I planned our Bulgarian Road Trip for my travel buddy and I to the “T”, 7 nights, 6 hotels, touring the country and incorporating the highlights that Bulgaria has to offer. Even a few Bulgarians joked with us that we never needed to return to their land for we had surely seen the best! 14 days would be preferable to allow yourself more time in each location, including a few days in Sofia, which we decided to forgo. However, if you have 1 week as we did, then this is what I recommend to see as much as possible:
Day 1 – Land in Sofia and drive 3 hours to Belogradchik…
We landed in the middle of the afternoon, so by the time we collected our hire car and drove to Belogradchik it was time to watch the sunset and tuck into some tasty dinner at Pri Ivan, which I would highly recommend.
I suggest staying at the comfortable Castle Cottage Guest House, which is located just below the entrance to the fortress.
You can read more about Belogradchik in my previous blog here.
Day 2 – Explore Belogradchik Fortress and then drive to Veliko Tarnovo, stopping off at Devetashka Caves and Krushuna Waterfalls…
Belogradchik was the highlight of Bulgaria for me. A small town situated in the north west of the country close to the Serbian border. Belogradchik is famous for the medieval Fortress Kaleto, which sits in front of the iconic, red rock formations, which jut high up into the sky. The view from the top is spectacular showing the countries vast landscape. Entrance to the fortress is a bargain at only 6 Lev, the equivalent of about £3.00!
From here we drove east and stopped of at Devetashka Caves. Entrance here is 3 Lev and I would recommend spending about 30 minutes here. Devetashka is rather different to your normal cold, dark cave and there is no need to wrap up warm! The unique cave consists of an enormous chamber with large openings in the cave ceiling allowing the sunlight to stream in, the ground of the cave is lush with vegetation and has a stream running through it. Around June the cave is closed to visitors as it is a breeding ground for frogs, snakes and bats. There are a huge number of bats living here, though sadly I didn’t see any but I could hear them!
About 10 minutes from Devetashka is Krushuna Waterfalls. The entrance fee here is again only 3 Lev and it is great place to explore and have a stretch of the legs. The waterfalls themselves are not particularly impressive, at least not if you compare them to the spectacular Iguazu Falls in southern Brazil! Never the less, the spot as a whole is very beautiful and for an hour or so it’s lovely to be immersed in nature.
We arrived in Veliko Tarnovo ready to check in to our hotel and go in search for a much needed dinner! We stayed at Priyateli Guest House, a very simple 2 star accommodation, which was clean, comfortable and laid on a wonderful breakfast spread. The guest house is also located very close to the main, modern high street.
Day 3 – Explore Veliko Tarnovo and drive to Nesebar on the coast stopping off at Pobiti Kamani on the way…
Veliko Tarnovo is a fascinating place with a splendid mix of old and new thanks to the thriving University, which has brought fresh and vibrant life to one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns. By getting merrily lost when walking through Park “Sveta Gora”, thinking we were near the entrance to the Tsarevets Fortress we managed to explore the really, really old part of Veliko, which felt like we’d taken a huge step back in time. Once we had established where we actually were, we navigated our way to Tsarevets Fortress, the centre piece of Veliko. Entrance is 6 Lev to this site and you’ll want a good hour to explore the grounds.
An easy 2 hour drive from Veliko we arrived at our chosen stop off; Pobiti Kamani, AKA The Stone Desert, which was one of my favourite places in Bulgaria. At a first glance you could be mistaken for thinking that you were standing in the middle of some ancient ruins, however this site is completely natural and these strange pillars are hollow rock formations of various heights situated in sand dunes. This is the only registered desert in Bulgaria. Entrance here is 3 Lev and we spent over an hour wandering around and exploring the area, marvelling at the fascinating natural structures, which geologists are still trying to fathom exactly how and when these formations came to be.
We arrived in Nesebar, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in time to watch a very beautiful sunset from our hotel balcony. We stayed in the old town at Hotel Stankoff, a lovely little hotel with a large separate sitting room / kitchen area.
Day 4 – Explore Nesebar and head to Sozopol for an afternoon of relaxation…
I would have loved to have spent more time in Nesebar exploring every cobbled street, appreciating the ancient churches and Thracian and Byzantine ruins. We had 3 hours to explore and I think we made a good job of it (though I say it myself)! Nesebar is obviously a major tourist hub and everyone flocks here thanks to its UNESCO title and charming ancient appeal, which is a far cry from its close neighbour the hectic, rather seedy destination of Sunny Beach. We were here in September so I can only imagine how uncomfortably packed it would be in the height of the Summer.
Leaving here and following the coast south for a little over an hour we arrived at our next stop, Villa Bizantium, which is about 5 minutes away from the coastal town of Sozopol. Villa Bizantium is a fairly luxurious place to stay for a very reasonable price. We had a huge two bedroom apartment fully kitted out to live in with a sea view and the breakfast spread provided would rival any 5 star joint. My afternoon of relaxation was split between the beach and the pool and then back again to the beach to watch a rather perfect sunset. No matter where I am in the world, I will always seek out and appreciate a magical sunset. For dinner we drove into Sozopol, and from the brief time spent here, I know I would have loved to have come back in daylight hours to explore more thoroughly, by ambling along the cobbled streets.
Day 5 – Leave the coast and drive to the Ancient site of Perperikon, stopping at the Stone Mushrooms and then staying the night at the River Villas….
Back on the road and recharged after an afternoon of relaxing, this day was a firm favourite of the road trip for me. Nearing Perperikon we drove through some very rural areas and saw the basic way of life, passing shepherds with their herds and driving through extremely rustic villages showing subsistence farming. Just before Perperikon we came across the rock phenomenon Stone Mushrooms that I had read about. They are literally on the side of the road, and at the moment are still free to the public to explore. You only need around 10 minutes here to look at these fascinating, natural structures.
The ancient archaeological Thracian city of Perperikon is located in the Eastern Rhodopes. You will be charged 1 Lev to park your car and 6 Lev for entry. Allow yourself at least 2 hours to explore this captivating site and make sure you have water with you as there is quite a bit of walking to do. When we visited it was over 30 degrees, and with no shelter the heat was punishing. The site is in ruins and only a very small area is being restored at present. I’m glad I saw it as it is today rather than 10 years from now. The vista the site has to offer really is something else, so be sure to allow yourself time just to stop and stare.
Once we’d finished being adventurers for the day we drove the short distance to our next accommodation for the night, the Villas “Perpereshka River”, a great, little, cheap find in a very rural setting where you get a tasty Bulgarian dish for dinner for about £6.00!
Day 6 – Continue driving west to the Rila Monastery…
This was a long drive to the Rila Monastery from the rural area and village of Stremtsi and I would recommend spending an hour or so in Plovdiv to explore the old town to break up the drive. We actually took the longer more scenic route to see more of the countryside but this did include some fairly windy mountain roads, which really slowed the journey up.
Once you turn off route 1 on to the 107 you have approximately 40 minutes, mostly on mountain roads until you reach the Rila Monastery. We stayed at the Gorski Kut Hotel and restaurant, which is only 7 minutes away from the Monastery.
The Monastery closes to the public at 16:30 so make sure you are inside the gates at least an hour before, to give yourself time to explore the impressive grounds. The men guarding the gates are strict on covering up any exposed shoulders and legs, particularly for females! Men seemed to be allowed in wearing shorts where as women were not! Entrance to the Monastery is free but there appeared to be a charge to visiting certain rooms. The Rila Monastery is extremely beautiful and is in a very idyllic, peaceful setting. The highlight is the Church of the Nativity, which sits in the middle of the grounds donned in colourful, stunning murals. Allow yourself time to sit in a corner and soak it all up!
Day 7 – Explore the Rila National Park and the iconic Seven Lakes…
To get the ski lift, which takes you 2140m up into the Rila National Park you have to drive to the other side of the mountains, something which I managed to miss in my planning!! Taking this into account I would recommend staying somewhere else on night 7 as opposed to driving back to the hotel near the Rila Monastery, which is what we did!
For 18 Lev (£9.00) return you can take the slow moving ski lift into the Rila Mountains. 30 minutes later you will reach the top. You need to allow yourself 4 -5 hours here if you are going to hike all the way to the summit to see the Seven Lakes and back again. I also urge you to be prepared for the unpredictable. During our week in Bulgaria we had basked in 30 degrees, but on this day the temperatures plummeted to freezing. We were semi prepared for the elements with sensible walking shoes, base layers and a coat but when the temperatures fell and the sleet came in sideways, which later turned to snow, my ice cold hands and ears would have been grateful for gloves and a furry hat!
When I did catch a glimpse of the scenery around me through the fog and low hanging cloud it really was stunning and I believe no trip to Bulgaria would be complete without coming here. However if you are a complete novice to mountains and hiking, I really would be careful about how far you go unaccompanied, the terrain becomes quite challenging the higher up you go and the footing you walk on is loose.
Day 8 – Home time!
We stayed a second night at our hotel by the Rila Monastery, so we needed to leave fairly early for our midday flight. The drive is approximately 2 hours from our hotel to the airport, which is just north of Sofia.