Alternative destinations: a Black Sea coast guide
Everyone has an opinion when it comes to the best place to spend great beach holidays. For some nothing beats the Spanish Costa Brava while others only swear by Australia or Thailand. We've tried many options and are always looking for a new area to explore. A few years back, Croatia was a beautiful adventure, so we figured that we should keep going East to find new unexplored (by Westerners) beaches in the old Soviet territory. With a cheesy Russian retro charm, the Black Sea resorts have always attracted us since we got a preview during a trip to Crimea in Ukraine. And we heard good things about Bulgaria and Georgia too. So when we connected with Jerome and he offered to review a few of those resort towns for us, it was the perfect first step to prepare our next adventure there.Batumi, Georgia
You like a beach holiday but are looking for an alternative to Spain or the French Riviera? Why not try the Black Sea coast? During my trip I had the chance to sample the main Bulgarian resorts, and one Georgian. From lively buzzing cities to laid back villages, there is something for everyone.
- Soundtrack of the report
- Две черти
- Цветелина Янева
The Black sea was the soviet summer holiday destination. Since the end of the communist era, more and more Eastern Europeans pack their swimwear and flip-flops every year for a cheap suntan there. Although most places are still under major development works, the infrastructures are good and the choice of accommodation and outings are plenty. And it's very good value for money for Westerners...
By Jerome Alexandre
The young generation of Bulgarians and Georgians can speak some English, but there is no guarantee of successful communication... The older generations, and again most of the younger, speak Russian that until recently was the second compulsory language at school. In most cases though everybody can read Latin alphabet, which can be life saving when you're asking for directions. But if you stay at least a week in any of those countries, you should try reading Cyrillic or Georgian to find your way or order food. I found Cyrillic a lot easier. It took me just 4 days to be able to read almost anything, although after more than 10 days in Georgia, I still struggle to pronounce even city names. This is due to the rounded shapes of letters, and often very tiny differences two or three characters which makes them hard to remember.
Safety and annoyances
I found both countries and all places equally safe and easy to get round. Markets have clear price labels, and in most restaurants, even fast-food, there is a menu with some understandable English, and quantities and prices are clearly indicated. A 10% service charge is added to your bill in Georgia though and there is no mention of that anywhere, but once you know this, you're fine! Gipsies were the only annoying people, but are easy to get rid of if you are firm. Calm, but firm. Always keep your wallet, phone and camera in a closed bag or pocket though, and be careful not to tempt anyone with a display of shiny technology and bank notes... Just be sensible, and you'll be perfectly safe.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Don't get confused with those displays of affection between boys or girls. It's friendship. Both in Bulgaria and Georgia, people are very tactile and as in Arabic culture, they will hold hands, or be arms over shoulders. This is absolutely no sign of homosexuality. Although it was de-penalized in the early '00s (!!), there is still a fairly low level of acceptance. Any sign of affection by people who are clearly not locals will probably get a bad look, and worse a few bad words.
In Bulgaria, There used to be two gay bars in Varna, but today only one remains and locals don't recommend it. The cruising area is the park by the beach, and should be safe, but be careful. According to locals there is little record of homophobic violence, but just behave sensibly.
Georgia is a step behind. No gay bar, hardly any friendly one. Local gay rights association's website mention alleys in Batumi's main park as a cruising area, but it's only popular during the high season. If you judge by turning on Grindr, there's hardly any gay in Georgia, but this is due to a low level of equipment in smartphones. In Batumi, I was getting guys from the other side of the sea where it's slightly more popular.
Resort city guide
It's Bulgaria's third largest city, and the country's main port. It is also a good holiday resort. Many bars and clubs, an aqua park, delphinium and aquarium make a seafront rich of entertainment. The bars and clubs have private beaches and are very popular at night. A large park along the coast brings fresh air on a hot afternoon. The city center has a long pedestrian street stretching a few kilometers from the beach to the cathedral with lots of shops, more bars and restaurants. At the cathedral end are the opera and a colorful fruits and vegetables market.
It's very easy to get away from traffic and you can walk everywhere. The train station is only a short walk from the main attractions, and the large bus station is only three city bus stops away. Buses go to Sofia, Bucharest, Odessa, Istanbul, and many international destinations. The international airport nearby has flight to major European cities.
Varna is a backpacker's favourite for its new good, cheap and friendly hostel by the market near the cathedral: Yoho Hostel.
Tip: only change money in the shops that have a clear sign with both selling and buying prices. Those with only selling prices will inevitably rip you off with their well hidden buying rates.
Click for more: http://varna-bulgaria.info/
Located 17 km north of Varna, Golden Sands is a totally different story. As you could easily guess by the name, the resort was constructed pretty recently. It was created in the late 50s, and big hotels have grown like mushrooms since the end of the Soviet era. Hotels, bars, discos, casinos, shopping center and a large sandy beach made it very popular with Russians, Germans and Czechs rushing by thousands to enjoy a cheap all-inclusive package for the whole family... A single one way street winds between the hotels, and the seafront as a long promenade with trees. The modern and practical urban design makes it an agreeable resort very much like those of Spain and the Canary Islands. One good noticeable thing is that it appears finished and in good operation condition, unlike some other places with uncompleted constructions, or ugly crumbling infrastructures. The access is guarded, and only guests are allowed in which makes it a pretty safe place too.
Among all the many bars and restaurants on the seafront, you can find a replica of the Eiffel tower with a restaurant on the first floor, and London-Eye-like Ferris wheel...
Click for more: http://www.goldensands.bg/
Also constructed in the '60s, it's a mix between Varna and Golden Sands, combining the worst of both. It's a massive industrial complex with 800 hotels and a total of more than 300 000 beds. It grew more massively than Sandy Beach thanks to its location. Golden Sands had a very limited space between the hills and the sea, but Sunny Beach had a flatter land to spread. The center and seafront are pretty well designed and maintained but the outskirts are less attractive with abandoned or unfinished constructions and a run-down amusement park and Aqua Park.
Unless you'd made a habit coming here for the last 40 years or so, you wouldn't want to stay here. If you're into big all-inclusive hotels, go to Golden Sands, and if you prefer a lively city, opt for Varna! If you want a bargain holiday with lots of options for booze and cheap disco, Sunny Beach is your dream destination!
Very much like Varna, it's both a port and resort in one city, on a slightly smaller scale. The park by the seafront looks good and is also well maintained with flower beds, fountains and many trees. There are no clubs, bars and private beaches here. The main pedestrian street has many bars and restaurants, and there's free wifi on the main square! It's a a good place to make the most of a day or overnight stopover when you change buses, with the train and bus station just near the centre. But you wouldn't want to spend a holiday there, not even a weekend. You can catch a bus here to Sofia, Varna, Istanbul, or a train to Sofia.
Click for more: http://www.burgas-bulgaria.com/
Also sometimes spelt Carevo, 50 km south of Burgas, this is a small village that's recently decided to get its share of the tourism money. With just one stone beach and a small marina, it's a quiet and laid back destination. Hotel constructions have only just started five year ago and there are only a bunch of modern all-inclusive hotels run by Czech or Belarus tour operators. There is a small but nice sandy beach south of the centre, and another stone beach to the north. Other smaller family-run hotels offer a cheaper option, although food is not included. The village is still expanding and a massive hotel complex is still under construction, or maybe abandoned half way through as nobody was working on the site when I visited. It's a good place for a short and quieter holiday, with picturesque touch.
Georgia is located on the east side of the Black sea. From there you can enjoy sunsets on the sea! Batumi is a lot more sophisticated than all of the above. It was very popular during the soviet era and is now benefiting a new boost with Turks, Armenians and other western travellers. Some massive hotels and other impressive infrastructures are still under construction.
A large park, a long promenade and a cycle lane stretch several kilometers along the broad stone beach. Fitness lovers will be delighted to find workout equipments in several places. The park is fully connected with free wifi throughout. Outdoor ping-pong and pool tables, flower beds and wide alleys, benches and fountains are plentiful. You can use the bike rental service that has many docking stations. All is new or at least in good condition. Apart from a few high hotels on the seafront, the rest of the city centre is made of small buildings and houses in small and quiet cobbled streets. This is by far the most stylish and wealthy resort. Prices are also slightly higher than in Bulgaria, but not so much. You can stay in a central hostel from 25 Laris (13 Euros) per person per night. There's a wide choice of bars and restaurants to satisfy every need and every budget.
Buses run regularly to Turkey and the rest of Georgia, and the international airport has flights to Tehran, Moscow, Warsaw, Istanbul
Click for more: http://visitbatumi.travel/