Lonely Planet's Guide to Romania and Bulgaria
THOUGH distinct countries with different cultures, Romania and Bulgaria share a magnificent landscape of mountains and monasteries, a riveting history of domination and rebirth, and a long stretch of Black Sea coast.
1. Hiking in the Carpathians
Dense primeval forests that leap straight from the pages of a Brothers Grimm story, with bears, wolves, lynx and boar, rugged mountain plateaus, well-marked trails and a network of cabins en route to keep you warm. Hiking is the best way to absorb this vibrant landscape of forests and rolling pastureland. There are also some terrific guides out there to lead you to the best that Romania has to offer; be it bear-watching, birdwatching, homestays or hikes.
2. Bulgaria's Black Sea beaches
Whether you're looking for all-day tanning, all-night clubbing, or something a little more discrete and relaxing, you're sure to find some patch of sand to your liking along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast.
Away from the big, brash package resorts, you'll come across charming seaside towns standing above smaller sandy coves, while the cities of Varna and Burgas both have lengthy, less-crowded urban beaches.
If it's solitude you seek, head for the more remote beaches to the far north and south.
3. Rila Monastery
Set peacefully in a forested valley south of Sofia, Rila Monastery is Bulgaria's biggest and most storied spiritual treasure a former centre of learning and culture that kept national spirits up during the Ottoman occupation.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, the monastery grew from a 10th-century hermit's hut, and has been rebuilt many times since.
Its elaborate arches and precious frescoes and icons create a sublime and sumptuous atmosphere.
Today's architectural incarnation of the monastery is considered a masterpiece of 19th-century Bulgarian Renaissance.
4. Painted monasteries of Bucovina
Tucked in the Carpathian foothills, the UNESCO-listed painted monasteries of Bucovina proudly show off Romania's unique, Latin-flavoured Orthodox tradition.
The churches are at one with their natural surroundings and the dizzying kaleidoscope of colours and intricate details in the frescoes bring to life everything from biblical stories to the 15th-century siege of Constantinople.
The monasteries are the genius of Moldavian Prince Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare), who was later canonised for his works.
5. Wildlife in the Danube
Delta After flowing some 2800km across the European continent, the mighty Danube River passes through a vast expanse of remote wetland in eastern Romania the delta before finally emptying into the Black Sea.
Under international environmental protection, the region has developed into a sanctuary for fish and fowl of all stripe and colour.
Birders, in particular, will thrill to the prospect of glimpsing species such as the roller, white-tailed eagle, great white egret, mute and whooper swans, falcon, and even a bee-eater or two.
6. Veliko Tarnovo
The unquestioned highlight of Bulgaria's central heartland, the grand old city of the tsars Bulgaria's capital in medieval times offers a mix of antiquity, boutique bliss and nightlife.
This university town, set high above the ribboning Yantra River, is popular with visitors both local and foreign, who marvel at the oddly endearing "Sound and Light Show" held nightly at the impressive Tsarevets Fortress, a still-robust medieval citadel. It's also a great base for local hikes.
7. Bulgarian wine tasting
Bulgaria's winemaking tradition dates to ancient Thracian times, and fine wine has been enjoyed here by everyone from Roman writers and French crusaders to former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who used to order barrels of the local red from Melnik a village in the southwest of the country that remains a great place for sampling wines.
Distinct wine-growing regions exist from the Danube to the Black Sea to the Thracian Plain, and numerous wineries offer tastings that are usually complemented by meats, cheeses and memorable rustic views.
8. Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church, Sofia
Rising majestically over the rooftops of the Bulgarian capital, this beautiful Orthodox church, dedicated to the memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), took 30 years to construct, and was completed in 1912. The shimmering golden domes are visible several streets away, while the vast, candlelit interior is decorated with Italian marble, alabaster and fading murals. Daily services are led by robed, white-bearded priests, accompanied by chanting choirs.
9. Bran Castle
Perched on a rocky bluff in Transylvania, in a mass of turrets and castellations, Bran Castle overlooks a desolate mountain pass.
Its spectral exterior is like a composite of every horror film you've ever seen, but don't expect to be scared. Inside, Bran is anything but spooky, with its white walls and geranium-filled courtyard. Legend has it Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Count Dracula) was briefly imprisoned here, and you can follow his footsteps through a maze of courtyards and hidden passages.
10. Skiing in the Pirin Mountains
High in the Pirin Mountains are Bulgaria's most famous ski areas: Bansko and Borovets.
With the highest pistes starting from 2500m, Bansko is known for its long, steep runs and extended ski seasons. It's also an international party scene, offering everything from refined restaurants and spa treatments to crowded bars and clubs.
The slopes at Borovets, north beyond Mt Musala, also top 2500m. While the trails at this long-established favourite are less challenging, there is plenty of trickier, open terrain for thrill seekers.
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (6th Edition) by Mark Baker, et al. Lonely Planet 2013. Published this month, RRP: .99
Go2 - ROMANIA
Getting there: Romania has good air connections to Europe and the Middle East. Most international flights to Romania arrive at Bucharest's Henri Coanda International Airport.
Daily budget in Romania
Mid-range: 130-350 Romanian lei (local currency) or $A40-5
Double in a mid-range hotel or pension: 100 lei a person
Meals in good restaurants: 60 lei
Train/bus tickets: 30 lei
Museums/sundries: 30 lei
More information: Romania National Tourism Office
Getting to Bulgaria
Bulgaria has good air links with numerous European cities, as well as some cities in the Middle East, with Sofia being the main entry point. There are currently no direct flights to Bulgaria from further afield, and so visitors from Australia will need to pick up a connecting flight in Europe. Sofia Airport is the main point of entry to the country.
Daily budget in Bulgaria
Mid-range: 60-120 Bulgarian lev (lv, local currency) or $A40-
Double room in a mid-range hotel: 60-80 lv
Lunch and dinner in decent restaurants: 20-30 lv a person
More information: Bulgaria Travel
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If I were to advertise the Bg seaside to an Aussie I wouldn stress the cheap resorts either (because they already have a great share of the most amazing beaches in this world) but rather on a mix of cultural tourism and sun/sea fun at Nessebar or Balchik. You are right Mephisto many of the new constructions seem not to obbey any urban planning rules and from the Ro border to Burgas (that's the furthest south I travelled) only at Kaliacra I saw some unspoiled nature (a few years ago hope it is still there).
The Bulgarian Black Sea coast, once a real gem, is nowadays completely spoiled. Hotels built in natural parks and other protected areas, or directly on the beach by destroying the natural flora and fauna, without urbanistic concept, without architecture that deserves the name, frequently clustered together in a way that makes it clear that Bulgaria sees it's touristic future as a cheap all-inclusive-package destination for people who come mainly because of the cheap alcohol and equally cheap entertainment opportunities that are usually of lowest quality and who are not at all interested in Bulgaria. Already today there are hundreds of ruins of unfinished or never used "hotels" spoiling the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria and still they build more and more of such crimes against the nature and the good taste.
That a tourist guide that is addressing also individual and cultural tourists that really take an interest in the country they are visiting mentions that beton wall with sea view as the main attraction in Bulgaria is really insulting for the country. But it is in a way well-deserved, because it could have been so easily avoided if any previous government had the will to prevent these developments.