The Black Sea, once referred to as the “Inhospitable Sea” by the ancient Greeks, is now anything but. We spent four days along the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria, stopping in Burgas, St. Anastasia Island, and Sozopol. Other significant towns we wish we had time to visit include Nesebar and Varna, so if you are planning a trip to this region, you may also want to consider visits there as well.
On our first day, we arrived in Burgas on the night train from Sofia around 6:00am to a dark and empty port. The central train station, featuring a landmark clock tower, is a beautiful late 19th century yellow neoclassical structure representative of much of the town’s architecture as it was primarily developed as a port and resort after the overthrow of the Ottoman empire in 1876.
While we waited for the sun to rise, we got coffee in the train station cafe and finished writing our previous blog about our three days in Sofia. There is also free wifi in this area.
We next walked to our strategically nearby hotel to drop off our bags before heading out for a day of exploring Burgas.
Our first stop was the extensive Maritime Park and Sea Garden. The park is the pride of Burgas and features many opportunities for recreation including a beach, sculpture garden, fishing on the pier, bicycling, running, workout stations, and more. At the very north end, you can even go “take the waters” at Lake Atanasovsko, where locals like to take free mud baths.
Next, we headed inland to visit the Saint Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, named after the two famous brother Byzantine missionaries who developed the Cyrillic alphabet in order to share their religion with the Slavs. The church itself was built between 1897-1907, around the same time as the rest of the city.
After visiting the church, we took a little time to familiarize ourselves with the ample pedestrian thoroughfares in the city while also visiting four museums bought with one ticket: Ethnographic Museum, Burgas City Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Archaeology Museum.
They are all really worth a visit for the 10 leva (around $5 USD), but don’t expect really great English explanations in any of them. They are all quite small collections.
Ethnographic Museum (two small floors; limited English explanations)
Burgas City Museum (lengthy English history signs; one primary floor)
Natural History Museum (lots of stuffed animals and rocks)
Archaeology Museum (fair English descriptions; the featured artifacts are replicas from Sofia museums)
After the museums, we were starting to feel ourselves dragging after a night of limited sleep on the train, so headed back to the hotel to officially check in and rest up a bit. Then, we found a delightful place for dinner called Ethno, where we had amazing opportunities for people watching and a waiter with very good English, though we suspect him to have conned us a bit on the bill. He “forgot” to add the wine to the bill and just tacked it on to the total verbally. We suspect this may be one way to boost tips in the off season.
On our second day, we slept in a bit for a typically late Bulgarian breakfast (hotels and guesthouses do not even start serving until 8:30am).
After breakfast, we checked out and lugged our gear down to the port to catch a ferry to St. Anastasia Island where we made reservations to stay the night in a renovated 10th century monastery!
The ferry only runs if they have 10 people wishing to go to the island, but since we had reservations, they made special arrangements for us to take the island’s private boat with the “chief” and “mayor” if there weren’t enough visitors. There was only us, so we discovered we’d be taking a small boat with the chef and manager (hilarious language mixups), who we quickly learned were named Vasil and Pavlin.
Upon arrival, Pavlin (the “mayor”) gave us a thorough history of the island and perspectives on recent Bulgarian history over coffee. Then, we had the afternoon to explore the monastery, church, beach, pier, and well…that’s about it! It’s a TINY island.
There is also an island dog there named “Cece.” We had a great time playing with her!
As a result of no other visitors, we essentially had the island completely to ourselves for the entire evening with just Vasil and his friend Stephan, who came over on the boat to spend the day fishing with Vasil.
That evening, we ate a traditional Bulgarian dinner with the two of them, communicating only through gestures, broken English, and Google Translate (the island had excellent Wifi!).
On our third day, we awoke early to see the sunrise, but it was too cloudy, so we did some pilates, ate breakfast, and spent a few casual hours meandering around the tiny island noticing all the little things we hadn’t seen the day before.
Since it was a Saturday, the island did have enough visitors for the ferry in the late morning, so we had guests join us around 11:00am, one of which was a German travel writer named Jens Muhling, who is currently writing a book about the Black Sea. Y’all should check him out!
We took the ferry back to Burgas around 1:00pm, just in time to catch the 2:00pm bus to Sozopol, our next destination.
Sozopol is a beach resort town and the first time we really felt like we were visiting in “off season.” Most restaurants, churches, and hotels were closed down for the season and the museums seemed to close early. However, our guest house hosts were gracious and our room with a balcony view of the sea was beautiful.
We spent the afternoon exploring old town, a tiny ramshackle collection of skinny stone lanes on a peninsula in the Black Sea. The town itself is the oldest Bulgarian coastal city, inhabited most notably by the Romans, who left most of the ruins the city prizes today.
We walked along the shore line and beach, then through the winding streets. The feel of this town was very different with many people greeting us despite fewer of them speaking English. It felt relaxed and is definitely worth a visit of at least half a day.
Since most of the restaurants were closed, we purchased ourselves a grocery store dinner of dates, cheese, crackers, and wine before calling it an early night.
On our fourth day, we had planned to visit the Castle of Ravadinovo, a kitschy newly built “fairytale” castle about three miles west of town and even bought tickets online through Tripadvisor in advance. We had learned that it’s not walkable, but that there was a free shuttle or taxis available. However, the shuttle wasn’t running and we couldn’t find a taxi anywhere!
So we spent the morning wandering the streets and the beach before catching an earlier bus back to Burgas, where we caught another bus on to Veliko Tarnovo, the subject of my next blog!
Upon reflection, if you have just four days on the Black Sea coast, make Sozopol a day trip from Burgas, then perhaps spend another day exploring the other nearby town of Nesebar to the north. We hear it is even more spectacular and charming than Sozopol!