If you’re think summer holidays are best on the Mediterranean Sea, think again. Natalie Chalk heads to bluest Black Sea resort
AHHH, I know it so well.
The blue sea, the hot sun and the golden beaches.
But this isn’t the Mediterranean, I’ve come to Varna on the Black Sea coast.
It’s every bit as beach holiday beautiful as the Côte d’Azur or the Costa del Sol and they even use merci as thank you and chau as goodbye.
This is not what I’d expected from a summer holiday in Bulgaria.
I hadn’t even heard of Varna before but with it’s Greek, Roman and Turkish heritage, it’s one of the oldest cities in Europe and on arrival it feels immediately familiar.
The bus from the airport drops me outside the Cathedral, in the heart of the city. It’s then a 15minute stroll down towards the sea front and my apartment. Having booked an Airbnb, I have two hours before check in at 3pm.
It’s lunchtime and people are relaxed sitting outside fancy open-air cafes sipping Aperol spritz and eating pizza.
It’s only right I join in so I find an orange white stripe restaurant with swings inside but take a seat out on the pavement under the white umbrellas trimmed with lace.
I order a glass of Bulgarian wine, which comes served with a bucket of ice. I take a sip to unwind and quickly decide the plan is to spend the weekend doing much the same.
At just over a three-hour direct flight from Luton Airport, the city looks set to be the new must-see seaside city break destination.
Varna is a pretty, tidy and leafy seaside port with a huge landscaped park and at least a mile-long seafront packed with glamorous bars, restaurants and clubs.
But what also sets this city apart is its impressive medieval history and roman ruins.
Named Odessus, it was settled by Thracians in the 6th century BC and used as a trading post.
I stock up on rose oil to take home
Having lost an hour with the wine and a guide book, I wind my way down the shop-filled avenue that slows me down further.
The top buy in Bulgaria is any product made from rose oil. This country is the world’s number one producer of the fragment “rose otto”. They say that one kilo is worth three times that of gold. Yet while they sell much of it to the big brand cosmetic and perfume companies, they also have their own Bulgarian range without the hefty price tag.
So, after many hundreds of floral pumps and aromatic sprays later, I have three bottles of rose water and vow to bulk buy creams and lotions for life before I leave.
Another ritual here seems to be eating ice cream so I stop for a mint chocolate scoop and cone before I walk on.
I’ve picked an apartment next to the Festival and Cultural Centre with a balcony that overlooks the main street Boulevard Slivnitsa.
This turns out to be the right location. I’m in the centre of everything. I can hear the bustle from the bars downstairs and even a pianist tinkling in the Sea Garden park.
From up here, the city centre has little sign of the Communist era concrete blocks that I expected.
I use my spray to give me that summer glow and head out to my final pitstop at the beach.
Varna is known as Bulgaria’s summer capital. I beam when I see the Black Sea is actually sparkling blue.
Sofas, mattresses and brightly painted wooden arm chairs are all part of the furniture down on the sand. I take a beanbag and order a beer. To hell with it, I order a cocktail instead like the locals and start practising my merci as blagodaria is too hard to pronounce.
Despite being a sunbathers paradise, Varna beach isn’t packed with holiday hoi polloi – they’re tucked away in the nearby resorts Sunny Beach, Golden Sands and Sunny Day on two-week packaged holidays.
The social scene in the city is mostly outside dining with dozens of restaurants concentrated on the seafront.
By 9pm the city’s as it’s best as the sunsets late and the restaurants fill up.
Having whet my appetite, I stay for dinner eating a simple Bulgarian shopska salad.
The next morning, I’m ready to explore the city. It’s quiet at 9am when I walk the length of the Sea Garden – said to be the biggest landscaped park in the Balkans.
This has been the city’s centre piece since the late 19th century when it started as a small Ottoman garden. Today it’s giant kingdom of colourful flower beds, large green spaces and artistically carved tree trucks. There’s also live performances and music at any given time the day.
Thanks to my rose elixir, I manage to make it all the way to Varna port and lunch on ice cream and cocktails without breaking into a sweat.
I then turn by back to the sea and head towards the Roman baths. I poke my head around the ancient stone slabs where centuries ago people washed in warm springs.
These are the fourth largest ruins in Europe built in the second century.
It’s a great insight into the sizes of the different chambers, the streets they built and surprisingly the two shopping areas, which would have been right up my street.
Not as relaxing though as it once was, it’s now covered with high weeds and tiny flies so when I start scratching my legs I know it’s time to leave.
I spend another two days, exploring the city then give myself the afternoon off to relax down at the beach.
On the last day, I stock up on rose oil potions to take home.
Whenever Bulgaria makes a top-10 holiday list it is normally for good value. Very true. And like me, most of us will have heard of the cheap and cheerful beach resorts.
But Varna offers two holidays for half the price of one: a city-break that holds its own culture-wise with better known destinations, and a great budget, family-friendly beach resort.
With the pound being worth double the lev, it’s another thing that makes this city an unbeatable deal.