Bulgaria. Not a place that immediately springs to mind when I have planned city breaks and holidays. By a twist of fate, I found myself booked to fly last minute for a business trip. The great thing about this whirlwind trip to Bulgaria’s capital is that it was to do with food and drink, so an itinerary of drinking and eating was firmly on the cards.
So as a black person, you do have some ideas of what the place may be like. People of colour are not known for frequenting the Balkans, either as their pace of origin or a travel destination. Of course, it throws up a concern that they may not be as friendly or may stare at you like you are an alien. Funnily enough, the last time I experienced that kind of negativity was in Alicante, Spain, an area you would think is pretty cosmopolitan and inclusive.
Chocolate is acceptable. Yes, I felt completely at ease around Sofia. At bars, shops, restaurants and hotels, folk were like, whatever. No special treatment for me! But seriously, you hear stories about it being a poor city with low rates of pay, but I did not see how that impacted the people and their behaviour. In fact, some reviews have said the service is rude and poor. We only came across that at PM Club, where their air of elitism was based on a shaky foundation – it wasn’t a great place. Other than that our gastro tour was full of friendly folk in some instances desperately wanting to master the art of speaking English to us.
Culture, let’s start with this. There are the usual museums, landmarks and an abundance of beautiful manicured parks. There is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. If you are not into religion or history, then just revel in the beauty of its gold plated dome, 53 metre high bell tower and Italian marble interiors.
I touched on the parks which during the Summer is a great stop off. Along with squares, there is no shortage of heavily branded outside bars with terrace seating. During September we clocked temperatures of 25+.
I will be popping up some individual bar and restaurant reviews, but in general, you get a lot for your pound. You can eat and drink quite luxuriously and the standard of both are pretty decent. Most cuisines are covered, with an emphasis on no nonsense meat and fish. Interestingly, beef is the least tastiest thing on the menu as its imported. They favour veal and pork, which is A grade.
Hotels are reasonably priced with traditional options such as Grand Hyatt Sofia (more for the oldies), Sense, which is a pretty central great contemporary hotel and then the familiar brands such as Radisson, Best Western, Ramada and Hilton. There is also the former Kempinski Hotel, Marinela which deserves its own blog. That hotel is weird, opulent, OTT, lout, pretentious, flamboyant and how I would imagine a cocaine fuelled night to look. I recommend Sense for its great restaurant, rooftop bar and close proximity to walk about downtown and over by the Embassy quarter for good bars and restaurants.
Bulgaria is definitely worth a city break. Beyond three days, there is not much to offer, but what you can cram into a couple of days is worth it as part of a Balkan tour. Flights are not too expensive from London if you book in advance. British Airways, Bulgaria Air, Easy Jet and Ryanair all fly there non-stop in just over 3 hours.