Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: Bulgaria

Buzludzha monument, Bulgaria Alex taking a break with the Buzludzha monument in the distance © Alex MacLeish

Alex MacLeish, Key Account Manager at Lonely Planet, recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria.

Tell us more… I was looking for an affordable city break somewhere that neither me nor my boyfriend had visited before and we landed on Sofia. But we ended up exploring quite a lot of the Bulgarian countryside as well, which is beautiful.

In a nutshell… It’s not just beaches and ski resorts, as I discovered. Thanks to its dynamic climate, Bulgaria is incredibly green and lush and the alpine mountains are great for hiking. It also has more than its fair share of Unesco World Heritage sites and a whole host of ancient archaeological discoveries to explore.

Good grub? Put it this way – you don’t go to Bulgaria for the food. There wasn’t a meal that particularly stood out for us, but as Sofia becomes more metropolitan the food scene will no doubt improve. Bulgaria is more famous for its wine, which I would highly recommend! There are plenty of centuries-old wineries and family-run vineyards you can check out if you want to know more.

House-Monument for the Bulgarian Communist Party The House-Monument for the Bulgarian Communist Party © Alex MacLeish

Defining moment? On our third day we hired a car and headed to the town of Kazanlâk, three hours east of Sofia. Lying in the centre of the Rose Valley (famous for its rose growing industry, which produces 85% of the world’s rose oil), Kazanlâk is home to several ancient Thracian burial mounds, some dating from the 4th century BC.

The best part about this area though is the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, an abandoned Soviet assembly hall sitting majestically on top of a mountain, eerily shrouded in mist. Well worth a visit! Throw in the Russian-style Bulgarian Orthodox church down the road at Shipka, and the Freedom Monument marking the site of a battle during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 and I really felt we’d learnt a lot about the history of the country.

The Rila Monastery The beautiful facade of the Rila Monastery © Alex MacLeish

If you see one thing… Probably the tourist attraction most emblematic of Bulgaria is the Rila Monastery. It was founded in the 10th century by St. Ivan of Rila, a hermit who lived in a cave not far from the site of the monastery. The church itself is known for its stunning frescoes, and inside there are several famous icons dating from the 14th century.

Fridge magnet or better? Bulgaria is great for souvenirs! Anything containing rose oil is an obvious choice, but there are also some lovely tablecloths – I came home with an enormous clay casserole dish that cost just £15.

Bizarre encounter? Yes, with the inside of a Bulgarian hospital! I wouldn’t imagine that ending up in A&E is at the top of most people’s holiday must-dos, but I lived to tell the tale and it was an adventure that I won’t forget – especially the lab technician smoking while conducting tests! And no, I wasn’t there because I had drunk too much rakia.

Want more behind-the-scenes adventures? Check out where Senior Editor Claire Naylor has just got back from.