The Assumption Cathedral, Varna
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Located on the Black Sea Coast, Varna is the second-largest city in Bulgaria (after the capital, Sofia). Once the summer retreat of the Eastern Bloc's most powerful players, Varna -- with its broad beaches, spectacular churches and well-stocked museums -- is now a magnet for Western tourists.
The city was founded more than 1,000 years ago as a fishing village and has had a richly chequered history ever since. Christened Odessos (water town) by the Greeks, it was besieged by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. and was later dominated by the Romans and the Ottoman Turks. The end result is that the modern city now sports ancient Roman baths, as well as mosques and Turkish baths.
Today's visitors are most likely interested in Varna's great beaches. The acres of golden sand lining its coast make this city one of the prettiest sail-ins on the Black Sea. Water babies, who want nothing more than to ride the waves and feel the sand between their toes will be in their element. They can find their heart's desire a very short stroll from the dock before enjoying a lazy lunch with a sea view.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Antalya • Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Hvar • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Koper • Korcula • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Odessa • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
Try a Sea Breeze -- a mix of vodka, black currant and grapefruit juice -- at the waterfront Cafe Pico, located about 400 yards from the dockside.
Look for good bargains on lovely, local pottery in rich shades of red and deep blue, as well as paintings by local artists.
The official language is Bulgarian. Although some locals speak a smattering of English, don't count on it. Be prepared to use the universal language of smiles and signing. Useful phrases include da (yes), ne (no), molya (please) and blagodariya (thank you).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the lev, which generally is about 2.4 to the British pound and 1.4 to the U.S. dollar. But, Bulgaria is scheduled to adopt the euro, beginning in 2014. Do get local cash at an ATM machine when you arrive because hardly any shops or restaurants accept credit cards. You can find current exchange rates at www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Where You're Docked
The Varna port terminal lies very close to the beaches and leafy walkways of Varna's Sea Garden Park, which stretches several miles along the waterfront. The terminal itself is a small, two-storey building with a couple of souvenir shops and a cafe but no Internet facility. You can change money at an ATM on the wall, just outside of the main exit.
It's about a 500-yard walk from the port terminal to the start of the Sea Garden Park area and beaches -- and because it's hot and unshaded, that walk feels long. You can climb a rusty ladder up to the top of the sea wall to get a better view and a bit of a sea breeze.
On the main drag, you'll see some beautiful embroidery and lacework draped on the walls, as local women offer it for sale. Tip: Only buy on the way back, when you know how much local currency you want to get rid of and are more likely to barter for a last-minute bargain.
For lunch and a bit of shopping, walk right along the waterfront through the Sea Gardens, past an Olympic-scale swimming pool (used by the locals for competitions, so not a tourist facility) and Gossip and Atmosphere Beaches. You'll soon see market stalls on a shady path to your left. Take the path and, straight ahead, you'll find a broad plaza with the Hotel and Cafe Odessos on the left and a large shopping, leisure and restaurant complex on the right -- with lots of open-air restaurant tables.
There are taxis right at the terminal entrance, but be prepared to negotiate hard; 20 leva should take you pretty much anywhere you'd like to go in downtown Varna. But, do establish (before you get in) that this is the agreed fee per cab, not per person.
Watch Out For
Visit an ATM as soon as possible, and carry plenty of local currency, as hardly any shops accept credit cards.
And, if you're spending the afternoon on the beach, wear plastic flip-flops down to the water's edge, as the sand gets so hot that even a short walk with bare soles will burn your feet (unless you're a professional fire-walker).
Glorious white-sand beaches -- with evocative names like Gossip Beach and Atmosphere Beach -- lie a mere 400 yards from the dockside. Beach restaurants will have clean toilets you can change in (though they charge a half-leva entrance fee).
Alternatively, there are a few blue-painted, tin changing cubicles on stilts, scattered along the beach to preserve your modesty. Even if you just plan on sightseeing and shopping, take your swim wear along. Varna gets extremely hot in summer, and a refreshing dip en route to the ship will seem like an excellent idea after a steamy walk.
The Archaeological Museum, a 25-minute cab ride from the dock, has more than 55,000 exhibits dating from the Stone Age. The vast collection includes ancient tombs, golden treasures more than 6,000 years old and some examples of the oldest processed gold in the world. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Roman Baths are another close-to-the-ship attraction. The ruins of the Roman thermal baths, once the largest Roman public building in Bulgaria. Enough of the complex has been excavated to make it an impressive sight. From the ship, turn left as you enter the Sea Gardens. The baths are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Been There, Done That
The Golden Sands Resort, roughly an hour's ride from the port, is a great place to take youngsters, as it's the largest beach resort in Bulgaria. It has all the ingredients for a great day at the seaside, including miles of beautiful sand beaches, a lively promenade that's lined with cafes and restaurants, fairground booths and even donkey rides. It's open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer and is free to explore, though (obviously) rides and booth offerings cost extra.
The Aladja Monastery, near the Golden Sands Resort, is made up of a series of caves, set 120 feet up on a cliff face; it was home to early Christian hermits in the sixth century. The monastery consists of the monks' cells and a small church, in which you can still see some of the colored wall paintings.
The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, a 25-minute cab ride from the dock, is worth seeing for its ornate bishop's throne and icons; its fine, stained-glass windows and distinctive, onion-shaped domes; and the wonderful views over the city from its 133-stepped bell tower. It's open 8 a.m. to 8p.m. When you've finished, check out the nearby flea market.
For a bit of history -- or to escape the hot sun with an indoor activity -- Varna offers several other interesting museums. Walkable from the Sea Gardens is the National Maritime Museum (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Or, take a taxi to the center of Varna to visit the Museum of Art and History, which has artifacts and jewelry that date back to 5,000 B.C., as well as the Ethnographical Museum, a period house that recreates life as it was lived in the city in the 1800's.
A good place to start a city walking tour is Nezavisimost Square. Take a short cab ride from the pier to the square, and from there, you can walk to the Roman fortress wall, Round Tower and Opera House.
Dining in Varna is quite affordable; expect to pay less than 15 leva per person for a decent lunch of local fish, spicy Serbian sausage and bread. Chardonnay costs about 15 leva a bottle, and cocktails are about 3 leva each. Be sure to take enough local currency to pay your bill, as restaurants won't take credit cards, and you're less likely to get overcharged if you use the local cash.
Local dishes worth trying include tarator (a cold cucumber, garlic and yoghurt soup with walnuts), gyuvech (thick meat and vegetable stew, topped with poached egg), sarmi (stuffed cabbage) and banitsa (cheese and spinach pasties). Bulgarian wine is also gaining quite an international following. Melnik and Mavrud are popular varieties.
You'll see plenty of beach restaurants as you stroll through Sea Garden Park, and you'll find many more eateries in town. All are open from noon until at least 3 p.m. (usually later when a cruise ship is in port).
With time at a premium, we lunched al fresco at a beach bar between sea dips (and spotted several other passengers doing the same thing). If you've the time and inclination to go for a restaurant lunch, here are a couple of suggestions.
For a gourmet lunch with a twist, try Mr. Baba -- a fish restaurant, set in an old galleon right on Varna's South Beach waterfront. It serves a range of European and Bulgarian dishes and some fabulous patisserie. (Tel. 052- 614- 629)
For a quick bite, Godzila may be a chain restaurant, but it's great for a quick bite or a substantial, yet casual, lunch. It's famed for its inch-thick pizzas and huge, tasty salads. There are two in downtown Varna, near Nezavisimost Plaza -- at 66 Kniaz Boris I and 37 Maria Louisa. The latter has an outside patio. (Tel. 052-604-469)
For a real Bulgarian experience, try Old Varna (1 Slivnitsa Boulevard) -- a cosy, folksy restaurant, owned by the local Hashove restaurant chain. It's a traditional mahana, a restaurant that serves real Bulgarian food, cooked to old local recipes. Live folk music and dancing complete the down-home atmosphere. (Tel. 052 644 490)
Staying in Touch
An Internet Cafe is located within easy walking distance of the port. Follow the directions listed above (see Hanging Around) to the plaza containing the Hotel and Cafe Odessos. From there, walk straight ahead to the intersection with a broad main street, go left (past a mobile phone shop), take the first right, and you'll see the Internet Centre just off to the left. It costs 2.4 leva for an hour.
(Note: You will see that I am describing landmarks, rather than giving street names; that's because street names in Varna are written in Cyrillic and will not be recognisable to Western visitors.)
Tourism is still relatively unsophisticated in this part of the world, and so are shore excursions. There is little in the way of excursions designed for families and more adventurous, active travellers. If the tour options don't appeal, you'd do best to head for the beaches, either near the ship or at the Golden Sands resort.
Best for an Overview: For a quick introduction to Varna, try the four-hour "Varna Highlights" tour, which takes you to the Museum of Art and History, the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, the Naval Academy, the Sea Garden and the Golden Sands resort. You also visit an al fresco restaurant for refreshments and a folklore show.
Best Short Tour: The 3.5-hour "EZ Varna" tour involves very little walking and offers panoramic city views, as well as visits to the cathedral and the Roman baths. There is also time to shop for handicrafts at the flea market near the cathedral.
Best Out-of-Town Tour: If you'd like to explore farther afield, take the 4.5-hour "Wonders of Bulgaria" tour, which takes you to the Museum of Art and History, the Stone Forest (to see rock formations, forged 45 million years ago) and the Aladja Monastery, where the region's earliest hermit Christians settled in the sixth century A.D.
For More Information
Bulgarian State Agency for Tourism: www.bulgariatravel.org
Bulgarian Tourism: www.bulgarian-tourism.com
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor