We spent just over 3 weeks in Bulgaria, visiting Plovdiv, Bansko and Sofia. It’s not a long time to try and get to know a country, but no matter how hard you try it’s difficult not to form some opinions. Here we share some of our first impressions about Bulgaria based on our experiences.
Bulgarian Destination Experiences
I’m always surprised at how different people’s views can be about the same travel destination. I guess this is what makes life interesting, we’re all so very different.
My own criteria for assessing whether I like a place, or not, is based on my experience and interactions with local people, how long I have to get to know somewhere, what my limited budget will allow me to experience and what attractions the destination has on offer that appeal to me.
To be fair, although I was in Bulgaria nearly a month most of this time was spent in a ski resort with other international visitors so it is quite difficult for me to confidently express my opinions about Bulgaria as a travel destination. However, I thought it would be nice to share a few observations.
Bulgaria didn’t produce any strong reactions either way for us. The people were lovely, friendly and polite. I had a good, relatively inexpensive time and saw one of the most beautiful buildings in my life the Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia. There is something intriguing about this destination, and I don’t know what it is yet.
Bulgarian’s are a Nation of Smokers – Hurrah
Since arriving in Bulgaria I’ve been surprised at how popular the pastime of smoking is here. Since July 2012 you haven’t been legally able to smoke inside bars and restaurants. As the legislation is relatively new, there are still a few places ignoring the law, or coming up with ingenious ways to accommodate their smoking clientele.
At times, I’ve looked around the streets of Bulgaria and it has appeared like everybody has a fag in their mouth, a scene you’d struggle to find in most European cities. I’ve been on local buses here several times where different bus drivers have been smoking, nobody seems to be particularly shocked or to care. I’ve seen mothers driving cars packed with children with windows closed creating an environment fit for firefighters to test their breathing apparatus.
Despite the cold temperatures here this March, you’ll still see people grabbing a pavement seat so they can satisfy their nicotine cravings. As life-long, excuse the irony, heavy smokers ourselves, you think we’d be glad to be in a nation where smoking is enjoyed by so many people. Well you’d be wrong, as we’re trying (again) to stop this bad habit.
On arriving in Bulgaria, we purchased some e-cigarettes, and an assortment of flavoured refills, at about half the price you can get on-line back in the UK. We’re not stopping completely yet, but drastically reducing the amount we smoke per day as we venture back into Europe, mainly due to the cost as this could easily add an extra $30 a day to our budget depending on which country we’re in. We’ve found the e-cigarettes to be a satisfying alternative to an actual cigarette, although we’ve not ventured as far as not smoking cigarettes at all. Watch this space!
Where to find a toilet in Bulgaria?
If you have a weak bladder, or like to hang around public conveniences, you may struggle in Bulgaria. Free and clean toilets are available in shopping malls, and big restaurants. However, there doesn’t seem to be a problem entering a restaurant or bar and just asking to use their toilet, even if you’re not a customer. Many small cafes and bars don’t have toilets. Keep a few Bulgarian leva handy if you’re at a coach or railway station as when you do come across public conveniences there is usually a small charge.
Billboard Advertising in Bulgaria
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many scantily clad women advertising products. This portrayal of women, reminds me of growing up in the UK in the 1970s when women used to adorn beer cans and appear topless in newspapers. They’re not just selling underwear or swimming costumes, but the products can be absolutely anything. I don’t really see the connection between a woman bulging out of a swimming costume caressing rubber, this was an advertisement for car tyres. Although it is -8C in the evening and maybe this is how everybody dresses here in the summer.
A Great Bulgarian Tradition “Martenitsas”
When we arrived in Bulgaria at the very end of February, we saw lots of street stalls and small markets selling red and white bracelets, dolls and brooches made of wool. We just thought that people here really liked there handicrafts and there was an oversupply of red and white wool. We quickly learned this was to celebrate a unique tradition to Bulgaria known as the Martenitsas.
The annual event is celebrated on the 1st March when Bulgarians greet each other by exchanging these gifts (which cost as little as 50 stotinki) to wish them health and happiness. Bulgarian’s tend to wear them on their wrists, some have many displaying their popularity, others wear them like brooches on their coat. Traditionally they are worn until the first stork is seen and then buried under a stone or tied around a fruit tree.
Casinos in Bulgaria
If you like to gamble then this probably isn’t a country to visit. Unless you’re extremely lucky or a very successful gambler (I don’t know of any) you’ll go home very poor. You’ll definitely notice is the large number of casinos both big and small that are located all over Bulgarian cities. If on the other hand you want a few hours of fun having a little bit of a flutter then you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Bulgarian Prostitutes, Sex Shops, Lady Dancing Bars
Prostitution is not illegal in Bulgaria, and we did see quite a few prostitutes around every place we visited in Bulgaria. Economically speaking Bulgaria is one of the poorest cities in Europe, and whilst some freely chose to work the oldest profession in world, some women are doubtlessly being exploited, though pimping is thankfully illegal.
You’ll also spot quite a few sex shops and plenty of ‘lady’ bars with exotic dancers , even in the ski resorts. Having said all this, we weren’t directly approached by any prostitutes, except for a bit of eye contact here and there, which is quite unusual for two foreign male tourists of a certain age in any of the big cities we’ve visited on our around the world trip.
We didn’t see the seedy side of Bulgaria, as it wasn’t something we were interested in finding, but you do get the feeling in places that it is just around the corner. While no doubt Bulgaria has its problems with drugs and gangs, as do most places, we felt extremely safe and wouldn’t hesitate recommending our own families visit here with their children.
There are a few gay bars and discos in Sofia, but we didn’t get the opportunity to visit. Which is a shame really as it would have been nice to chat with some Bulgarian’s about LGBT life in the city. Homosexuality is legal in Bulgaria, but they have yet to progress towards recognising same sex partnerships.
Friendly and Helpful Bulgarian’s
The Bulgarian’s are very friendly and helpful. What’s was great for our own selfish point of view is that many speak excellent English, so we had no problems communicating.
Bulgarian Taxis Fares are a Nightmare
We found Bulgarian taxi drivers to be the usual outrageous cheats. Having used taxis all over the world, we know all the scams and know all the questions to ask before getting into a cab. Here it doesn’t seem to matter, the meters seem to have a mind of their own, especially the ones near bus stations. We didn’t have a pleasant experience in any Bulgarian taxi, except for ones booked by restaurants or hotels when they get you a good price, best avoided if you can.
There are plenty of churches and old eastern bloc architecture to keep you entertained by far the greatest pleasure we got was form some of the street art. If you appreciate graffiti then you’ll enjoy looking at the work and expressions daubed on the many buildings and structures around Bulgaria. This form of self-expression is everywhere, and not confined to bus shelters, the walls of disused buildings, canal paths and skate parks.
So Bulgaria surprised in a good way and while we are not yet completely in love with the place we did discuss returning in warmer times to see what it looks like in the summer.