Mediterranean Experience, Bargain Prices

Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

The Black Sea Coast south of Burgas, Bulgaria’s industrial port city, is a lonely and gorgeous place. Amid a landscape of wild green forests, craggy golden cliffs and brand-new, brightly colored holiday villas, there is almost no indication of the region’s complex history – which stretches back not mere centuries, but millennia, including stints as strategic outposts of the Greek and Roman empires.

Most of the coast was virtually unpopulated in recent times, its wide, sandy beaches serving as staging grounds for the communist-era workers’ resorts and a few modest campgrounds.

All of which makes Sozopol – a cliff-top town in the hills just south of Burgas – such a serendipitous discovery for Americans weary of the Mediterranean throngs.

Called first Apollonia and then Sozopolis by the ancient Greeks and Romans, this ancient port town boasts one of the best-preserved and most picturesque historic centers on the Black Sea, along with white-sand beaches and a vibrant Balkan cultural scene. In the last few years, Sozopol has evolved from its Socialist incarnation as an artist colony into an international destination, with a newly restored waterfront and a crop of luxury hotels.

And while it may seem remote on the map, Sozopol is surprisingly simple to reach. Direct flights connect from London and other European cities to the airport at Burgas, a 20-minute ride by car or bus. You can walk just about anywhere in Sozopol itself; the central beach and seaside park separate the so-called old and new town sections, though you’d ideally want a car to explore the myriad nearby beaches and mountain trails.

Clustered top a rocky promontory that juts into a wide turquoise bay, Sozopol’s distinctive wooden houses are prime examples of the so-called National Revival style of the 19th century – and the best example of the genre outside of Plovdiv. Geraniums bloom from windows along the hilly cobble-stoned streets, where families gather for domino games under lush grape arbors and profusions of pink and red roses.

Outside of July and August, when Bulgarians arrive en masse for summer holidays, the sleepy old town is pleasantly traffic-free. At night in June or September you can wander the romantic lanes all by yourself, as the moon shimmers over the harbor and honeysuckle perfumes the salty air, and the bouncy strains of Oriental pop waft from outdoor cafes.

Sozopol has excellent handicrafts shopping – earthenware pottery, rose-oil products, handmade lace and pearl-shell jewelry are highlights – but sooner or later, everyone heads to the beach.

Sozopol’s central beach is wide, shallow, and largely protected from the often-rough Black Sea waves; it’s ideal for children, and the surrounding rocks are popular with divers. Harmanite, the new town’s beach, is deeper with bigger waves. Tsari, a five-minute drive north of town, is a wide, sandy expanse framed by dark-green forests, and has a more rustic feel.

What really sets Sozopol apart for Western travelers, though, is basic economics. The lush fig and pomegranate gardens and sparkling 80-degree waters are reminiscent of Greece or Sicily. But the prices aren’t: for $20-30, you can park yourself in a sunny, air-conditioned room with a private bath in one of the ubiquitous guesthouses run by enterprising locals, with a balcony overlooking the sea. This is how generations of Black Sea travelers have lodged, and it’s still the preferred way to go, with nearly every old town house hanging out a shingle advertising “svobodni stai” – free rooms.

For about the same amount – $20-30 – two people can share a tasty, multi-course meal with wine in one of Sozopol’s dozens of seaside restaurants. Aside from the beachfront pubs and pizzerias, these are mostly traditional Bulgarian eateries; expect colorful hand-embroidered tablecloths, wonderful fresh salads of local vegetables and feta cheese, well-prepared fish and lots of vegetarian dishes, like egg casseroles and stewed peppers in tomato sauce.

Many of these establishments line the new Cliffside path that encircles the old town, where gentle waves crash onto the rocks just below. In Roman times, Sozopol’s old town was enclosed by a fortress wall, and several years ago town officials decided to reconstruct it, building upon the crumbling stone remains and adding an imposing, turreted watchtower.

Set into the Cliffside wall is Sozopol’s new museum, whose eclectic displays are typical of provincial institutions: you can see an ancient well, Roman water mains, and excavated pottery shards alongside oil paintings by a young local artist, and the lobby has cases of Thracian wine for sale. Up on the main drag, Apollonia Street, are the well-restored ruins of Roman temple, just a stone’s throw from the modern amphitheater.

I dutifully toured the ruins, but found the cluster of antique shops in the town center far more interesting than the museum. There are Ottoman scythes, busts of Hitler and Lenin – both local heroes at one time or another – World War One medals, Star of David pendants, Red Army banners, wildly out-of-date Cyrillic and Greek maps, Soviet microscopes, wooden folk-dancing shoes, and lots more fascinating detritus from centuries of political upheaval.

For as diminutive as it is in size (about 5,000 full-time residents), the Sozopol region is an intriguing ethnic palimpsest. Many locals sport Greek names and exchange salutations in Greek, while Turkish and Romanian ads spill across billboards, and Roma – the preferred term for Gypsies – still pile into donkey carts, as they have for ages. Sephardic Jews, a quiet and matter-of-fact presence here for hundreds of years, have mostly migrated to Israel, but some secular families remain, giving their children names like Yosif and Daniel and making their kofte (meatballs) with beef instead of pork.

Today they are joined by increasing numbers of Russians, Poles and Czechs, who bounce in Sozopol’s beachside discos and bask in the Slavic sun. Jews in these parts are hardly exotic, but Americans are. Yet in the long shadow of a linden grove, and two thousand years of history, it seems that anyone can feel right at home.

A street in old town Sozopol, known for handicrafts, shopping and a great beach.

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