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.
Port of Varna
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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.
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.
Good to Know
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).
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.
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.
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).
Food and Drink
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)
Look for good bargains on lovely, local pottery in rich shades of red and deep blue, as well as paintings by local artists.
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.