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Varna has it all — the sea, the culture and the gold!

click here to view a slideshow of images from Varna

Orignally published: April 2007

We chose Varna, Bulgaria because we wanted to relax in a resort-like setting after our emotional and sometimes difficult adventures in Poland and Ukraine.

Varna, population 350,000, is Bulgaria’s third largest city. It’s on the northern Black Sea coast and has the look and feel of a seaside town with all the cultural amenities of a city. Small and famous resorts, bearing names like Sveti Konstantin and Zlatni Pyasati, dot the coast, luring many tourists and making Varna a jumping off point. For us, Varna had it all, and we saw no need to explore farther along the coast. Varna is small enough to be accessible on foot and large enough to be convenient for tourists. It’s flat and well paved, with very few high rises.

We arrived late on the hydrofoil from Odessa (I’m saving Odessa for another article) without reservations. The taxis at the port lived up to their corrupt reputation, but we finally got one to take us ($10 for a five-minute ride in the dark) to the hotel most likely to have available rooms – the Hotel Odessa, a three-star, four-story hotel overlooking a huge square that leads to the beach and kilometers of scenic walks. Prices for doubles are about $70US, including a buffet breakfast. The best part is the location and the outdoor restaurant, which is part of the square, a people-watching scene par excellence. As we learned our first night, the restaurant is open till midnight and has a huge and inexpensive variety of salads, fish, brochettes, and tasty desserts. Food in Varna is varied, inexpensive and excellent. Fish is the specialty, grilled or fried. At our hotel we sampled the grilled bluefish, the whole grilled trout and the village salad with that famous Bulgarian feta.

On our second day, we ventured off in the opposite direction of the beach, down a long and fun-filled pedestrian mall lined with ice cream parlours and boutiques. Eventually you hit a crossroad and, if you turn left, you find the Archaeological Museum. Bulgaria’s largest museum, it features some of the oldest artifacts in the world. The highlight of the site is room after room filled with 6000-year-old gold and copper jewellery and art. These treasures were discovered by accident in 1972 at the Varna Necropolis, about 4 km from the town, and are apparently the oldest of their kind in the world. Here, you can experience the evolution of humankind in this region, which claims to be the home of the oldest civilization in the world, one pre-dating even the Mesopotamians.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is worth a gander, but my favorite part of Varna is the outdoor market, which starts at the Cathedral and stretches for blocks in a kind of circle (or maybe we were just walking in circles). In any case, there is everything there, from underwear to food and souvenirs. The tablecloths are especially nice and inexpensive and make lovely presents. We sent a few back by mail. Unfortunately the price of the mailing equaled that of the tablecloths ($60).

Our best food find was a cafeteria where we both ate dinner for a total of $4 US. This cavernous place with outdoor seating offers by-the-piece delicacies and salads by weight. Just tell them what you want by pointing. The offerings included feta in a kind of fried coating with red pepper salad, grated carrots and peas, and chicken in all forms. You can have a chicken brochette for 50 cents or a wiener for 35 cents. Crème caramel and coffee set you back 75 cents. To get there, go to the McDonalds on the main mall and turn right and walk half a block down. It’s at Kniaz Boris I street off Slivnitza and it’s called MECAP (backwards N) (Backwards R)

We stayed in Varna four days, relaxing, walking up and down the pedestrian walkway discovering more and more jewellery shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and a delightful artisan market with a Bulgarian dancing show. The people are charming and speak enough English to converse, an improvement over Ukraine.

One evening we chanced upon a worldwide ballet competition in the outdoor theatre about half a kilometer into Primorski Park, which winds along the sea for about 10 kilometers. The promenade itself is wonderful but to find a three hour ballet recital of the highest calibre was spectacular. Canada competed!

Another evening we joined our new friends from Israel, Sima and Shimon, who invited us to a strange concert that included fashion models and an organ player. Oh, yes, there was also an opera singer. The lady, who was in her eighties and lived in Israel, had been one of the children evacuated from Varna before the Holocaust. Bulgaria has one of the best records of saving Jews during that time, we found out.

After four days we took the train to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, to get a taste of the big city.

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