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The sea is greener on the other side

Jack Reacher, star of the Lee Child novels, has rules for living, like if in doubt, turn left and when in doubt, drink coffee. Gibbs, from the TV series, NCIS, has a list of rules, too, rules by which he lives his life. I like No. 8 – never take anything for granted. I have rules, too. One of them is to go local when on holiday and if possible, avoid the tourists (having made my peace with the fact that I am one of them, too).

In an effort to see a little more of Bulgaria than the beach at Bourgas, and having had such a lovely time up north in Nessebar, we took a bus in the opposite direction, and went south to Sozopol. Another 40-minute bus ride for the even cheaper price of 4.50 BGN (€2.50). A 15-minute taxi to the bus station set us back 4 BGN (€2) – with tip. And the gas prices are the same as Ireland and Hungary. What gives?

IMG_0275 (800x600)IMG_0268 (800x600)Sozopol is built on an early Bronze Age settlement and the current town dates back to the 7th century. The stone/timber houses are typical of the Black Sea region and streets of them divided as they are by strips of cobblestone and paving give it a little other worldly feel. I know I’ve used that term before, when talking about Bulgaria, but it just about sums it up. There’s a life-size version of an Alamana, a wooden fishing boat that was used for fishing off the Black Sea Coast from the 18th to 20th centuries. Usually 12 m long by 2 m wide, it was home to a Captain, a Coxswain and eight rowers. A beautiful piece of work. Some workplace.

 

IMG_0271 (800x600)IMG_0277 (800x600)Unlike Nessebar, the churches here are fully functioning Orthodox and equally stunning. I’ve been to a few Orthodox services and the lack of an obvious pattern upsets my Catholic soul. I’m so used to sitting, kneeling and standing pretty much on command that the random walking around and queuing and going in and out is confusing. But I’m quite partial to the icons and the candles and when I add the candles to my wishes, it doesn’t get much better.

IMG_0280 (600x800)There are all sorts of shops and stalls and stands most of which are selling upmarket tat and some real stuff, too, a lot of which is made in Bulgaria. Always a plus in my book.  The streets wander around the port, opening out onto large squares – ideal open air concert venues. In August there’s jazz and in September there’s the Apollonia art and film festival and all summer there is plenty going on down by the beach – one of two main beaches in town. There’s one on the way in, a smaller one by the marina which doesn’t rate as a beach, beach IMG_0301 (800x600)apparently, and then the ‘pleasure’ beach, with its row boats, its paddle boats, its parasailing. And in August, an additional feature – the carpet of green algae that floats in on the tide. It looks a little suspicious but the locals didn’t seem in any way put
out by it and once you get IMG_0291 (800x600)used to the feel – a little like embroidery thread – it’s grand.

As beaches go, it was hot. Very hot. Very, very hot. And the most expensive so far in terms of umbrella and bed rental, but it did comes with mattresses, which was just as well as three days of lounging around on plastic beds were taking their toll. Still though, a fiver a day for the pleasure of lolling around on pleasure beach, with the occasional dip in the Black Sea, is cheap at twice the price. And Bulgarian gin ain’t bad either.

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Movin’ on up

It’s official. I now have irrefutable proof that I’m in danger of becoming a crotchety old cow. Two days on a relatively crowded beach in Bourgas and I’m happy as a clam. Even though I’m not one for crowds, I don’t understand a thing anyone else is saying so I’m in heaven. I might as well be on my own. Today, on a smaller beach with only a handful of people in Nessebar and I’m fit to kill. Why? Of that handful, two fingers spoke English – and spoke it loudly.

We’d decided to explore. To move on up the coast. So we took the first bus that came along and went to Nessebar. The old town is a Unesco World Heritage site and came recommended. The bus (€3) took about 40 minutes to get from our hotel to the town and it was quite the trip. We passed through the lakes of Bourgas, through a large expanse of bog, and turned into the town of Pomorie. It was like driving through a desert and ending up in the Bulgarian equivalent of Las Vegas – without the casinos, but with all the fancy hotels. Just imagine roadside farms and allotments, rolling hills and bogs, and then turning a corner and hey – we’re in Southfork. Dilapidated homes, remnants of times past, crouched in the shadows of new age monstrosities, knowing that their time was limited. They, too, will succumb to the whims of the developers and morph into another resort block.

I’ve heard tell that lots of Irish lost money in Bulgaria. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, when the country was buying up acres of apartments in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria was a place of choice. I’m not sure if anyone in full possession of their marbles would believe that a flat for €5000 was something that could happen in the 21st century. But hey – someone did.

Perhaps they bought in Ravda, with its Hawaii Cocktail Bar and its Café Europe and its myriad bars selling Sommersby cider. Or in Aheloi, home to the famous Battle of Achelous in 917. For me the most remarkable thing about both these towns was the number of middle-aged men wandering around in speedos at 10.30 am – and not a grain of sand in sight.

As we drove towards Nessebar, I found a whole new appreciation for Bourgas and the complete lack of tourists there. It is still local. These towns are morphing into something they know they never wanted to be. Stall after souvenir stall on one side of the road. Market gardens and allotments on the other. Two sides of the same town. Shells of hotels on the up. Foundations laid and walls built for new apartment blocks. Houses sitting on valuable land wondering how long they’d last. And all because someone, somewhere, wants a cheap two weeks in the sun. Makes ya wonder about responsible tourism.

IMG_0255IMG_0195And then there’s Nessebar. And there’s the Old Town, with its seven churches that date back as far as the 2nd century – or bits of them at least. They’re stunning. Truly stunning. I’m averse to paying into churches, but I made an exception for two. St John the Baptist – because it was the first one I came across – and I wanted the three wishes you get when you visit a church for the first time.  The faded paintings on the walls were quite something. And the church itself, in all its simplicity, reminded me of how places of sanctuary should be.

IMG_0220IMG_0240IMG_0228And then there was St Stefano’s. At twice the entrance fee, it definitely had more to offer in terms of wow. And it, too, came with three wishes. And some stunning murals. The town’s elders have made the most of what was left behind back in the day. Those churches in ruins now provide natural stages for opera and theatre. [Interesting(?) stats: there are 3000 churches in the country, 120 monasteries, 1500 mosques. 80% of the population are Eastern Orthodox, 12% Islam, 0.5% Roman Catholic and 0.8% Protestant.) The medieval walls and the fortress and the churches that are still standing provide a stylish backdrop to the rather upmarket tourist tat that’s only to be expected. And as I’m still boycotting anything made in China that isn’t computer related, I was thrilled skinny to find a boutique (Indigo) selling clothes that are ‘a perfect complement to every woman’s figure’ and designed and made in Bulgaria. I haven’t been that pleased to go shopping since I found  that Greek label JOINclothes on the island of Aegina. And yes, I bought. The guide-book had warned that everything and anything sold within the walls of Nessebar’s Old Town was at least twice the price it would be outside. And yes, the beach umbrella and the beds were more expensive (not quite twice as much but nearly) but other than that, we didn’t notice any major difference.

IMG_0247IMG_0188IMG_0187 (800x600)So we wandered around. Poked around. And generally had a good nose. I did my limited holiday shop – the fridge magnet and the Christmas tree ornament – and added a bottle of rose-water. And then we hit the beach. And watched the boats go by. And marvelled at how the other half live. And then tried to decide where to eat and decided that the effort was too much. And isn’t that what holidays are for? Doing what you want, when you want… I’m getting rather attached to Bulgaria. And can see myself coming back.

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