Varna: Bulgarian beaches offer sun, savings
Stars and Stripes August 31, 2006
The thing about spending two days somewhere new is you can find out whether you ever want to return or recommend it to others.
That was my mission recently in Varna, Bulgaria, the former communist playground that was actually renamed “Stalin” for a few years.
So what does one do in just two days? Easy. Go see the two Varnas.
One Varna is the gritty and tantalizing city, a Black Sea port of 350,000 residents with a beachfront that swarms with sun-darkened locals.
The other Varna is the one advertised at the travel agencies: “One week, all-inclusive, 389 euros (insert fine print here).” It is the Varna of big hotels and rows of beach umbrellas, populated by tanning Europeans on cheap vacations.
Let me tell you, there’s something to be said for cheap vacations.
Varna is within easy reach (by plane) of Americans stationed in Europe, and will be (by car) for those who deploy to Bulgaria and Romania, which is scheduled to start next year.
Therefore, Varna is an easy destination to recommend, and not just because it’s cheap.
“You get a lot more for your euro in Bulgaria than in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy,” said Alexandra Steinmann, director of the L’Tur travel agency in Stuttgart, Germany. “The young people like to go there. Usually, young people don’t have much money, but they can go there and party like crazy.”
For Yanks being squeezed by the euro or British pound, Bulgaria is a place where a dollar is still worth a dollar. And then some.
One U.S. dollar can buy about 1.50 Bulgarian lev. In downtown Varna, one can scarf a chicken döner for the equivalent of $1.40, buy sunglasses for $6, and park overnight next to the beach for $7. Rooms are cheap, too.
But enough bean-counting. On to the two Varnas.
Varna as resortThere are two resort areas around Varna: the hard-partying Golden Sands to the north, and less-amped Sunny Beach down south. Both have dozens of hotels on or near the beach, from five-star palaces to one-star shoeboxes.
I decided to spend one of my two days at Golden Sands, which was a good choice.
Beautiful women? Put it this way: A former male co-worker in Germany once urged me to “Go East, young man!” Apparently, it wasn’t to sample the aforementioned chicken döner.
And yes, ladies, there are men, too, oiled-up and playing volleyball. Bodybuilders, in fact. Even their muscles had muscles. And talk about tight Speedos! They were, as comedian Robin Williams once put it, “Men wearing pants so tight that you can tell what religion they are.”
Advice for both genders: Take sunglasses.
Golden Sands is a city in itself. In addition to the hotels, there are dozens of places to eat, gamble and dance. Tattoos and piercings? No problem. One club had a big sign that read: “Striptease Bar (Normal Prices).”
As opposed to the tourist prices, I supposed.
There are literally hundreds of small shops at Golden Sands, with employees ready to braid your hair, paint your picture, sell you beads or even the latest JLo jeans.
The “season” starts in May and ends in September.
Remember this about Golden Sands: It ain’t Monaco — more like Myrtle Beach. Except the people talk funny. And it’s top- optional.
Another thing to remember is that the Black Sea isn’t blue like the Mediterranean; it’s dark green. According to Wikipedia, there are a few theories on how the name came about. One is that compass directions in olden times used to be assigned colors, including black for north and red for south. For folks passing through, say, ancient Turkey or Palestine, the Black Sea was to the north and the Red Sea to the south.
Another theory is that it’s called the Black Sea, well, because it’s dark.
Which brings us to Varna, both the city and its beach.
Non-touristy VarnaThe city has a bustling pedestrian shopping and nightlife area that teems on a warm summer nights. As in many places, tourists get spotted in a minute. Men slither up and ask if you wish to exchange euros for lev. One can only assume there’s a fee involved, like bookies skimming a vig.
Hey, everyone is entitled to make a buck, but foreigners probably would be wise to score their levs from a bank, or a money exchange office at an airport.
Some of the downtown sidewalks are a little crooked, and except for a few parking lots, parking is pretty much a free-for- all. There are lots of stores and people, a cool fountain, open market and the imposing Assumption of Our Lady Cathedral.
The tourist information guide listed too many sights to see in such a short time; one could easily spend several days soaking in the local Varna culture.
Then there’s the beach.
A city beach is different from a resort beach. Think Asbury Park, N.J. There’s a lived-in quality.
The locals can be a little unwashed, and not as tanned and polished as the resort crowd. There are tourists, too, but they seem happy to blend in with the urban beach scene.
The Varna city beach has a short sprawl of nightclubs and restaurants, and prices are reasonable.
I went for a seafood restaurant, with a choice of dining in the open air or under a roof. A young man, who was almost too happy, cheerily brought a menu. The nearby waves splashed onto the sand.
The sumptuous meal of fish soup, salad, sushi, salmon, broccoli and beverages cost $27, plus a tip for the nice waiter.
At 11 p.m. some people were walking away from the beach, patting their stomachs after a full meal and a full day. They passed young people who were heading toward the beach, freshly changed into their disco clothes for a night of clubbing.
Money mattersBefore the days of the euro, which in 2002 became the currency for much of Europe, the U.S. dollar had a lot more purchasing power throughout Europe.
The dollar and the euro still have some clout in places like Bulgaria, which has cheaper seaside destinations than Italy, Greece or Spain.
But after the Soviet bloc dissolved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bulgaria’s resort cities were discovered by visitors from the west. Formerly dirt cheap, the cost has gone up.
“It was really cheap five or six years ago, less than half the price,” said Steinmann, the Stuttgart-based travel agent. “After a few years, everybody wanted to go there and the prices rose.”
Bulgarian vacations are still 30 percent to 50 percent cheaper than many others in Europe. Along the Black Sea, the shoulder months are usually pleasant weather-wise and good for touring. Winters in Varna can be cold, but rarely bitterly cold.
And while the Black Sea coast doesn’t have the romantic or aesthetic qualities of the Mediterranean, it’s a fine place to lie in the sun, swim in the sea, see new things and forget about life for a while.
Know and Go
Travel agencies throughout Europe offer Varna and the rest of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast as one of Europe’s cheaper resort destinations.
To learn more about Varna and the rest of Bulgaria, see the Web site www.travel-bulgaria.com. For details on accommodations, attractions and businesses in the Golden Sands resort area, go to www.goldensands.bg.
For practical travel advice, try the U.S. embassy Web site for Bulgaria at http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov. Click on “U.S. Citizen Services,” then “Important Department of State Announcements and Travel Warnings” for tips on avoiding pickpockets and other criminals and travel pitfalls.
Among the sightseeing highlights in and around Varna: The Sea Garden, a long park that provides a buffer between the sea and the city; the National Military History museum, one of at least seven museums in the downtown; and numerous art galleries.
— Charlie Coon