It was a beautiful morning in the quaint village called Neofit Rilski near Varna in Bulgaria. The lavender fields around the charming cottage, built of wood and stone had just started to bloom. The silence was soothing as we walked around the village which seemed straight out of the medieval era. The birds sang their morning ditties and the breeze rustled up the leaves. There is always something special about waking up in a simple, rustic, and verdant countryside and imbibing the atmosphere. Neofit Rilski is home to barely 900 people and most of them were farmers. But I could barely see anyone around. Life was stirring in this idyllic village which had no restaurants or cafes and had just a few grocery stores around. An Orthodox Church along with a community centre and a library stood here besides a post office. Everything was wrapped in stony silence. It was the first day of our Bulgaria itinerary, and I could not have asked for a better introduction to the Balkans. We were however all set to explore Varna and explore destinations in the vicinity and experience things to do in Varna.
Sharath and I were both guests of the Historical Park of Bulgaria , located in Neofit Rilski and everything, including our meals, were brought in from the Historical Park, who prided themselves on authentic vegetarian fare that was related to Bulgarian history. While we waited for our breakfast, I lost myself in the facade of the cottage which had been recreated to resemble a traditional Bulgarian medieval home. Neofit Rilski was an ideal location for travellers like us who wanted to visit the Historical Park and also explore Varna, which was just 40 km away. In fact our hosts, Ivan and Raliza worked at the Historical Park but lived in the town and we were waiting for them to whisk us away to explore some of the things to do in Varna .
Located on the northern coast of the Bulgarian Riviera, also known as the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast is the ancient city of Varna, the third-largest city in Bulgaria after the capital Sofia and Plovdiv. The Bulgarian Riviera, also nicknamed the Red Riviera during the Communist era stretched over 370 km along the Black Sea Coast and it has become a tourist hotspot. Several beaches, resorts, and historic towns are scattered between Varna and Bargas, the two seaports that are the main hubs in the region.
History of Varna
Varna, however, has a fascinating history and is a storehouse of legends and its one of the many reasons why you must visit Bulgaria. There are secrets tucked away in monasteries in the hills and stone forests that have emerged from the ocean, but Varna is also the home of the world’s oldest gold treasure which was founded over 6000 years old, around 4200-4600 BC in a tomb in Varna Necropolis. The gold is now housed safely in the Archaeological Museum. But it is not just the precious treasure trove that brings tourists to this ancient city, which was home to Thracians, who were contemporaries of ancient Greeks and are mentioned in Homer’s Illiad as the allies of Trojans in the Trojan War. Varna, then known as Odessos, a seaside settlement grew eventually into a port under the Byzantine Empire and then became a part of the Bulgarian Empire. No one knows however how the name came to be. Perhaps it was named by the Vikings or Varangians as they were called or the Slavs, but it is believed that in the 7th century, it was referred to as Varna, when Asparakh, the founder of the First Bulgarian Empire invaded the area around Odessos. And it remained the way since then.
Varna may be a tourist hotspot and a popular seaside resort destination in summers, but it has several historic and natural attractions. From museums to monasteries, cathedrals to gardens, Varna is a mosaic of many cultures – from the Thracians to the Turks, Byzantine to Bulgarian. Besides the extensive Archaeological Museum, which is one of the places to see in Varna, there are several other museums as well including the Retro Museum, Ethnographic Museum, Museum of Medicine History among others. The ruins of the Roman Baths give you a glimpse of the ancient city of Odessos.
Varna is always been sought for its beaches and was a resort destination for not just Eastern Europe but for the entire continent. The beaches in the sea are often referred to as sea baths as they are the source of mineral water used for spas and swimming pools. The Sea Garden is the oldest and the most popular landscaped garden along the coastline and is thronged by both locals and tourists, especially in summer. The promenade along the coast is filled with restaurants and clubs, besides souvenir shops and cafes. The Sea Garden also has an open-air theatre where several performances from ballet shows to concerts are held here. The Varna Aquarium along with a Dolphinarium and a Planetarium are some of the other attractions. The Museum of Natural History is also located here and its perfect way to explore and experience some of the things to do in Varna.
A visit to Varna is incomplete without heading to the symbol of the city – the Dormition of Theotokos or the Mother of God Cathedral, that was built in the 18th century for the Eastern Orthodox Christians. It is the third-largest cathedral in Bulgaria and was built largely with money donated by the people and with materials sourced locally. The largest church was inspired by a temple built in the Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg. The Dormition of the Mother of God is a Great Feast which commemorates the death of Mary or as they say, the “falling asleep” without any pain and in a feeling of “spiritual peace.” The feast is celebrated by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches along with the Eastern Catholic Churches around August 15 every year. A visit to the cathedral is one of the top things to do in Varna.
While there are many more places to see in Varna, I am interested in the destinations that can be visited as day trips around the city. Some of them, however, can be experienced along with sightseeing tours in the city. The Historical Park is a truly magical experience, to begin with. Located in the village of Neofit Rilski it recreates the magic of the past and also converts you into a time traveller. Most tourists visit the seaside resort town of Golden Sands Varna but personally I believe that there are many more fascinating destinations for day trips like Nessebar as well, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Ivan and Raliza say that they would recommend a week at least in Varna to explore the city but I had just a few days here. However from my travels around Bulgaria with them, here are some of the places to see and things to do around Varna.
Hewn into a 40 meters high limestone cliff is the medieval Aladzha Cave Monastery, which was home to the hermits and monks belonging to the Orthodox Christian order. Located 15 km from Varna and barely..km from the resort town of Golden Sands, this monastery is one of the tourist hot spots. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the monastery is believed to have been active during the Second Bulgarian Empire.
There are two levels here – the first level opens into a monastic church and a small cemetery church and you can see the”homes” of the hermits which include monastic cells, dining, and kitchen besides a crypt. As you climb to the next level, it is a natural cave that leads to a monastery chapel. It is believed that the remains of a monastery complex called the Catacombs are found close by, which date back to the 5th century.
Aladzha is not the original name of the monastery but it is believed to have a Turkish reference to it. It probably means bright or colourful, referring to the old vivid murals, which have been destroyed though. As I climb up to the next level, I can see the lush hills surrounding the monastery and I heard the story of how the landscape was considered sacred and promoted by a mythical daemon or a benevolent spirit called Rim Papa or Imri Pop. They call him a monk and they believe that he safeguards the monastery and is the keeper of the secrets of the woods According to the locals, some people have seen a mysterious monk vanishing into the mists around the mountains.
Golden Sands Varna
Located barely 18 km from downtown, Golden Sands draws tourists from all over the world for its crystal clear sands and long, neven ending beaches. According to legends pirates apparently hid their golden treasures in the land and they all got transformed magically into fine sand. But besides the plethora of beach resorts and luxurious spas, it is the Golden Sands Nature Park with its ancient trees and mysterious woodlands laced with legends that beckon the tourists.
The magical coast with its primeval forest is believed to be the land of the mythical dwarfs and crumbles of ramparts and castles are apparently scattered here. There are hot mineral water springs which were frequented by the Thracians and Romans. Yet Golden Sands is also the haven for beach lovers with recreation and entertainment. While some beaches are crowded, you can also find quiet and secluded ones where you can blend with nature.
The Historical Park is larger than life spectacle and fantasy land, where Bulgaria history comes alive. Palaces and tombs are recreated out of thin air, while their walls echo with legends and myths and ancient traditions are revived. The Historical Park recreates the history of Bulgaria from the Prehistoric Era to the Thracians, from the Slavic to the Proto Bulgarian Era. This is where you can drink wine with the king, wield spears with knights and watch falcons hunt. The park which is now spread over 13 hectares and will soon extend to over 55 acres and will include the Roman Empire besides the First and Second Bulgarian Empires as well. The Historical Park is located in Neofit Rilski which is 40 km away from Varna.
You cannot but be mesmerized to see the towering stone columns sprouting out from the earth and standing tall around 3-10 meters. To the untrained eye, they look like stone sculptures chiseled by man or as remains of an ancient empire. They are ancient, no doubt, dating back to over 50 million years old and are definitely not man-made. These tall stone pillars are called Pobiti Kamani and they roughly translate to hammered stones or stones beaten into the ground. Hence the name Stone Forest or Fossil Forest and walking around these earth pillars is one of the top things to do in Varna.
There are many sites along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast and each one is eerily fascinating. In some of the sites, you can see five layers of columns stacked upon each other and some of these limestone pillars are hollow. Fifty million years ago, this entire area was under the ocean, but no one knows for sure how these stone pillars were created. It is believed to be the work of the sea over millions of years ago that has created this lunar landscape in Bulgaria. While some say that these could be petrified trees or mini atolls, the more plausible theory is that these pillars were created because of the leak of gases like methane.
The escaped gases from the holes in the strata of limestone rose from the sea bed and formed hollowed flues and these tubes further solidified and became stone pillars. As the sea eroded the pillars came into view presenting the desert-like landscape.The Stone Forest is 18 km from Varna and can be visited in a day.
One of the most stunning UNESCO Heritage Sites in Bulgaria is a rock relief depicting an imposing man on horseback thrusting a spear into a lion lying below the horse, while a dog is chasing the man. The Madara Rider or Horseman as he is called dates back to the 7th-8th century and it is carved on a rockface that is 75 feet from the ground. The almost vertical cliff where you can see the relief is an imposing rock that towers to over 330 feet.
While there are many legends around the origin, it is believed to be a representation of a Thracian horseman, some historians feel that the iconography is connected to the Bulgar tribes who were believed to be semi-nomadic and a warrior equestrian clan. The Madara Rider is also believed to represent the Bungar deity – Tangra, based on an inscription. The relief is believed to have survived across the years and has not been altered at all.The Madara Rider relief is 75 km from Varna.
Ruins of Pliska and Preslav
If you like history and ruins, then you must visit the ancient capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire – Pliska and Preslav. Pliska was the first capital around the 7th-9th centuries. The Bulgarian state was recognized in the 7th century when the Bulgars defeated the Byzantine king Constantine 1v and invaded the land from the Slavic tribes. Pliska was fortified and even today the remains of the ancient ramparts can be seen. Even though most of the city was burnt to the ground after a war with Byzantine kings, you can see remains of palaces and a cathedral called the Great Basilica.
Preslav became the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire from the 9th-10th century and the ruins showcase among other monuments the medieval Round Church as well. Preslav is also known for the treasure of gold coins and jewellery besides several artifacts that were unearthed recently. While Pliska and Preslav can be visited on a day trip from Varna, I would also recommend a trip to Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. However, you would need to spend at least a couple of nights to explore the place. Pliska is 75 km from Varna and Preslav is 110 km from the coastal city
There are many more places to visit in and around Varna and many fascinating things to do in Varna and I hope to make another trip to explore the same.