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4-1 Visit to Varna


This article is from the Bulgaria FAQ, by Dragomir R. Radev radev@tune.cs.columbia.edu with numerous contributions by others.

4-1 Visit to Varna

(by Austin Kelly)
Some advice from an American who lived in Bulgaria in 1992-1993 (by
Austin Kelly)

The following is based on 9 months of teaching at the Technical and
Economics Universities of Varna, and a limited amount of traveling
throughout Bulgaria in the 1992-93 academic year. While I can relate
my experiences, bear in mind that there is an enormous amount of
diversity in Bulgaria - take all advice with big grains of salt.

First piece of advice - go there, and travel around. The Black Sea
Coast is beautiful year round, and has excellent swimming from July
through September (June or October if you are really lucky). The
mountains are beautiful for hiking, hunting, or skiing in the Winter.
And the art and architecture of the monasteries is not to be missed.

Most of the large state-owned hotels charge rip-off prices ($100-$200) to
foreigners. In Sofia the Sheraton, the New Otani, and to a lesser
extent, the Grand Hotel and Park Hotel Moskva provide high standards
at high prices. The other big hotels provide the high prices, but don't
bother with the service. Private hotels provide a much better
correlation between price and service. In Turnovo the Hotel Veliko
Turnovo charges stiff prices ($80 dbl) but gives good service in return, as
does the Grand Hotel Varna in Sveti Konstantin. The other big hotels
in Sveti Konstantin and Golden Sands are badly overpriced. There are
alternatives to consider. In Sofia there is a very small hotel between
the airport and downtown attached to the Archeological Institute, called
the Hotel Kedar (Cedar, as in Cedars of Lebanon). The rooms are small
but clean, the prices are cheap, the staff speaks French or German,
and its on a main tram line. Another alternative are private accomodation
bureaus. BG Tours in Varna booked me into a wonderful room near Sveti
Konstantin for $8.00 US a night - it was a short walk downhill (a LONGER
walk back uphill) to the beaches, and the balcony looked out on the
Black Sea. The owners spoke no foreign language that I recognized but
we got along great. If you're really on the cheap universities will rent
out any available dorm rooms at around $2 or $3 a night - the trick is
connecting with the right person. If you speak Bulgarian or Russian ask
a cab driver, etc. the way to the nearest obshezhitie (dormitory) and
negotiate with the front desk. If not, try any coffee shop at the
university for an English speaker and start asking around.

Car rentals are not cheap ($30-$40 a day for a Lada with a manual) but
are plentiful. They will advise you to remove your windshield wipers
when parked, leave no valuables or packages in the car, and always set
the alarm. TAKE THEIR ADVICE. Long-distance buses are fast, comfortable
and inexpensive. In Sofia long-distance buses congregate around the
Novotel Europa, in Varna they are either at the Cherno More Hotel or near
the Cathedral. Trains are slow but generally not too bad (if you ignore
the odor in the restrooms). You can probably get around pretty well without
a car.

Balkan flights between Varna and Sofia are frequent, several a day,
more or less on time, and cost $65.00 one-way last time I checked.
Balkan's Sofia JFK flights are extremely comfortable. Lufthansa,
Swiss Air, Air France, CSA (Czech Slovak), Malev (Hungarian), LOT
(Polish) all fly to Sofia. Lufthansa and Balkan treated me fairly
well in Sofia, the staff at Air France were obnoxious, and CSA put
me through hell like you wouldn't believe. Malev offers discounts
to students under 26 for flights throughout E. Europe. In general,
flights within E. Europe are much cheaper than to W. Europe. Balkan
charged about $200 less r/t Sofia Bratislava than Sofia Vienna, for

In general, supplies for tourists are plentiful. If you have a
favorite American brand of deodorant or shampoo, bring it. Most of
the imports are Turkish, Italian, or German. There are plenty of
places selling Kodak and Fuji film, Sony cassettes, etc. Outside of
the expensive parts of Sofia fluffy white toilet paper is rare - always
keep some with you.

Money changing places are ubiquitous - most charge no commission for
cash and deal in cash only. Banks charge commissions - some take
traveler's checks - a few do credit card cash advances. The commission
for these services can be stiff (5%- 8% for traveler's checks). Shop
around a little for rates and commissions - there's not a lot of variability
but a few places will try to rip you off. NEVER deal with the "change
money?" boys, unless you want a handful of Yugoslav dinars, the most
worthless currency on earth.

Maps in German or English can be found in the touristy areas. The
guide to E. Europe published in Berkeley has a pretty good section
on Bulgaria. Many people in Sofia and on the Black Sea speak a little
English or German - a few know French or Italian. If you know Russian
you're all set. Try to at least learn the Cyrillic alphabet - it won't
take long and it will make reading train and bus schedules a hell of a lot

Crime against persons is rare by the standard of someone living in
Washington D.C. (me). I walked around late at night in Varna for 9
months and never felt threatened. The only "crime hotspot" that I know
of is near the Hotel Pliska in Sofia. Don't be stupid - don't flash
money or jewelry around, etc., and you should be OK. Property crime is
more common, and thefts of or from autos seems to be a Bulgarian specialty.

VOA and BBC are on FM in Sofia - VOA is on 89.3 FM in Varna, at least for a
few hours a day. A small pocket short-wave radio is a good idea, but
FM will get you the news in English in at least a few places. The
International Herald Tribune is 1 day behind in Sofia, 2 in Varna. There
are weekly business newspapers in English published in Sofia.

The scarcity of goods in Bulgaria is pretty much over (although a
scarcity of money remains!). The most appreciated gifts that I found
were books in English (literature, travel, culture, and, especially,
business), booze with official US or British tax stamps attached (so
the recipient knew it wasn't adulterated swill), and cassettes or
CD's of "uncommon" music, ie Blues or Bluegrass anthologies, rare
Rock cuts, etc. Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, R.E.M. and Jesus and
Mary Chain are available for $1.50 on cassette all over Bulgaria.

In downtown Sofia, Veliko Turnovo, Nessebur, or Golden Sands people
are pretty much jaded towards visiting foreigners. Many are quite
friendly, a few are rude or hostile, and a lot are indifferent. If
you go anywhere smaller, especially the places that Bulgarians think
tourists should see, like the ruins at Pliska, the Madara horseman, or
hiking the Rodope mountains, or if you ride the 2nd class train
compartment to Varna you'll find a lot of people who are still fascinated
that an American is kicking around in their country. They'll do all
they can to help. Its worth the trip.

By the way, to continue with a couple of threads that I read

In June in Varna matchbooks were being used by shops in place of
50 stotinki pieces - a tram ride in Sofia was 2 lv, and jeans
were around 500 Lev.

Bulgarian folk music is alive and well. The Restaurant Liverpool
on Ul. Dubrovnik in Varna has a live band on Fri. and Sat.,
the private radio station I worked for in Varna (Kannal Komm)
played Bulgarian folk on week-ends and holidays, and in May
and June every restaurant in Varna was booked on Saturday and
Sunday afternoons for weddings, and every wedding had a band
playing folk music. Country-western and Speed Metal haven't
completely displaced Bulgarian folk.


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