Planning the summer holidays, we came up with the dilemma: Europe? Yes! But where? Our kid was 3 years old and we couldn’t choose between the mountain or the seaside. As we could not agree on this, we decided on combining both on a single trip, and end up selecting (for no real reason) Bulgaria. And you know? We loved it: a friendly country with hospitable people, well-organized, rich in history and culture. Outside the cities, English is not widely spoken, but it was never a problem.
Sofia: the capital of Bulgaria
Our first stop was in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, because our flight landed there. We spent one day in the city when we arrived and one at the end before leaving. It’s not a breathtaking capital, but there are enough attractions to keep one busy for a couple of days. If we could turn time back, we would definitely add an extra day or two and take a side trip to Plovdiv and see its famous Roman amphitheater.
But what did our son Stefano like most in Sofia? First of all the Aleksandr Nevskij cathedral with its huge shining golden dome.
Other places he enjoyed are: the little rotunda church Sveti Georgi (St. George) surrounded by the Presidency, which looks as if it had been placed there by mistake, in a mysterious way. And then the ruins of the 1500’s Turkish Barracks (now a museum) and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier with its eternal flame… nothing special, actually, but to a 3-year-old kid the idea of a flame that burns forever is certainly appealing. We had to walk back there several times, to make sure the flame was still alight and we had not lied to him.
The sea at Nessebar (Black Sea)
From Sofia we took a local flight to Burgas and then continued by taxi to Nessebar. It’s on the Black Sea, so don’t expect Caribbean beaches; it’s not the Med either. But the sea is clean, the water shallow and transparent. The nearby beaches in Sunny Beach (the Ibiza of the East) are wide and surrounded by spectacular dunes.
The old town of Nessebar, on the UNESCO list, is a true gem: a maze of cobbled alleys are closed to traffic. There are 40 amazing Byzantine churches (Stefano had fun playing with some kids he met, especially on the columns of the ruins of the Santa Sofia church), the old town walls, the windmill at the entrance of the peninsula and the ethnographic museum, where we enjoyed the display of local traditional costumes.
Rila Monastery, the best monastery in Bulgaria
The monastery lies two hours by car from Sofia, heading towards Bansko, except for a detour about 20 kilometres long. You really can’t miss it! It’s the best Bulgaria has to offer in terms of religious Orthodox architecture, and it’s on the UNESCO list as well. Basically, this is really the best that Bulgaria has to offer
We had thought we’d stop 30 minutes at the most, so that our son Stefano wouldn’t get too bored but well, it did not go that way.
As soon as we entered the main gate, we found ourselves in front of a large complex of churches, cells and towers, are beautifully decorated and Stefano fell in love with the frescos on the outer walls of the main church. Low on the walls, at kids’ height, one can admire zillions and colourful angels and demons. he was mesmerized and did not want to leave. When we left, he was in tears… he would have liked to stay much longer.
The mountain resort of Bansko
Bansko is a little mountain town a few hours from Sofia, in the Pirin Mountains National Park. Bansko is Bulgaria’s best-developed winter-sports resort, and the government has invested millions in it; in summer it’s very much of a sleepy quiet town.
Our stay was very relaxing and we enjoyed the typical local architecture. If you have your own car (otherwise you need to take part in an organized day tour) I recommend that you spend half a day in Banya, a village known for its 27 hot mineral springs.
Another option is to take your kids to the Dancing Bears Rehabilitation Park in Belitsa, a unique place in Bulgaria. This is the place where dancing bears are taken care of and are helped to turn back to their normal behavior in nature. I case you did not know, in order to make the bears dance, they are trained to do so as young cubs: these bears are set on hot metal plates so that they jump in order not to burn their paws. The bears, therefore, are not dancing but (very sadly) jumping up and down from pain.