In 510 BC the Greeks founded Nesebâr, ancient Mesembria, on the site of a Thracian settlement. It was once of great importance to Byzantium as a trading town, although many of the 40 churches built in Nesebâr during the 5th and 6th centuries are now in ruin. Nesebâr ceased to be an active trading post in the 18th century and today lives mostly from fishing and tourism. The town sits on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Remnants of the 2nd-century city walls rise above the bus stop, and stone and timber houses line winding, cobbled streets.Although there are private rooms and cheapish hotels on the peninsula, your chances during summer are better in the abominable resort of Sunny Beach, 10 minutes west of Nesebâr and 36km (22mi) north of Burgas. There are frequent buses between Burgas and Sunny Beach, and regular shuttles on to Nesebâr.
The majestic Rila Mountains south of Sofia are the place to go hiking. The classic trip across the mountains to Rila Monastery can be done in a couple of days, depending on your shoe leather and stopovers. Those packing heavy duty leg batteries can start at the ski resort of Borovets and climb Musala Peak (2925m), the highest mountain in the Balkan Peninsula, on the way to the monastery.Nestling in a narrow valley 119km (74mi) south of Sofia,Rila Monastery, helped to keep Bulgarian culture alive during the long dark age of Turkish rule from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The monastery was founded by Ivan Rilski in 927 and served as a retreat for hermits; it was moved 3km (2mi) to its present location in 1335. The clock tower beside the church is all that remains from this period. In 1833, a fire destroyed the monastery, but it was soon rebuilt on a grand scale in the National Revival style. The magnificent church, with its three great domes, is lined with 1200 frescoes depicting donors and biblical figures. There's also a gilded iconostasis depicting 36 biblical scenes. The museums here house religious art and artefacts as well as folk costumes and household implements. A couple of kilometres into the forest is the cave where Ivan Rilski lived and where he is now buried. According to a local legend, those able to pass through the hole in the roof of the cave have not sinned, and since you'd have to be Mack-sized to touch the sides, the legend is very popular.
Sofia's city centre is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, largely rebuilt after WWII bombings and complete with a yellow-brick boulevard. Like any other major capital city, Sofia has its problems, including drug-related crime and some of the world's nastiest drivers; however, the EU's 'Beautiful Bulgaria Project' is sprucing up historic buildings and energising old neighbourhoods. The city's compactnes and diversity make it a great place to get your bearings before heading off to discover the real Bulgaria.The central train station is on the north side of the city centre. From the station, bulevard Mariya Luisa runs south to Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, restored after a 1924 bomb attempt on Tsar Boris III in which 124 people (including most of the cabinet) were killed. The 14th-century church of St Petka Samardjiiska is nearby. The inconspicuous exterior gives no clue to the lovely frescoes in the dim, spooky nave. On the other side of the cathedral, near the National Museum of History, is Vitosha bulevard, the fashionable avenue of modern Sofia.The eastern end of the city centre is dominated by the neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Church, a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the fight for Bulgaria's independence. Ploschtad Batenberg to the east is dominated by the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum. Dimitrov was prime minister of Bulgaria from 1946 until he died in 1949. Until mid-1990, when his embalmed body was cremated, the public was allowed to file reverently past the deified figure while an honour guard looked on. Across ploschtad Batenberg to the north is the Former Party House, an oppressive Stalinist construction which was sacked and partially burned by demonstrators in 1990. It subsequently served as a cinema, bazaar and disco, but government business is once more conducted here.Mt Vitosha, the rounded mountain which looms just 8km south of Sofia, is a popular ski resort in winter, while in summer a chairlift operates for the benefit of sightseers. Vitosha is accessible by local bus, making it an extremely popular Sunday outing for the locals, so take the trip on another day if you can.With the demise of communist-controlled tourism, it has become much easier to find a cheap place to stay in Sofia, although foreigners still pay up to 10 times more than Bulgarians. Your best bet is one of the new private hotels springing up around the city centre, or else try one of the private room agencies which organise single and double rooms with bathrooms in people's apartments. You'll find Bulgaria's most cosmopolitan cuisine in Sofia, though it also has the country's widest range of greasy American belly-glop. The best places to look out for are mehanas, tavern-style traditional restaurants, usually very cheap, and serving traditional Bulgarian food until late.
Veliko Târnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1393), is laced with history. The Yantra River winds through a gorge in the centre of the city and picturesque houses cling to the cliffs. The ruined Tsaravets Citadel, almost encircled by the river, was a vast fortress sacked by the Turks in 1393. The rebuilt Church of the Blessed Saviour at the top of the hill is great squizzing territory. You can look down on the foundations of the ruined Royal Palace, home to 22 successive tsars. Execution Rock is a daunting bluff directly to the north, where traitors were once pushed into the Yantra River.Because Veliko Târnovo is a university town, it's quite a lively place to lob for a few days. There are lots of bars on the uphill side of the main drag, and you only need to follow the clouds of cigarette smoke to work out where it's all happening. It's only a short roll down the cobblestones to a number of reasonably cheap hostels, hotels and restaurants.
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