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“You know, Bulgarians are the first European people in the world,” an older gentleman tells me just minutes after stepping off of my bus. “We also invented the saddle and horseback riding.”
These first few moments are telling of the national pride and history this once mighty and now re-emerging Eastern European nation possesses. Nowhere is that past more apparent than in the country’s bustling capital - Sofia.
Having only “recently” become the capital city in Bulgarian terms (nearly 1,000 years ago), a weekend here means a near endless supply of “Wait, this is how old?” moments.
Sofia has also emerged as one of the most religiously tolerant cities in the world, as a mosque, synagogue, evangelical church and Orthodox cathedral have managed to co-exist for hundreds of years within 100 yards of each other.
Charming lanes, a bustling market culture and lovely parks make this city the perfect jumping off point for a Bulgarian adventure.
The gay scene is booming as well. With five gay bars and one world-class dance club, there is no shortage of gay nightlife. As most gay venues are clustered near Place Pozitano, this part of the city may very well be Eastern Europe’s first real gayborhood. Whether you’re after ancient relics, cool cafes or an all-night party, Sofia has got it all.
The lay of the land
Bulgaria is squeezed nicely between Romania, Turkey, Greece and Serbia. Sofia is located in the west central portion of the country.
The world famous Rila monastery is roughly 100 miles south, deep in the magnificent Rodopi mountains. From there, head east for some of the best-preserved Roman relics in Europe in Plovdiv. Continue north and you’ll end up in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital complete with castles, old city walls and teeny tiny lanes.
At this point, it’s time to hit the world-class Black Sea coast in Varna - the country’s summer capital. Tiny beach towns and resorts dot the entire eastern edge of the country along the coast, so give yourself ample time to explore the empty beaches.
The gay scene
Homosexual acts have been legal since 1968, though public attitudes toward homosexuality are mixed and the gay scene stays primarily to itself.
That said, gays and lesbians are allowed to serve openly in the military, and the nation’s constitution bans all discrimination based on sexual orientation.
This is Western Europe light, so tread lightly. Still, a number of high-profile gay celebrities and athletes have made a splash in this nation of nearly 9 million and attitudes are changing. For now, leave your leopard print leotard at home but hit up the half dozen venues in Sofia for a great night out.
Find out just how great Bulgarians are at the National History Museum (take a taxi from city center). Set outside the city, the museum claims to be the largest in the Balkans.
Be inspired by the level of religious tolerance by visiting the Synagogue of Sofia (Ekzarkh Yosif 16), Banya Moshi Mosque (Mariya Luiza), St. Nedelya Cathedral (Pl. Sveta Nedelya), St. George’s Church (Suborna) and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Pl. Alexander Nevsky). They’re all within a few steps of each other and each claims to be the first, the biggest or the “most gold” of their respective faiths in Europe.
Wander the weekend book market (Pl. Slaveykny), the Central Market (Maria Luiza) and Vitosha Street for divine food, a good read and the latest in Bulgarian fashion.
Venture outside the city for a serene visit to Boyana Church (take a taxi from city center and have the cab wait while you explore. Located near the National History Museum, so perfect for a one-two punch). A UNESCO World Heritage site, the religious artwork inside is out of this world.
Eat Bulgarian food as much as possible. Try Divaka (William Gladstone 54) for what this writer considers one of the best meals he has ever had. Do not leave Bulgaria without eating a Shopska Salad and Spicy Meatballs. Mains $4 and up, Shopska salad $2.
In short, Sofia’s gay scene rocks. Whether you’re after a quiet lounge, ruckus bar or all-out nightclub, this city delivers. Give these a try:
I.D. Club (19B Karnigradska Street, http://www.idclub.bg/) -- State of the art sound and light system, light-up dance floor, go-go boys and drag queens make this a near flawless nightclub. Drink prices aren’t over the top and cover is pretty standard for this part of the world. DO NOT miss this place if you’re in Eastern Europe. Drag shows on Wednesday and Thursday feature the wildly famous Madame Elza Pariny (www.pariny.com). She is divine.
Why Not? (31 Alexander Stamboliysky Blvd.) -- An excellent bar and mini-disco that features shirtless bartenders and very flattering light.
Discreet (41-43 Skobelev Blvd.) -- Located underground in the center of the city, the main attraction of this so tiny but so cute bar is the dance pole that no doubt leads to some wildly entertaining moments. The bar hosts regular shows of all sorts as well.
The road trip
Bulgaria - like so much of Eastern Europe - is best seen by car. Rent from a local company (try www.carrent.bg) and make sure you’re not in a hurry. There is just one major highway and it’s about 20 miles long. Still, the slower speeds mean more time to take in the drop dead gorgeous scenery.
Koprivshtitsa -- Set in a valley surrounded by massive snow-capped peaks, Koprivshtitsa is a quintessential Bulgarian village. Believe it or not, this town of just 6,000 is where Bulgaria’s revolution began. In addition, several homes have been turned into museums that allow for an inside look at how life “used to be.”
Rila Monastery -- Perhaps one of the world’s most well-known monasteries, Rila is set deep in the Rila Mountain Range of the Rodopi Mountains along a soothing river. If for no other reason, make a stop here for a few moments of serenity. There is also a church, museum and book shop inside if stepping out of the real world isn’t enough for you. Interestingly enough, the monastery lets rooms to weary travelers at more than reasonable rates. Just arrive after 2 p.m. and before 6 p.m. and stop in at Room 170.
Plovdiv -- Once a mighty Roman city, Plovdiv is most certainly Bulgaria’s most laid-back mountain city. Open-air bars, trendy cafes and quite possibly one of the most well-preserved 2nd century Roman amphitheaters makes Plovdiv a must-see.
Veliko Turnovo -- Bulgaria’s medieval capital, this town of just 70,000 offers fortresses, cobblestone streets and an impressive sound and light show that is certain to “wow” visitors.
Varna -- The capital of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, Varna is one giant party all summer long. Outdoor discos, delicious restaurants and never-ending beaches in one of Europe’s best-kept secrets means less crowds than Spain or Italy but the same beautiful sand, rock formations and water.
Tips and tricks
Driving in Bulgaria is not for the faint of heart. Drivers have no regard for any other vehicle but their own. Be aware of speed limits as well. They change often and usually seem to be oddly slow. If you get pulled over, do not pay any fines directly to the officer. This is out and out corruption in a truly Eastern European way. Just take the citation and go on your way.
Taxis are remarkably cheap. A ride across town will run you $3. Indulge.
Wi-Fi Internet access is available free of charge in McDonald’s across the country. If you’re looking for and quick and easy place to check your e-mail or to Skype back home, this is sadly your best option.