There are still gaps in the tightly closed Europe. For example, Bulgaria lets in tourists from Belarus and Ukraine. Since the 20th of December, the ski season in the country started. Our reader and author Oleg Dorozhovets was among the first to check how local resorts work, and saw Sofia, Plovdiv, and Rila Monastery at the same time.
Citizens of Ukraine to enter must present a negative PCR test, made no later than 72 hours before arrival. Belarusians are not required to do this, they only need a Schengen visa. This rule is valid until January 31, 2021.
The Bulgarian quarantine is moderately mild. The capital Sofia, at first glance, looks like a completely normal, lively metropolis, and not like ghost towns of the era of lockdowns and curfews. Yes, museums and shopping centers are closed, but Bulgaria is not the country where people go for shopping and masterpieces. More inconveniences for tourists from closed restaurants and cafes. Some work for take-away, but many decided not to waste energy on half-measures and simply went into hibernation. Hotel restaurants are a lifeline. They are allowed to work in order to feed their guests, but even in a “strange” hotel you are unlikely to be kicked out. There are also supermarkets and bazaars, where you can also stock up on various foods.
Transport operates without restrictions. Both in the city and intercity. A mask mode is required in transport and buildings, but not on the street. Ski resorts also require you to cover your face with a mask, scarf or buff in the lift cabins. Sometimes you have to wait in line to get up, especially on weekends. Operators limit the number of people in the booth, which can cause congestion. But while the season is sluggish, this is not critical.
How to get there?
Bulgaria is steadfastly associated with us with a beach rookery. In fact, there are more mountain resorts here than sea ones. Below we will tell you about a few where it is most convenient to get from Sofia. You can get to Sofia itself from Kiev, from where the Ukrainian company Wind Rose began flying in December . A roundtrip flight will cost about € 250. But it’s worth it, given that winter holidays in Bulgaria are quite budgetary (perhaps even cheaper than in the Ukrainian Carpathians). And there are no special alternatives for connoisseurs of mountain slopes this season. In addition, luggage is already included in the ticket price, so take your favorite skis and boots with you.
From Sofia airport you can go directly to your mountain base by ordering a shuttle or by negotiating with a taxi driver. The cost will be approximately the same: € 40-50 – to Borovets, € 70-80 – to Bansko and about € 100 – to Pamporovo. Not much if divided by company. But public transport will be 2-3 times cheaper. We abandoned the idea of renting a car initially. Although the traffic in Bulgaria is not congested, the roads are serpentine and wear decent in places (especially if it is frosty after rain or fog). In addition, we decided to stay in Sofia for a day, and from there go to the mountains. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city center is to take the yellow metro line. Single ticket – 1.60 levs (€ 0.80), card for 10 trips – 12 levs (€ 6). More info and route maps on the airport and metro websites…
The capital met us with light smog. As the locals later explained, there is a minimum of central heating in Sofia, so people are warmed up by everything that burns – from gas to wood and pellets. Hence the haze. Plus three huge pipes of the Sofiyskaya CHPP smoke on the horizon. Let’s be honest, this is not the most picturesque city in Europe. Almost all the best of Sophia’s architecture is concentrated in the triangle between the streets of Vasily Levsky, Prince Alexander Dondukov and Tsar-Liberator (well, and a little more in the adjacent districts around the perimeter). The top of the triangle rests on the presidential palace, against which, surrounded by antique excavations, stands the oldest church in the city – the rotunda of St. George. At the heart of the triangle is the huge cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, the second largest in all the Balkans. Inside the lavish Vasnetsov and his school – more than 270 frescoes.
For more contemporary art, check out the local street art. Near Alexander Nevsky Square at st. Ivan Vazov, 11-13 there is a picturesque mansion painted on all walls – birds, animals, children, wind. And a little further, opposite the Opera House, at the end of the house, a stooped faded angel turned away from the world. An entire gallery of murals is hidden in the underground passage between the railway station and the central bus station. And right behind it begins the typical residential area “Hadji Dimitar”, which is decorated with a series of murals on the walls of high-rise buildings of 7-8 floors. The author is a well-known local artist Nasimo. The dark side of street art is that many of Sofia’s facades are simply graffiti.
In principle, you can ski without leaving Sofia. Trails and lifts are located on Vitosha Mountain, at the foot of which the Bulgarian capital lies. The skiing area begins immediately behind the bypass road in the suburb of Simeonovo. From there a gondola goes to the Aleko base at an altitude of 1800 m above the sea. Most of the tracks originate there. From the center, the easiest way is to take the metro to the “Technical University” station (yellow and red lines), and then change to bus 123, which carries you directly to the ski lift. But there are nuances. The owners of the complex and the Sofia authorities have some kind of conflict, because of which the resort is languishing. As a result, in December the season at Vitosha did not open, the start was postponed to January 3. The slopes looked bald, the guns did not fire. True, the gondola lift worked, so we limited ourselves to that we examined the entire Sofia basin from the booth window (for € 8.5 round trip). You can check all the latest information about skiing in Vitosha at official website. But one mountain is not mountains. Therefore, we are going to look for snow deep into the Rhodope massif.
Borovets is the closest to Sofia among the major mountain resorts . It is also the oldest ski center in the country. Every half hour from the capital’s bus station “Yug” there is a bus to Samokov. And there is already waiting for a minibus directly to Borovets. The entire road, periodically crossing virgin coniferous thickets, will take about an hour and a half. Borovets has three ski areas. The most picturesque and highest one – Markudzhik – is located at an altitude of over 2000 m. The season opened on December 28 on artificial snow. Therefore, not all sites were still ready, but there were enough of those that worked: there were not many people. In December, a daily pass cost € 25, but in January it will rise to € 30. You can save up to 20% if you take a package for a week.
Borovets is more of a village than a city. His business card is considered to be two buildings of the Rila Hotel, built in the form of trampolines. Apart from the imposing mountains and hotel facades, there is not much to see here. On the outskirts of the resort there is a former royal residence open to the public.
While in Borovets, try to find at least half a day to visit the Rila Monastery. In a straight line it is almost close, but by car you have to make a detour almost 100 km to go around the mountain ridges. It’s worth it. We agreed with the taxi driver for € 70 for four, what he will deliver, wait and take back.
After moving Borovets, this place just screams with silence. Especially now, when group excursions around the country are prohibited, and only desperate individuals get into this wilderness. Once you get here, you will never regret that you had to shake the serpentines for more than an hour. In a mountain corridor, behind 24-meter walls, is the main charm of Bulgaria. In the center of the monastery courtyard stands the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, covered with frescoes inside and out. The frescoes are not that old (mid-19th century), but very sincere. With venerable saints, naive angels and caricatured devils: as if you suddenly found yourself in the heart of a huge thousand-color kaleidoscope.
The monastery itself was founded over a thousand years ago, first as a cave monastery. After that, it was altered many times, so that the buildings of the XIV century are here side by side with the remake. But this does not break the harmony. Perhaps because the whole complex is united by the original striped masonry and the ubiquitous arcades. From the road, the monastery seems massive and impregnable, inside – cozy and prayerful. He is acting. If it were a museum, it would be quarantined. The monks do not take money for entry, but photographing the frescoes is prohibited. Guests can also spend the night in the monastery cells. But there is no hot water, and in winter it is also frankly damp.
Bansko is now the most fashionable mountain resort in Bulgaria. More gloss, more scale than Borovets. Although, if you turn a little from the central street of Gotse Delcheva, the gloss evaporates, and chaotic buildings come to replace it. Accordingly, the prices for skiing are higher here. A day pass costs € 35, a 6-day ticket costs € 200. But good snow is almost guaranteed here. Most of the descents are geographically oriented to the north, which helps to better hold the cover. Well, if anything, 160 snow cannons come into play. The season started here earlier than anyone else – on December 17. And, as the locals assure, it will last until mid-late April.
From Sofia to Bansko, it takes about three hours by public transport (you can drive an hour earlier by car). Buses run every hour from the Central Bus Station. The town has always been famous for its club life. During the season, the best DJs and jazzmen of Bulgaria came here to entertain the audience. This year is boring for nightlife. So tourists have to amuse themselves in the evenings (mainly with the help of strong drinks). Of the advantages of coronavirus time – not so long queues for the lift. In previous years, as we were told, it was possible to stand for an hour. Now at most – 20 minutes. The occupancy rate of the resort is half as much as a year earlier. There are almost no foreigners.
In 2019, Plovdiv was elected one of the European cultural capitals. It is the second largest Bulgarian city, but the first in terms of interest. It is located 150 km from Sofia. Whether by train or by bus it takes about two and a half hours, the price is about the same – about € 5. For the sake of experiment, we chose the railway. And they ended up in a Ukrainian train, although not the worst version. It is clean and warm inside, but this does not apply to toilets. Most of the stations that our train passed through seemed to be extinct, but Plovdiv itself gives the impression of a very lively and multicultural place.
If you turn from the station square to Russky Boulevard, then in ten minutes you will hit the Bunardzhik hill, at the top of which there is a reinforced concrete Alyosha with a PPSh machine gun. Several times they tried to demolish or move the giant monument to the Soviet soldier-liberator, but the veterans did not give it. So he lived to this day in slight desolation. If you don’t need soviet rarities, immediately turn onto Ivan Vazov Street. You will come out to the central park with singing fountains. And from there it is a stone’s throw to the ancient theater. If you meet this somewhere in Greece, Italy or Turkey – it seems like a small wonder. But in Bulgaria, such a colossus with 6,000 seats is perceived unexpectedly. To wander around the bowl, you will have to pay € 3. In December, due to quarantine, the facility did not work, and they promise to open it in January. But even if not, at the top, at the end of Hemus street, there is an excellent observation deck, from where the amphitheater is viewed without interference for free. Nearby, right in the middle of the city, near the walls of the Jumaya Mosque, there is also an ancient stadium. In scale, it is inferior to the theater. But here visitors are shown a 3D film about the ancient Philipopolis (the predecessor of Plovdiv).
While wandering around the city, you can stumble upon a couple more archaeological points with ruins. But medieval Plovdiv, the center of which is the Kapan district, is no less pleasant. Once upon a time there were workshops on each street – tanners, jewelers, potters. Now Kapana has transformed into a quarter of creative professions, often filled with shops with original products – from ceramics to Christmas tree decorations. You won’t find a better place to buy souvenirs. Due to the quarantine, the shops are closed, but all the goods are on display and the owner’s phone is nearby. In addition, there was a Christmas fair in Kapan and many craftsmen spread out there. Then go to explore the street of Dr. Stoyan Chomakov and the surrounding area. There is a whole scattering of rich Bulgarian houses of the XIX century, most of them well restored, with ornamental panels, figured windows, carved inserts. After taking a walk, you can stay overnight in Plovdiv or immediately go to another mountain resort – Pamporovo. It is only 100 km away.
Pamporovo and Chepelare
From the central bus station of Plovdiv, buses in the direction of Smolyan run every hour. The penultimate point on the route is the town of Pamporovo. Its trademark is the Snezhanka TV tower (2000 m above the ground), where you can take an elevator to see the entire Rhodope Mountains below you, and sometimes even the Aegean Sea on the horizon. Alas, our two days in Pamporovo were foggy and there was no point in climbing. But at least there was snow. So we laid our own ski track here too. The resort has two ski areas: Pamporovo itself is larger and more infrastructure-rich, and Mechi Chal is smaller and further away. The daily subscription will cost € 25. This rate is valid until mid-January. And this, mind you, is somewhat cheaper than in Borovets and Bansko.
Following to Pamporovo, you will definitely pass through the village of Chepelare. This is actually a suburb of the resort. Alternatively, you can stop here. The place is very neat and pretty, retaining its flavor. And there are quite a few inexpensive apartments, and the owners often provide home meals as well. It is cozy and peaceful here: cobbled streets, old stone houses and churches, a ski museum and a museum of the Rhodope karst. In short, if you get tired of people, in Chepelare you can relax and plunge into Zen.
In Bulgaria, a very convenient currency is the leva. 2 leva = 1 euro. It is useful to always have some cache in your pocket (sometimes cards are not accepted). Banks are working in quarantine, but stand-alone exchangers are mostly closed. Although you can change cash at the airport and hotels. It is quite possible to pay in euros, if it is not a large supermarket.
In Sofia, Plovdiv and Bansko, a normal double room or an apartment for two or three can be found for € 30 per day, sometimes even including breakfast. In Borovets and Pamporovo prices are slightly higher – € 40. In Chepelare you can save ten euros per day.
A full lunch will fit into € 10 without any problems. A cup of coffee will cost around € 1, beer – a little more expensive, a sandwich or burger – € 1.5. A kilogram of cheese will cost € 2-4, meat products – from € 3-4.
bulgariatravel.org – National Tourism Portal of Bulgaria; opoznai.bg – a site that contains all the sights of the country ; bdz.bg – the website of the Bulgarian Railways (you can choose routes, prices and sometimes even buy tickets) ; avtogari.info – online timetable for intercity bus routes.