My introduction to Bulgaria eight years ago, was a revelation.
Standing on a hill in Romania after spending a month there, I could see the hills of Bulgaria across from me on the other side of the Danube Delta.
At that time, Bulgaria was not in the EU, visas were required for stays longer than one month and the border crossings were slightly intimidating. That of course, has changed a lot and it is now simply a matter of presenting your EU passport.
I had heard Bulgaria described as the hidden jewel of Europe, and indeed it turned out to be just that.
A country that was left high and dry after the collapse of communism, Bulgaria is still a poor country and everywhere you go, the stark concrete tower blocks are an ugly reminder of how Russian influences dominated this corner of Europe until the collapse of communism in 1989.
Approaching any sizable town, these tower blocks form an intimidating ring around the outskirts.
However, Bulgaria is a country of contrasts and on the roads for example, you might see an ancient horse-drawn cart being overtaken by a brand new stainless steel tanker lorry.
And so it is with the towns. Get beyond the hard shell, and the kernel inside is very sweet and satisfying.
You will discover that beyond those blocks, the centre of a Bulgarian town is full of wide boulevards, modern shops, pedestrian walkways and shaded café bars.
The Bulgarian Coast
Heading down to the Bulgarian coast from my border crossing at Silistra, it was apparent that Bulgaria is primarily an arable country.
Vast swathes of lush and obviously fertile cultivated land stretch out across the plains that lie between the mountains that border Bulgaria both east and west.
Stretching from Romania across to Turkey the contrasts are evident even along the coast.
Near to Romania there are some quieter coastal resorts like Balchik and Kavarnah and then towards the central areas, bigger built up tourist orientated resorts like Golden Sands and Sunny Beach.
If you want to capture the flavour of an authentic Bulgarian coastal resort, you need to get through to the other side of Bourgas and explore the idyllic sandy beaches that stretch across towards Turkey.
Look out for places like Sozopol and Kitten and the wilder unspoiled sandy beaches around Vavara.
The Bulgarian Mountains
Bulgaria is a very mountainous country and an up and coming skiing, hiking and adventure sports destination.
Every sort of terrain is available from the rolling pine-clad Rhodoppes through to the lakes and high mountains of the Rila range.
Whether it is adventure sport you are after or perhaps you are a seeker of quiet contemplation, the mountain resorts, traditional mountain villages, lakes, rivers and monasteries plus the majestic terrain, will provide something to suit you.
Whilst in the mountains, I headed to the spectacular Rila Monastery which is the largest and best known Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria.
There is a campsite about a mile up the road which makes a great base for exploring the stunning mountain scenery like the Seven Lakes of Rila.
Backpacking in Bulgaria
You will find Bulgaria very easy on the wallet. Food, drink and accommodation is often less than half the cost in Western Europe.
You can of course, head to the major resorts and pay western prices if you so wish, but there are many more interesting places to visit that won’t charge inflated prices.
Getting around in Bulgaria is easy with a good national coach service that will cost you less than 20 pounds ($32) to get from one end of Bulgaria to the other.
Trains are regular and even cheaper, but very slow because they visit all the little villages en-route (not always a bad thing!).
Some of the coastal areas and mountains have camping facilities, where you can rent a small wooden bungalow that is little more than a hut with basic facilities, for as little as 10 pounds ($16) a night.
You can expect sunshine from April through to October with the hottest months being July and August when temperatures can rise above 40 degrees Celsius. Contrast that with the winter when in January and February they often fall below minus 10 and you have a country of extremes.
Bulgarian people are warm, friendly and welcoming, and English is spoken by many of the younger generation.
Bulgaria is a great place to visit and definitely a rewarding destination for the backpacker. It is much more than a destination that you merely pass through and deserves a decent slice of any travelling schedule.
When it comes time to move on, Bulgaria has borders with Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia and Romania, which makes for a great choice of onward travel.
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