Bulgaria’s capital is the perfect introduction to the country, says Jeannine Williamson
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When price is key, agents think of Bulgaria. It’s usually for good value skiing, or sun and fun on the Black Sea, but now its capital city Sofia has moved on to the radar as an equally budget-friendly short-break destination or base for a longer touring holiday.
It’s a great place for clients who are looking for somewhere different that’s easy on the purse. Set against the picturesque backdrop of the Vitosha Mountain and national park, Sofia is compact and walkable. It boasts plenty of cultural treasures but also lives up to its motto “ever growing, never ageing” with a dynamic vibe reflected in modern galleries and a lively bar and restaurant scene.
When it’s time to move on, it’s easy to get elsewhere as Bulgaria measures just over 200 miles from north to south and 325 miles east to west. Half the country is covered by mountains, so it provides a real breath of fresh air in both summer and winter.
Twenty minutes from the airport, the cosy Sofia Plaza is a good budget choice and within easy reach of shops and sights such as Alexander Nevksy Cathedral. The 122-room Suite Hotel Sofia is cool and contemporary, close to University Park and the city’s nightlife district. There’s a 24-hour gym and novel vitamin bar, and food and drink options include Zest, serving Mediterranean and Bulgarian cuisine.
Back in the heart of town, the 77-room Central Park Hotel is a keenly priced four-star near the main Vitosha Boulevard and has great views of Vitosha Mountain. The property’s new 106 Restaurant showcases modern cuisine and has an outside terrace.
Another midmarket option is the Best Western Premier Thracia, which has 49 comfortable rooms and suites and is close to attractions such as the National Opera House and Sofia Art Gallery. The Crystal Palace is a grande-dame property that’s listed as a cultural monument and has an excellent restaurant.
The best-known luxury hotel is the central, 105-room, five-star Grand Hotel Sofia. Celebrity guests to have stayed in its traditional rooms include Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Robbie Williams and Sting. Clients who prefer more modern decor can plump for the 142-room Radisson Blu Grand Hotel, right on Narodno Sabranie Square and overlooking the cathedral.
Do: Culture and crafts
Sofia’s landmark attraction is Alexander Nevksy Cathedral. Topped by green and gold domes, it’s one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals and can accommodate more than 7,000 worshippers.
Often overlooked by visitors is nearby St Sofia Church, the second-oldest in the city. Archaeologists recently unearthed nearly 60 tombs beneath the church and there are interesting underground guided tours which also reveal the timeline of earlier churches built on the site.
Afterwards clients can browse around the colourful daily flea market on the cathedral square. Russian hats, flags, badges and other curiosities from the communist period, as well as Bulgarian rose oil and local crafts such as wooden carvings and jewellery boxes make fun souvenirs and gifts.
For designer shopping Vitosha Boulevard, the poshest street in town, has many famous brand names on the stretch between Patriarch Eftimii Boulevard and St Nedelya Square.
Although the National History Museum is on the outskirts of the city, tell clients it’s well worth a visit and is easily accessible by cheap public transport or one of the city’s yellow taxis.
Boasting more than 650,000 exhibits, this is one of the largest museums in the Balkans, and entry costs less than £4. Clients short on time can head straight to the room that showcases the world’s oldest golden treasures. Discovered by workmen on the Black Sea coast in 1972, they include beautiful jewellery and intricate wine goblets dating back to 5000BC.
Move on: Lakes and mountains
Two hours from Sofia is Plovdiv, divided by the Maritza River and built on seven hills. Nestling between two of them is an impressive amphitheatre which is Bulgaria’s most complete Roman building.
With 320 conservation areas, Bulgaria is a natural choice for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors. Pamporovo, in the Rhodope Mountains, is famous both as a ski resort and for being the sunniest place in the country, so there is plenty to do year-round including summer walking trails. For ski fans, Bansko in the Pirin Mountains has the longest ski runs, while Borovets in the Rila range has an alpine village feel.
The towering Trigrad Gorge, with its sheer 980ft cliffs, was carved out by the river of the same name over a period of millions of years. A typical day’s excursion will also take in the Yagodina Cave, the longest in the Rhodopes, with its curious cave pearls created by grains of sand falling in water pools.
From here clients can visit the seven crystal-clear glacial lakes of Smolian, dubbed the ‘emerald eyes’ of the Rhodope Mountains. One of the highest, and most beautiful, is Bistroto Ezero, or Clear Lake, where the surrounding pine trees are reflected in a mirror image on the surface.
A two-night room-only stay at the three-star Sofia Plaza costs from £179 with SuperBreak, including flights from Gatwick for travel in October.
Regent Holidays’ 10-day Bulgaria Highlights tour, taking in Sofia, Bansko, Melnik, Devin, Smolian and Plovdiv, starts from £1,565 including flights, departing in September.
020 7666 1244
Balkan Holidays offers seven nights’ self-catering at the three-star Castle Apartments in Pamporovo ski resort from £244, based on six sharing, with flights from Heathrow on March 11, 2016.
020 7543 5555
Black Sea on film
For clients seeking summer sun, Balkan Holidays is filming an informative video of all its Black Sea resorts, which agents will be able to view from July.
It is the only UK operator featuring Golden Sands, Konstantin and Albena, and next year is increasing airlift from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester to Varna and Gatwick to Bourgas.
To mark its 50th anniversary in 2016 the company is also offering free child places and early-booking discounts.
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