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The Ancient City of Nessebar and Bulgaria's Southern Black Sea Coast

When I was young, the Black Sea had an exotic ring to it. Dramatic events had unfolded here: Gorbachev losing his job while holidaying in Sochi in August 1991, The Yalta Conference during World War II, Dracula arriving in Varna in a coffin on his way to Transylvania, Jason and the Argonauts searching for the Golden Fleece. This was exciting stuff.

Today’s Slanchev Briag, or Sunny Beach, the biggest resort in Bulgaria, was about as exotic as Magaluf or Miami Beach - i.e. not very - catering mainly to young Europeans in search of cheap alcohol and loud, mind-numbing music, constantly blaring from every shop, bar and club. It’s never quiet in Sunny Beach.

The beach was great, though - six kilometres of white sand, gradually sloping and child-friendly with life guard towers everywhere. On this sunny August day, the water was a pleasant 26 degrees C.

Normally, beaches bore me silly, but what I won’t suffer through for my water-loving daughters. Now they were in the waves and I was left on the beach to mind their stuff, including about 5000 toys - each one too precious to lose. Winds were heavy and my six-leva beach parasol required some effort to keep from falling.

Out of sheer tedium, I tried to bargain with the parasol rental guy, but to no avail. “6 levas no expensive. I’ve been Spain and Portugal. Much cheaper Bulgaria,” the tall, muscular guy claimed, while fixing me with his pale blue eyes. They were nice eyes, the colour of the early morning ocean, and they went well with his olive skin tone.

The locals spoke little English. Some would reply in German, but many seemed to speak only Bulgarian. No worries, though; signing, pointing or drawing always does the job. Also, blagodaria (thank you) worked wonders, especially when spoken by a four-year-old Chinese girl with a Scandinavian accent.

The wind wafted the scent of Nivea to my nostrils. Surrounding me were bodies of all shapes with colourful bits of clothing, or without; speaking a wide variety of languages. Abandoned toys looked lonely near the edge of the green ocean. Further out, the water changed to midnight blue, then black, and old wooden boats tipped on top of the waves. Across an expanse of black ocean, the red tiled roofs of ancient Nessebar beckoned.

That was it. Enough of this lounging. That’s where we were going when it was my turn to decide. Today, the kids had the morning and I the afternoon. Besides, I was the oldest and had the money. After depositing toys and wet swimming costumes in our room, we headed for one of the wooden boats that ply between Sunny Beach and Nessebar.

It was still blowing friskily and the boat tossed precariously about in the waves. But the skilled captain finally managed to lay her ashore. Stepping off the boat had to be timed with the motion of the waves. An elderly German woman missed her moment and brutally tumbled on to the shore. To avoid a horrible death by drowning, I decided we should take the mini train instead. I claimed it was because it was cheaper - 10 levas for the three of us rather than 10 levas per person. Yeah, I know; it’s a sorry excuse. Call me chicken. My kids did.

One of Europe’s oldest cities, Nessebar is situated on a small, rocky peninsula, linked with the mainland by a 400-metre long isthmus. The city was founded by the Thracians around 3500 years ago and people have lived here continuously since. The Thracians were farmers and accomplished artists. They called their city Menebria. Invading Greeks changed it to Mesembria and the Slavs transformed that again to Nessebar. I kept listening for the correct pronunciation but heard it said with the emphasis on any of the three syllables.

For several centuries, Nessebar passed between Bulgarian and Byzantine hands, finally ending up in the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Today, the city has a charming mixture of Greek and Byzantine architecture and it was added to UNESCOs World Heritage list in 1983.

Serenaded by an old bagpiper, we entered Nessebar through the ruins of the medieval fortified walls that run along the entire city. Walking the narrow cobblestone streets, tiny squares appeared around every corner. The upper floors of the half-timbered Black Sea houses jutted out above the streets, the wood offering protection from harsh winds. Narrow, external staircases led to the top floors. Many of the houses had lovely flower gardens, very romantic.

Iskra, a Nessebar local, told me the houses were from the National Revival period. The lower stone floors were used for storing fish, wine and farming equipment. The top floors had halls and bedrooms, as well as a kitchen and pantry. The rich even had indoor toilets, an unusual fixture in the eighteenth century.

Roast beef and “Jorkshire” pudding were on offer practically everywhere, with plenty of sunburnt happy Brits enjoying the fare. Across the street, the Bayerischer Hof was full of beer-swilling Germans. Opting for the Honolulu and a table overlooking the ocean, we had a delcious traditional Shopska salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and grated Sirene, a white goat cheese, not unlike Feta. If there’s nothing else in a Bulgarian fridge, it’s said, there’s always a chunk of Sirene.

You really can’t get lost in Nessebar, as all roads lead to the ocean. At the tip of the peninsula, I spotted a lovely little beach. Cosy pubs and taverns abounded, many with ocean views. I would have liked to sit and slowly sip a glass of chilly white on a terrace; watching the buzz of people on one side, the ocean on the other. Maybe next time, sans kids.

Meanwhile, my four-year-old had discovered yet another stall selling lively-looking wooden snakes. She was fascinated by them; scared at first, then approaching closer each day, finally daring to touch one after three days. On the last day, she bought one to keep in the flower pot next to the doorbell at home, gleefully anticipating who amongst her little friends would be intrigued and who would be frightened to tears.

According to local legend, the old city of Nessebar had 42 churches. I saw seven and even that is impressive for a city of 2000 people. The best preserved churches in the Balkans, they looked more like fancy small villas than churches, one more beautiful than the next.

Iskra told me Christianity was strongly discouraged during Muslim rule. The Turks tried to assimilate the Bulgarians, often using brutal measures. Even so, perhaps defiantly, the inhabitants continued to build and lovingly decorate their churches. The Greek Orthodox Bulgarians fled to the mountains to escape forced conversion to Islam, thus keeping Bulgarian culture alive during times of repression.

Bulgaria used to be a monarchy until nine-year-old Czar Simeon II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was thrown out by the communists in 1946. Fifty years later, he returned and was met with shouts of “We want our King” from thousands of Bulgarians. Later, he formed a political party, the National Movement for Simeon II (NMSS), and was elected prime minister in 2001, promising the Bulgarian people higher living standards within a period of 800 days. When he failed to deliver, his popularity faded and in the 2005 election, he was defeated. I asked Boriana, a local, if he had been a popular prime minister. “No,” she stated emphatically. “He made many promises and none keep. Population was desperate.” Even though her English was somewhat limited, there was no confusing her feelings for the late king-turned-prime minister.

A few days later, we returned to Nessebar late in the afternoon, after the day-trippers had left. Around dusk, it felt like we were walking on the set of an historical drama. I almost expected to see a reluctant gladiator hiding in one of the narrow alleys. Peeking through a gate on Mesembria Street, I saw an elderly woman with a tan-coloured dog in her lap, both soaking up the last rays of the setting sun. They were surrounded by colourful flowers; the scene looked very peaceful. Outside the restaurant Sevina, the chef had a rest on a bench, waiting for the first dinner guests of the night. Children played among the ruins and fountains on the little square, facing the windy Black Sea.

Heading down towards the old harbour, we passed the well-preserved ruins of the thirteenth century Church of Jesus Christ Pantocrator, perhaps the most beautiful of all Nessebar’s churches. The sun shone off the red, green and white tiles on the wall. On the upper wall of the church was a band of swastikas. A young couple appeared shocked by this. It’s easy to forget the swastika pre-dates Hitler, as an ancient religious symbol.

Slowly, the sun set. Walking across the Isthmus bridge, we left this charming old city for the final time, passing the large windmill greeting visitors on our way. Returning to Sunny Beach with its glaring lights and blasting music, well, that’s another story entirely - one much too depressing to write. Suffice it to say, my old Lonely Planet guide is right, you can’t ever check out of the Hotel California here.

Back at our hotel, over coffee tasting like moth balls, I contemplated our visit to the Black Sea. What could I add to put a positive spin on Sunny Beach?

Well, we did have a quirky experience. For days, the rain had pelted relentlessly. Lacking a proper drainage system, the streets simply overflowed. Locals made no fuss about it, so we followed their lead. Taking off our shoes and pulling up our trousers, we waded through the streets, going about our business as planned. At one point, water came up to my thighs and the lukewarm water actually felt rather soothing on my sunburnt legs. The kids had a fabulous time, jumping up and down, splashing and laughing.
Afterwards, the town looked like disaster had struck. Burgas airport could have doubled as a shallow swimming pool. In the departures lounge, we had to sit with legs up while cleaners swept the water out through the doors to the runway.

For our next beach holiday, I’m thinking Lake Baikal or the Caspian Sea. Beach bumming in Siberia or Iran - now, that’s exotic. For Bulgaria again, a flat in Old Nessebar would be just right. I’d love to walk around the streets at dawn in, say late October; the early morning silence interrupted only by the sound of breaking waves, my shoes on the cobbled stones and perhaps that little tan-coloured mutt barking through the mist.