Eastern Europe is not the first destination I would have thought of when planning a summer holiday, but I’m really pleased we took up the offer of an apartment by the Black Sea for fifteen days in July. My husband and our two children flew from Dublin to Gatwick with Aer Lingus and from Gatwick to Bourgas with Thompson. You can fly direct from Ireland, but because this was a last minute booking, it would have been prohibitively expensive to do so. But we have learned our lesson for a return trip – buy the flights in January when, apparently, Aer Lingus have a sale of flights to this destination.
We were based on the outskirts of the village of Sarafovo, near the city of Bourgas, both of which are situated on the shores of Bourgas Bay. During the day, the temperature was in the high thirties and I think it reached 40° a few times – much too hot for doing much during the day, apart from sitting by the pool reading, or sipping a cold drink and people-watching in town.
We love to sample the local cuisine when on holiday, and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by Bulgarian food. For some reason, I had imagined this would consist of rather dishes that wouldn’t appeal at all, like pickled cabbage and strange sausages. In fact, we were presented with such a wide range of culinary delights – when we could read the menu! If I return to this country, I am definitely going to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and basic Bulgarian, as this would be so useful for reading menus. The items listed are, of course, translated into English, but some of the descriptions are very strange. We avoided ordering anything with ‘yellow cheese’ for a long time as it sounded like processed cheese, but it turned out to be cheddar, because the word ‘cheese’ is used to describe the locally-produced, Bulgarian equivalent to feta. I suspect the ‘yellow’ was added because tourists didn’t want ‘white’ cheese on toast, but the best omelette I had on holiday was made with this local cheese.
In fact, knowing the basics of the language would also help with all sorts of signs and directions, particularly in a place like Sarafovo where English is not widely spoken. We got told off outside a shop for lifting the lid of a freezer to choose ice creams for the kids. I found myself trying to explain that we couldn’t read Bulgarian to a disgruntled shopkeeper, as she tapped a finger on a notice, obviously instructing shoppers not to open it. The difference in the written word and its pronunciation is vast. For example, before I left, I learned how to say ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and the word for ‘English’; the following strange set of symbols – благодаря – is pronounced ‘blagodarya’ and is used when thanking someone.
But back to food! Because the weather was so warm, we didn’t feel like eating large amounts of anything and found that salad and fish, which we don’t really eat enough of at home, became our main diet. Apart from a few olives or similar appetisers and fresh fruit, we ate just twice a day. For breakfast (which was really brunch as it was usually closer to noon) we found a lovely little restaurant overlooking Sarafovo beach. While enjoying the wonderful vista, we scoffed fluffy omelettes with Shopska salad, a dish created by the Shopi people of the Sofia region. This is an interesting combination of juicy beef tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and grated or crumbled ‘sirene’ (a white cheese like feta) dressed with fresh parsley. I would make a vinaigrette to pour over it from the olive oil, vinegar and black pepper which is always supplied at the table. The kids had freshly made pancakes, ‘palachinki’, almost every day of the holiday and became experts on the nuances of the variations of these, whether they be accompanied by honey and walnuts, chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Delicious!
In the evenings, we would nibble on appetisers of ‘kyfte’, which you might recognise as ‘kofta’, meatballs made from minced meat with traditional spices. ‘Kavarma’ (a traditional seasoned meat and vegetable stew served in a clay pot) was a particularly tasty main dish and of course we had to try pork and chicken ‘shashlyk’ (skewered meat) which were also delicious. Once we discovered fish, however, this became our staple diet both at midday and in the evening. Oddly enough, mackerel appeared as a regular item on our daily menu, a fish we never really consider ordering in a restaurant at home. I think because the seafood is so fresh on the Black Sea coast, just about everything you are served is incredibly mouth-watering.
In the Mirana restaurant and hotel in the village, I had grilled shark steak, which was my favourite dish of the holiday – I love the combination of this ‘meaty’ fish and its chargrill flavour when cooked – really scrumptious. My husband, who is not a fish lover at all, was converted on this holiday and raved about the baked trout he had here on his birthday. Also in the Mirana, the kids had spaghetti ‘Sicilia’ which was the most authentic pasta dish I’ve tasted outside Italy and was a real surprise. My only complaint was that there was such a lot of butter on the garlic potatoes and garlic bread in this place – so much so I had to scrape it off the bread.
In another local restaurant, we couldn’t make up our minds what to have, so we asked the owner to supply a range of typical Bulgarian cuisine. He suggested some little fish, ‘skad’, which are a bit larger than battered whitebait. Although they were crispy little bites of fishy heaven, I still couldn’t bring myself to eat the heads! My daughter had the sardines, which were even nicer, but I wasn’t keen on the ribs, which I found quite greasy. However, my husband enjoyed their flavour, as they had been marinated in herbs. As usual, the Shopska was very enjoyable and we had another salad with grated carrot topped with crushed walnuts which was a crunchy surprise.
There was one dish that was really bizarre, and my son ordered it just to see what it was. Described on the menu as ‘chicken with cornflakes’, we decided that this was just a mis-translation, and that it was probably chicken in breadcrumbs. Nope, it was exactly what it said on the menu and he ended up scraping cornflakes off what were otherwise very tasty little fried chicken fillets!
We rented a place in Sunny Beach for a weekend while we were there, just to see what all the talk was about. It really is larger than life and I can see I would have enjoyed such a commercialised mecca in my youth, but not so now. Anyway, we decided to make the most of it and went on a mission to find an Indian restaurant I’d read about on TripAdvisor, the Bombay Grill. We weren’t disappointed and it was great to have a curry fix, but it is more expensive than Bulgarian fare, so I would only recommend it if you are Indian food freaks like us!
The second night in Sunny Beach we went back to local cuisine which was just as good as in Sarafovo in a little place on the road behind the main strip, which is way too commercial and hassly for me. My motto was, ‘if someone feels they have to drag me into a restaurant, I am definitely not eating there’, and it was amazing how many places we by-passed because of this. On our final day, we followed the tourist trail and visited the walled town of Nessebar, which is indeed very pretty, but again very commercial as it is one of the main tourist destinations on this coast. In a little side-street gallery I had a chat with an artist whose wonderful work is on display along with that of three friends and well worth a visit.
The one thing we discovered is how inexpensive it is to eat out in Bulgaria – about £20 for a family of four, so it is an excellent location if you want to experiment with unfamiliar cuisine without worrying about not liking what you’ve chosen. In fact, by the time we all bought the ingredients to cook a meal at the apartment one night, we decided it wasn’t worth it and never did it again. It is so much nicer to experience different restaurants.
The views over the Black Sea are beautiful and between resorts the countryside is still quite untouched, with fields of sunflowers and crops spreading out for miles. Bourgas is an attractive, cosmopolitan city and its main promenade is a great place to stop for an ice cream and watch the residents as they bustle about on their daily business. A maritime park lines the east side of the city and it is a lovely walk in the shade of the trees, where you can sit and read or watch water sports enthusiasts and paragliders pass above and below you (you could even partake in these activities if you are more adventurous than us!)
We had intended to return to Bourgas to spend another day going around the museums, but unfortunately the suicide bomber’s attack on the airport bus made us a little nervous of travelling back, as we were very close to the airport roundabout the day of the blast.
However, we all fell in love with Bulgaria and, in particular, its cuisine. We really hope to return to this beautiful country one day to travel further down the coast, and maybe stop off at the ancient town of Sozopol. That’s the beauty of this part of Europe, there are lots of interesting places to visit – perhaps we might even make it as far south as Istanbul next time – just to see how Turkish food compares!