If you have ticked the usual suspects off your travel wish list, let me suggest a little something for you to consider. How about visiting a 26 centuries old city which was founded by the Ancient Greeks, was the most important Black sea port between Constantinople and the Danube delta in the 14th century and is nowadays a vibrant crossroads of beach life, cultural events and historical references?
Welcome to Varna!
A former Greek and then Roman colony, an early Christian centre, the stage of one of the last major battles of the Crusaders against the Ottoman Turks, nowadays the third largest Bulgarian city and also my home town. Locally Varna is often referred to as the ‘maritime capital of Bulgaria‘, but almost lost its title during the mandates of its previous mayor, which left it lacklustre and dilapidated.
The city is currently being refreshed and is starting to look and feel better, offering the perfect combination of history, beaches and post-socialist reality to be appreciated by the intrepid traveller always on the lookout for the next unusual destination. With this in mind here is a mish-mash of fifty facts to make you want to book a trip to Varna straight away.
1. Beaches in and around Varna are covered with fine golden sand. So much nicer to sunbathe on and swim in the sea than a back-wrecking pebbly beach.
2. The world’s oldest gold treasure was discovered in a large Copper Age necropolis just outside of Varna. An advanced civilization with unparalleled goldsmithing skills lived there in the 5th millenium BCE. To put it in perspective: this was before the era of Mesopotamia and Egypt of the pyramids!
3. Varna was founded at the end of the 7th century BC as a trading post by the Ancient Greeks who called the new city Odessos (most probably meaning ‘town on water’). The Romans called it Odessus and the current name – Varna – has been in use since the 6th-7th century AD with one notable interruption.
4. Believe it or not, but in 1949 the name of Varna was changed to Stalin. (Yes, as in Joseph Stalin!) This was done in honour of the Soviet leader’s 70th birthday. By 1956 the political stance had changed and the city regained its centuries-old name.
5. Summer is the season when Varna comes truly into her own. Several vibrant beach resorts are only a short drive away plus the city plays host to a number of cultural events.
6. Varna’s Sea Garden is the largest landscaped park on the Balkan peninsula. It is over 130 years old, about 8 km long and it overlooks the seafront giving quick access to the city beaches. The park is a pleasant place to go for a walk and serves as the green lungs of an otherwise overdeveloped Varna.
7. The world’s first ballet competition was founded in Varna in 1964. Half a century later it is still going strong, taking place every two years in July on the stage of the Summer Theatre. Some of the most famous dancers in the world were discovered after winning Varna’s Ballet Competition. Among them are Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem.
8. A big cup of rainbow-coloured slush puppy costs just over half a pound from one of the many colourful street stalls in Varna. A nice restaurant meal can easily cost around 10 pounds per person. The very favourable rate of the British pound against the Bulgarian lev makes Varna a really affordable destination.
9. A tall white monument called The Pantheon crowns the longest alley in the Sea Park. Its full name is The Pantheon of the Perished in the Fight Against Fascism and it is a prime example of socialist art. Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, teenagers from the secondary schools around town would be required to spend a few days guarding the monument and the eternal flame in front of it. Newly married couples would have their pictures taken in front of it right after their marriage ceremony and before driving off to their reception. Nowadays, the eternal flame has long been extinguished, but The Pantheon still stands, having survived the cull of socialist monuments and memorials across Bulgaria in the early 90’s.
10. Just outside Varna is one of the few desert habitats in Europe. Most importantly, among the sand dunes stand up stone columns which are up to seven meters high. The Stone Forest is a one of a kind natural phenomenon. Several scientific theories and popular legends aim to offer an explanation how it came to be. Read more about this fantastic place here.
11. From Carrefour to Costa Coffee you will find the same multinationals in Varna as all over Europe, so any sudden craving you may have will be easily satisfied.
12. At the same time, make sure that you sample the local cuisine with its skilfully grilled juicy pork meat, imaginative salads and irresistible brine cheese. Local tomatoes, fully ripened in the sun, are an unmissable delight.
13. The first railway in Bulgaria was built in Varna in 1866 and connected the city with Russe – a Bulgarian town on the Danube river.
14. Up until 1885 Varna used to be one of the stops of the legendary Orient Express. The passengers would reach Bulgaria after having travelled across Europe taking in France, Germany, Austria and Romania. Once in Varna, they would get a ferry to Istanbul.
15. The longest bridge in Bulgaria is in Varna. The Asparuhov Bridge is just over 2 km long and passes over the canals connecting the Black Sea with the Lake Varna. It handles significant traffic every day.
16. A bungee club has a permanent spot on the 50 meters high Asparuhov Bridge organising jumps daily during the peak summer season.
17. The best panoramic spot to take photos of Varna is just outside Galata – a former village turned into one of the city’s quarters. Galata is on the opposite to Varna shore of the Varna Bay and it offers unparalleled views of the whole city brimmed by the sea. It is particularly lovely at night as the most important buildings are illuminated with colourful lights.
18. Just 17 km outside of Varna is the most important rock monastery on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The medieval Aladzha Monastery was hewn in the rocks and was active between the 13th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. Read more about this fascinating place here.
19. Varna is less than an hour away from the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire – Pliska and Preslav – thus offering a chance for a fabulous day trip exploring archaeological excavations, exciting museums and the remains of the Great Basilica – once the largest cathedral in Europe which is inextricably bound with the Christianisation of Bulgaria 1150 years ago.
20. In Varna you will find the forth largest preserved Roman baths in Europe and the largest on the Balkan peninsula. The Roman Thermae were built in the 2nd century AD and every five years served as the centre of major athletic games. Read more about this heartbreaking place here.
21.Night clubs and restaurants line the city’s waterfront and stretch onto the city’s beaches. In summer they are besieged by crowds ready to party.
22. The first international music festival in Bulgaria was founded in Varna back in 1926. Nowadays it is called ‘Varna Summer’ and it is still being organised every year. You can see the royal piano bought for its first edition in the Museum of History of Varna in the city.
23. Talking about museums, don’t miss the Naval Museum in the Sea Garden. Right outside of its building you will find a collection of water- and aircrafts. Among them is ‘Druzki’ (meaning ‘Intrepid’ in Bulgarian) – a torpedo boat representative of the torpedo boats which prevented the shelling of Varna by the Ottoman army during the Balkan wars. Another famous exhibit here is the yacht ‘Cor Caroli’ of the first solitary sailing round the world by a Bulgarian navigator.
24. The most iconic place in Varna is the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Everyone knows where it is and how to get there from any point in town. It is part of Varna’s history and urban mythology. Read more about it here.
25. Theatrical performances for kids are held both at the Puppet Theatre and its summer stage in the Sea Garden. Take your child there for an hour of magical stories. The language doesn’t really matter, as performances are geared to be understood by the little ones and are interspersed with lots of music.