The reason for our visit to Varna, Bulgaria was to see a dear friend of Blair’s. Nickolaj and Blair worked together for a few years in Grand Cayman as dive instructors. Nick arrived in Cayman every October from Bulgaria where his personal dive business was shut down for the winter. During those years I too had the pleasure of spending time with Nick on a few dives, our most memorable one where I found a seahorse and was able to share my discovery with him. Joyful days 🙂
On February 28, 2015 Nick was involved in a horrific explosion while working on the dive boat, suffering 3rd degree burns to over 70% of his body, nearly costing him his life. Blair jumped in the water and assisted Nick getting out of the water, comforting him as best he could while waiting for the ambulance. After being flown to Florida by air ambulance Nick spent the next 3 months in a medically induced coma due to the severity of his burns, enduring numerous excruciating surgeries. We nearly lost him more than once during the operations to save his life. When out of his coma we flew up to Miami for a tearful reunion, so grateful he survived. Upon saying our farewells to Nick and his lovely wife Kalina at the hospital, we promised to keep in touch and visit Bulgaria one day. We have kept in contact and the day has finally arrived, we are in Bulgaria, with Nick and Kalina 🙂 Happiness overflowed at the airport when we all saw each other once again and we are ecstatic to be reunited in happier circumstances. No doubt Nick & Blair will share a deep lifelong bond created that tragic day 4 years ago.
When planning our visit to Varna we wanted an apartment close to Nick and Kalina, and it turned out that our apartment building is directly across the street from their house, we can’t get much closer than that. This has allowed us to spend most of our time together and enjoy evening meals with Nick, Kalina and their twin daughters. It feels like we have family in Bulgaria 🙂
Our first excursion outside the city of Varna we drove north along the coast. The first stop was at Cape Kaliakra, inhabited since the 4th century by various civilizations, and thought to be one of the most beautiful capes in Europe. It is situated close to the Romanian border and is a favorite tourist stop, it was very busy while we were there. The views are spectacular, looking north and south along the Black Sea coastline of Bulgaria.
From the Cape we continued north to the tiny 2 street village of Sveti Nikola where Nick’s mother lives in a house he and Kalina built. This is also where he operated his dive business from. We took a short drive to the seaside where the Rusalka Holiday Village is located and where Nick taught his training dives in a beautiful secluded cove at Rusalka Beach. It’s a stunning location but the water is still quite cold.
Nick had us taste the Black Sea water to see how much less salty it is than the ocean, at only 18 ppt (parts per thousand) salinity because fresh water is mixed with sea water in the Black Sea, the ocean is 34-36 ppt salinity, so roughly double. After touring the dive location we went back to the house where we had a lovely lunch in the garden with Nick’s mother. Following lunch we made our way slowly back to Varna, stopping in the town of Balchik, a small white village sprawling scenically along terraces descending to the sea. Another very popular tourist destination, especially with Romanians given the number of licence plates we saw from there.
Nick and Kalina planned an overnight road trip for all of us into the Bulgarian mountains. Our first stop along the way was to see the Madara Rider. This is a large early medieval rock relief carved on the Madara Plateau and the only stone relief of its kind in Europe. The monument was carved in the late 7th or early 8th century and the horseman is of actual size. What is amazing is not only the size of the carving but how high it is off the ground, 75 feet, begging the question, how did they do that? Near to the horseman are some caves and a small chapel, evidence that people lived here at some point.
Our destination was the village of Jeravna, a beautiful old mountain village and architectural reserve. Jeravna is a place where time has stopped. Many of the houses are museums and guest houses, the rest have shops, restaurants and cafes on the main floor. The uneven stone laid streets appear to follow no pattern as they wind around the hillside, it is an easy place to get lost.
Once we checked into our guest house we walked around the village before going to one of the restaurants for a traditional Bulgarian dinner, and during dinner we were serenaded by a trio of musicians playing local music. This truly feels like old Bulgaria, far away from the modern tourist destinations.
In the morning we walked down the road for a very traditional breakfast of Mekitsi (fried dough) piled high with powdered sugar, bought from a lady behind a barred window. Inside was a tiny kitchen where she prepares this delicious treat daily, for sale to passers by. I know this was very unhealthy, but it was the tastiest fried dough ever, as we stood on the street eating the bread and drinking a local herb tea.
After finishing our Mekitsi we wandered the narrow village streets and visited the home/museum of one of Bulgaria’s most famous writers and playwrights of the 18th century Yordan Yovkov. The village is so small it does not take very long to have a good look around.
Leaving Jeravna we took the back roads towards Varna stopping in the village of Medven to walk to the Sini Vir waterfall. Sini Vir means Blue Pond and while not a high waterfall, the blue pond is surrounded by high cliffs.
It is a pleasant 15 or 20 minute walk to Sini Vir along the Medven River, beginning at at small hotel and restaurant complex, where we stopped for lunch after visiting the waterfall. We are enjoying trying many typical Bulgarian dishes, aided by invaluable explanation and translation from our friends. I am not sure how we would manage on our own 🙂
On the days when Nick and Kalina were busy or at work we did a little sightseeing of our own. Varna is the third largest city in Bulgaria, the maritime capital of Bulgaria and the most popular seaside resort on the Black Sea. While it may be a large tourist destination in the summer, at this time of year the beaches are uncrowded with the temperatures not yet warm enough to attract the holiday travelers. Running parallel to the waterfront is The Sea Garden, the oldest and largest park in the city. The broad promenade is popular with people enjoying the landscaped gardens and visiting the Dolphinarium, Zoo and Amusement Park all within the grounds.
The Varna Cathedral was built, not long after the Bulgarian Liberation from the Ottomans, by the Russians in the late 19th century. Modeled on the temple at Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, the shining copper domes of this church are an iconic scene of Varna.
For a blast from the not too distant past we visited the Retro Museum, a 4,000 square meter space dedicated to the socialist period of Bulgaria. There is an extensive collection of over 50 cars, motorcycles, toys, cameras, household items and many more artifacts. The exhibits cover the the years 1944-1989 telling how Bulgarians lived under socialist rule. The cars are the highlight though, all of them meticulously restored to near perfect condition. The museum is in a large modern shopping mall, so a little retail therapy and lunch was available after our museum visit. The ticket cost for this museum was 10 Lev each (5.70 USD)
The Varna Archeological Museum’s most celebrated exhibit is the Gold of Varna. In 1972, near the port of Varna, an ancient necropolis, with 280 tombs and 3,010 golden objects weighing 6 kg altogether, was found. According to experts it is the oldest processed gold ever found in Europe, dating from 4600-4200 BC. It is an amazing collection of gold items and was definitely the highlight of our tour through the museum. Entrance tickets to the museum cost 10 Lev each (5.70 USD). Even the New Renaissance building housing the museum is historical, built in 1892-1898 as the first girls high school in Bulgaria. As with many high value museum exhibits, no photographs were allowed to be taken inside the building 🙁
Golden Sands Resort is situated 17 km North of Varna and is the largest resort on the Northern Black Sea coast. The area is famous for the purest quartz sand on the Black Sea coast. There are hundreds of hotels, even more restaurants and the typical over abundance of souvenir stalls lining the boardwalk parallel to the beach. The beaches are crammed with hundreds of chairs under umbrellas. At 30 Lev (17.15 USD) it is not cheap to rent an umbrella with 2 chairs on the beach for a day. During our visit many places were not open yet however we could see the area is ready for the influx of summer tourists. Here is a link to a video showing what the resort looks like in summer.
The Stone Forest, Pobiti Kamani, is a desert-like rock phenomenon just 30 minutes outside Varna. It is considered the only desert in Bulgaria and the only naturally formed desert in Eastern Europe. Surrounded by lush countryside of vineyards and orchards, there are more than 300 stone columns dated from 50 million years ago. The stone forest was the bottom of a shallow sea and when the water withdrew it left behind soft porous limestone, formed into hollow sand filled pillars over the millennia. Exactly what caused these structures has been an ongoing debate for over 200 years.
Our final two days in Varna were spent walking around the city center, along the seaside boardwalk to the north of city center and spending as much time as possible with Nick and Kalina. Thanks to them we have enjoyed a variety of Bulgarian dishes that we may not have otherwise tried, or even known about. As a special treat for breakfast on our last day, Kalina asked her Mother to make Mekitsi for us, served with Bulgarian cheese and homemade jams of raspberry and figs. Not hard to imagine how delicious that was 🙂 After breakfast we took one last walk through town and along the sea, stopping for a drink on the beach enjoying the sunny day.
We spent two weeks in Varna and I am not sure Bulgaria would have been on our travel itinerary had it not been for our desire to see dear friends and visit their home country. It is our first experience with the cyrillic alphabet and if I thought we had translation troubles in the past, this is taking it to a whole new level. There is no hope of translating Bulgarian to English with my phone not having their alphabet available. Fortunately we spent the majority of our time with Nick and Kalina so have not had many difficulties, and when out on our own most people have enough English for us to communicate at a basic level. When the time came to leave Varna we were very sad knowing it may be a while before we see our friends again.
We are grateful to have spent the past two weeks together and look forward to the day we can once again be reunited. For now we are headed to Germany where we are meeting up with more friends, the social life continues…..