a glass of chilly white on a terrace; watching the buzz of people on one side, the ocean on the other.
Meanwhile, my little one has discovered yet another stall selling lively-looking wooden snakes. She’s fascinated; scared at first, then approaching closer each day, finally daring to touch one after three days. On the last day, she buys one to keep in the flowerpot next to the doorbell at home, gleefully anticipating whom amongst her little friends will be intrigued and who will be frightened to tears.
According to local legend, the old city of Nessebar had 42 churches. I see seven and even that is impressive for a city of 2 000 people. The best-preserved churches in the Balkans, they look more like fancy villas than churches, one more beautiful than the next. Iskra tells me Christianity was strongly discouraged during Muslim rule. The Turks eagerly tried to assimilate the Bulgarians, often using brutal measures. Even so, perhaps defiantly, the inhabitants continued to build and lovingly decorate their churches. The Greek Orthodox Bulgarians fled to the mountains to escape forced conversion to Islam, thus keeping Bulgarian culture alive during times of repression. A bit more on Nessebar’s unusual churches in this post. (Though the photos in that one… I must have been in a sepia state of mind.)
Bulgaria used to be a monarchy until nine-year-old Czar Simeon II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was thrown out by the communists in 1946. In 1996, he returned and was met with shouts of “We want our King” from thousands of Bulgarians. Later, he formed a political party, the National Movement for Simeon II (NMSS), and was elected prime minister in 2001, promising the Bulgarian people higher living standards within a period of 800 days. When he failed to deliver, his popularity faded. In the 2005 election, he was defeated.
I ask Boriana, a Polish-speaking guide, if he had been a popular prime minister. “No,” she states emphatically. “He made many promises and kept none. The population was desperate.” Even though her English is somewhat limited, there is no confusing her feelings for the late king-turned-prime minister. Meanwhile, in 2007, NMSS changed its name to National Movement for Stability and Progress (with the same acronym in Bulgarian), and has become a liberal populist party with waning popularity. In the 2017 elections the party did not run.
A return to Nessebar at dusk
A few days later, we return to Nessebar late in the afternoon, after the day-trippers have left. Around dusk, it feels like we’re on the set of a historical drama. I almost expect to see a reluctant gladiator hiding in one of the narrow alleys. Peeking through a gate on Mesembria Street, I notice an elderly woman in a floral dress with a tan-coloured dog, both soaking up the last rays of the setting sun. They’re surrounded by colourful flowers; the scene looks very peaceful. Outside the restaurant Sevina, the chef is resting on a park bench, waiting for the first dinner guests of the night. Children play among the ruins and fountains on the little square, facing the windy Black Sea.
Heading down towards the old harbour, we pass the well-preserved ruins of the thirteenth century Church of Jesus Christ Pantocrator, perhaps the most beautiful of all Nessebar’s churches. The last sunrays of the day shine off the red, green and white tiles on the wall. On the upper wall of the church is a band of swastikas. A young couple is shocked. It’s easy to forget the swastika pre-dates Hitler, as an ancient Hindu religious symbol.
Slowly, the sun sets. Walking across the isthmus bridge, we leave this charming old city for the final time.
godawful Sunny Beach, and some final thoughts
Back at our hotel, over coffee tasting like moth balls, I contemplate our visit to the Black Sea while the girls play billiards. What could I add to put a positive spin on Sunny Beach?
Well, we did have one quirky experience. For days, the rain pelts relentlessly. Lacking a proper drainage system, the streets simply overflows. Locals make no fuss about it, so we follow their lead. Taking off our shoes and pulling up our trousers, we wade through the streets, going about our business as planned. At one point, water comes up to my thighs. The lukewarm water actually feels rather soothing on my sunburnt legs. The kids have a fabulous time, jumping up and down, splashing and laughing.
Not sure what kind of water that is. But we did come out of it unscathed, and are still alive. And it was kinda fun.
Afterwards, the town looks like disaster has struck. Burgas airport could have doubled as a shallow swimming pool. In the departures lounge, we have to sit with legs up while cleaners sweep the water out through the doors to the runway. Memorable. Which is cool.
For our next beach holiday, I’m thinking Lake Baikal or the Caspian Sea. Beach bumming in Siberia or Iran – now, that’s exotic. For Bulgaria again, a flat in Old Nessebar would be just right. I’d love to walk around these streets at dawn in late October; the early morning silence interrupted only by the sound of breaking waves, my shoes on the cobbled stones and perhaps that little tan-coloured dog barking through the mist.
The Ancient City of Nessebar is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.
This is a revised version of my article published by Boots’n’All.