SOFIA, Bulgaria -- A horse-drawn cart passed us on the way to the sidewalk cafe in the sleepy Bulgarian mountain town of Yakoruda, where we sipped espresso and munched on phyllo-and-feta pastries. Across the wide town square, people milled about a Soviet howitzer on display, shooed away stray dogs, and cast furtive glances at the foreigner snapping pictures.
Just days before in Sofia, we were shouting over the throbbing music at one of Bulgaria’s hot nightclubs, complete with girls in mini-dresses dancing on tables and metal detectors guarding the doors.
A visit to Bulgaria can alternately feel like taking a step back in time and witnessing a society that has modernized at warp speed. Mules and Ferraris share the freeways. Near a store selling Prada and Versace clothes, old women peddle handmade crocheted doilies and embroidered tablecloths. Dilapidated Soviet-style apartment buildings teem with people, as does a sparkling new shopping mall.
I’ve been lucky to get an insider’s view of this Eastern European country, one of the perks of becoming engaged to a Bulgarian-born New Yorker. This summer, on my second visit, we rented a car and crisscrossed the country (it’s about the size of Tennessee) going from the capital Sofia to small mountain villages, ancient Roman ruins and Black Sea resorts. Here are some highlights.
• Following Sofia’s yellow brick road: Nowhere is the dichotomy more evident — and enjoyable — than in Sofia. We walked on the yellow brick roads in the city’s center to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the most recognizable landmark with towering domes and stained glass windows.
In a grassy park nearby, a flea market sells traditional handicrafts and mementos from Bulgaria’s communist past, including little books where people recorded paying their monthly dues to the Communist Party.
But at night, we hit Sofia’s nightclubs along with beefy men and skinny, scantily clad women. At Bar Flight, we sat outside and watched the arrivals in shiny new Aston Martins, Ferraris and souped-up Mercedes-Benzes.
We also checked out Tequilla, a club that I realized was too hip for me when we had to pass through a metal detector to enter it. Inside, the music throbbed, girls danced on the bars, and the walls were lined with screens that showed a rotation of models posing.
• Black Sea beaches busy despite bombing: The eastern edge of Bulgaria borders the Black Sea, giving it about 230 miles of coastline that is a big draw for tourists, especially Russians.
In July, a suicide bombing outside the airport in the seaside resort town of Burgas killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver. Israel has blamed the attack on Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, but Bulgarian officials haven’t identified a suspect or motive.
A month later, the scars of the attack weren’t visible to this casual visitor. The beaches were still packed with people.
We stayed in Sunny Beach, about 20 miles north of Burgas. The beach is lined with gigantic all-service hotels and a promenade where vendors hawk everything from fresh berries to fish pedicures (little fish eat dead skin off your feet).
While the seaside is a big summertime regional attraction, it has a typical beach-town vibe. I preferred exploring some of the country’s historical sites, which are truly one of a kind.