Turkey and Bulgaria have a shared history with unbreakable ties due to the mere fact that they are neighbors, and that their peoples are so intertwined due to the shared geography and cultural elements.
It is virtually impossible to not see the similarities between the two countries, cuisines, cultures and peoples. Especially, the similarities between Bulgaria and Turkey’s northwestern parts that are situated in the historical Thrace region are too striking to ignore.
The same laid-back attitude of Thracian people, genuine smiles, hospitality, and the same laughter and joy are everywhere to be seen.
Recently, I and several of my journalist colleagues from different news outlets such as Turizm Günlüğü (Tourism Diary), Cumhuriyet newspaper and Turizmin Sesi (Voice of Tourism) were invited by the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism to see their country for ourselves and, I’m not even exaggerating, it was one hell of a trip.
As we say in Turkish, “Keep whatever you drank and ate to yourself, just tell us what you saw,” so, let me tell you what I saw even though I will talk about the delicious cuisine too!
After showing my invitation letter to the Bulgarian customs officials, who, to be honest, questioned me a little at first, I passed through and met with our wonderful crew outside the Sofia Airport.
Their hospitality was visible from the very first moment we got on the bus until our last few minutes in the country, and I am genuinely impressed by this as a Turk, whose nation is world-famous for its love of guests.
Ivaylo Hranov, who asked us to call him “Ivo,” was our friendly guide who spoke very fluent Turkish, as he had a bachelor’s degree in Turkish philology from Sofia University. Ivo was very knowledgeable about Bulgarian history and provided us with wonderful information throughout our travel in southwestern Bulgaria, which was the scope of our tour.
Our Bulgarian driver Mr. Dancho, who was nearing 65 but did not look a day older than 50, did not speak English but we got along just fine with his jokes in sign language and gestures. He was one of the highlights of the tour due to his funny, joyful attitude.
A Bulgarian influencer Asya Zareva also accompanied us on the trip and was always full of laughter and joy.
After a short bus ride from Sofia Airport, which is very close to the city center, we arrived at our hotel, the Hyatt Regency Sofia. The Hyatt's quality and attention to detail was immediately obvious from the moment we stepped in.
The hotel was equipped with wall-size flat-screen smart TVs, espresso machines and other amenities in every single room. We were also given a tour of the presidential suite, which has bullet-proof windows and a beautiful view of Sofia, including its cathedrals, botanical garden, squares and other beauties.
Hyatt Regency Sofia also has arguably the best lounge I have ever seen in a hotel so far with its 80’s style, which is executed so well that you cannot help but feel that vaporwave vibe.
With its terrace and beautiful artworks, Hyatt Regency was one of the true examples of how a hotel should be decorated and styled.
Later at lunchtime, we stopped at the beautiful Shtastliveca Restaurant on Sofia’s famous Vitosha Boulevard.
Shtastliveca became the place where I tried Bulgarian cuisine for the first time. Let me tell you: it is always about the salad, salad, salad and more salad.
“Turks drink soup before the meal, and we eat salad,” Ivo explained. The salads offered before the meals are offered in such huge portions that you can easily say “I’m full” and leave right after the first course. Usually topped with Bulgarian white cheese, which is very similar to the white cheese we have in Turkey, Bulgarians love their salad and they are very good at making it. Even though I am not too much of a salad guy, those were the real deal and I loved them.
The salad was usually followed by chicken or beef in all meals we had throughout our trip, and only once by delectable meatballs,which the city of Plovdiv, or Filibe, is famous for.
Later on, Ivo took us to the National Museum of History, which is on the outskirts of Sofia.
The museum, even though not too big like its counterparts in northern European countries, is definitely worth a visit thanks to the sheer amount of historical artifacts on display, or even only for the wonderful panoramic forest view that it offers.
As we toured around Sofia, we also stumbled upon the Kadı Seyfullah Efendi, or Banyabaşı Mosque in Sofia. The Ottoman-built house of worship dates back to 1566, and remains as the only mosque in the Bulgarian capital.
Near the mosque, we also observed the ancient ruins, which lie right in the center of Sofia.
During our walking tour in Sofia, we saw the beautiful architecture of Ivan Vazov National Theater, the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker and the Russian church among others.
The building is close to the Russian church in Sofia’s city center and has beautiful architecture that we got used to seeing in the city.
On the second day of our tour, we left Sofia for Borovets, a small yet very peaceful ski resort.
Before reaching our destination, we stopped at a spa hotel called “Belchin Spring” in the namesake town and were given a tour of the facilities. The had a wonderful, nature-oriented design that made use of wood and other natural materials.
Later on, we got on our bus again and finally arrived in Borovets. As we visited during summers, skiing was not an option but the fresh air was definitely the highlight of the trip. The natural vistas and virgin forests offered a therapeutic experience, a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of cities.
Staying in yet another beautiful hotel, the Hotel Rila Borovets, we took in the magnificent view of the forest and prepared our own meals while relishing the clean air.
Another thing that I loved about Bulgaria was the moisture-free air. If I had walked even one-tenth of the distance I covered in Sofia in Istanbul, I would have been sweating buckets and would probably have started hating my life due to the unbearable levels of humidity we have back at home.
The weather in Borovets was also chilly, not humid at all which let us take deep, fresh breaths whenever we wanted.
On the third day of our tour, we first visited the “Dancing Bears Park” in a small Bulgarian town called Belitsa. Normally, I hate zoos, and I am staunch in my opinion that zoos are a prison for animals. Animal cruelty and captivity disgust me, so I was very hesitant about visiting the place.
But the park seemed to – at least to some degree – appeal even to me, as the park has been built not according to how people would want it, but rather how the bears would prefer it. You only have a very narrow, fenced-off path to walk on that goes right through the facility, and the bears seemed free to roam around. Even though I was seriously disturbed by the fact that there was an electric fence to keep the bears from getting too close to the visitors, I just tried to stomach it and to be honest, it is more or less a necessity in such a facility.
After observing the wonderful bears at the park, we visited an amusement park nearby and hopped on a roller coaster that runs on individual cars directed by the driver. Being in control of the car felt amazing, as I could slow it down whenever I got anxious and increase the speed when I wanted some adrenaline; and the fact that the rails run through nature made it even more awesome.
We also visited some Bulgarian “mehanas” in our tour, which date back to the Ottoman times when they were called “mekan”s (venues). Mehana restaurants are usually old and marvelous, and they offer an escape from the horrors of modern-day city life.
Later on, we arrived in Bansko, the world-famous Bulgarian ski resort. Bansko is, plain and simple, beautiful. It is compact, has wonderful restaurants, architecture and gorgeous views.
Skiing, again, was not an option during summer but the Kempinski Grand Arena Bansko, the only international hotel chain in the city, made sure that we had a wonderful stay.
The hotel is crafted in wood; the smell is everywhere and the rooms are just amazing. We also toured the presidential suite, which, at the high season, sells for tens of thousands of euros per night. The suite is chosen as one of the top 101 presidential suites around the world and, it shows.
We also visited a gorgeous orthodox church in Bansko, which was full of color and grandeur.
Later on, we left Bansko for Velingrad, a small town famous for its spas in Bulgaria.
On our way, we stopped at a roadside bazaar, in which we found Bulgarian Turks selling tarhana soup, olives, honey and other food items.
Hearing them speak Turkish in the Thracian accent was a beautiful experience and we chatted a little, purchased some goodies and got on our bus again.
In Velingrad, we checked into another beautiful hotel, The Arte. As you can tell by its name, the hotel is very artsy and has a refreshing and modern feel to it.
Afterward, we were taken to another beautiful restaurant in Velingrad’s center and later returned to our hotels to try the spa and needless to say, this city is famous for its spas for a reason.
The unspoiled nature of Velingrad amused all of us, and the clean air was refreshing as always.
The Balkans in general, feel very post-Sovietic from time to time and Bulgaria is no exception. If you pay close attention to details, you can feel that communist vibe that resonates from especially old buildings and metro stations, ailing infrastructure and bumpy roads.
On our way to Plovdiv (Filibe), the last city on our tour, we had to wait for quite some time for a very old and rusty train to pass, the passengers of which all waved at us and we waved back. As I said, Balkan people are friendly in nature even toward people they don't know.
But Plovdiv, or Filibe as it was known due to its former name Philippopolis, does not feel Soviet at all.
It feels stereotypically central European; the shops, beautiful architecture, clean roads, historical artifacts, statues and so on.
Like Sofia, ruins worth seeing can be found in Plovdiv’s center too, but to a much greater extent.
The city dates back thousands of years, as we saw with our own eyes when we climbed to the top to visit the ancient theater for one of the most amazing views of the Balkans. The ancient theater was preparing for a play when we got there and there was a huge angel figure on its podium, which was built so professionally that it blended in with the ruins; many of us thought it was a genuine part of the theater at first.
Beautiful antique shops are everywhere in Plovdiv, and you can get so many things for very cheap, such as old cameras, lapel pins, books, and many other goodies.
We also crossed by a Dervish monastery, also known as a “mevlevihane,” in the hills of Plovdiv.
At the very top of Plovdiv, there is “Nöbet Tepe,” which roughly translates to “Watch/Guard Hill,” from where any possible incursion into the city was closely monitored back in the day. At Nöbet Tepe, we stumbled upon two Bulgarian musicians, who joyfully sang “Katibim,” a Turkish song also known as “Üsküdar’a Gider Iken” or “En route to Üsküdar” (a historical district on Istanbul’s Asian side). As I happen to have been living in Üsküdar for nearly 10 years now, this was a wonderful surprise for me.
After we descended from the hills of Plovdiv, we found the opportunity to visit the Dzhumaya (Cuma, or Friday) Mosque in the city.
This lovely mosque was built in 1364 by the Ottomans, nearly 100 years before Istanbul’s conquest. I also met a Bulgarian Turk who works at the facility.
After our time in Plovdiv was over, it was time to head back to Sofia to stay one more night before catching our plane in the morning.
Our last dinner in Bulgaria was at Hadjidraganov’s Cellars Restaurant, which has incredible historical architecture and the place genuinely feels like you’re eating in a cellar.
Downstairs people sit and enjoy their dinner together at old, wooden tables and have a wonderful time. The food, as always, was delicious there too.
After dinner, we headed out for one last tour of Sofia, but this time at night. The Bulgarian capital is lively and joyful at night as people can be seen eating, drinking, singing and just having a good time.
It goes without saying, the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere to be seen in Bulgaria as literally, nobody wears a mask here. Only hotels make it obligatory to wear a mask and gloves for when you’re getting breakfast but that’s about it. This small country of roughly 7 million people seems to have gotten over the pandemic. I cannot describe what a relief it was to go everywhere without a mask, as I also relaxed a little myself thanks to the fact that I got two doses of BioNTech vaccine back home. Let’s trust science and beat this pandemic, people; and not give in to the fearmongering of anti-vaxxers.
And that wraps my trip to the “komşi” – or the “neighbor.” It was beyond my expectations and revealed a lot about the genuine and hospitable nature of the Bulgarian people, and their beautiful country.
So, if you want to travel but have trouble finding a place to go to, I can easily recommend the Balkans in general. And when you come to the Balkans, make sure you visit Bulgaria, too.