BULGARIA DREAM AREA CONFERENCE 2002

Essential information - Guardian Unlimited

Located in south-east Europe, Bulgaria's countryside of stunning mountains, plains and Black Sea coastline is no longer the preserve of communist dignitaries, and it is now more open to western tourists. Rich in history, it contains numerous ruins left over from earlier reigns, including the Romans, Byzantines and Turks.
The population of 8.2m people, over a million of whom live in the capital, Sofia, is mainly Bulgarian. Owing to the earlier Ottoman domination a sizeable Turkish minority still live there, as do 800,000 Gypsies. Bulgaria's transition to a free market economy did not go smoothly and a succession of different prime ministers and the war in Yugoslavia did nothing to help.
The situation is hopefully now more stable, although environmental problems remain: accidents have occurred at a nuclear power plant north of Sofia, and pollution around Burgas on the Black Sea does the nearby resorts no favours.

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Language
Bulgarian, a Slavic language which, like Russian, uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Turkish and Russian are the second most spoken languages; English and German are spoken a little in tourist areas. Note that Bulgarians nod their heads to mean no and shake them to mean yes.

Climate
Lengthy cold winters, especially in the mountains where it is usually possible to ski well into April. Winter temperatures are below zero, but slightly milder on the coast. Summer temperatures average 25-30C (77-86F). Springs and autumns are pleasant, but it takes a foolhardy person to brave the sea in April or October.

Health
Vaccinations against typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis A and polio are advisable. Tap water is chlorinated, but generally drinkable; bottled tastes better and will put your mind at ease.

Food
Like much of south-east Europe, the diet is based around meat, potatoes and boiled or fried vegetables. Food can be very good, especially in summer when ingredients are fresh and meat will be grilled with fresh herbs in front of you. Shopsky salads (like Greek salad, with the Bulgarian version of feta) are tasty; banitsa, a cheese pasty, is delicious when fresh, but vegetarians may overdose on these. Vegans will struggle, but could stumble upon a spicy stew of aubergines, garlic and chilli. For those wanting foreign fare, fast food joints abound in the larger towns, but tend to be pretty dire. Bulgarian beer is drinkable, the spirits of knock-out quality, and the wine is generally better than what's exported.

What to buy
Wines and spirits: red wines from around Melnik; rakiya, a strong, cheap brandy, and mastika which is similar to ouzo. Attar of roses: scent from the Valley of Roses, near Plovdiv. CDs: Bulgarian folk music ? open-voiced harmonies of mainly women?s choirs (look out for John Peel's favourite, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares). Handicrafts: locally made and painted ceramics, woollen rugs or even icons.

Currency
£1 buys 3.1 Bulgarian lev (BGL). The easiest currencies to change are US dollars, pounds Sterling and deutschmarks. ATMs can be found in the cities, but beware black market money changers who may fob you off with old currency.

Timezone
GMT +2.

Getting there
The national carrier, Balkan Air (020 7637 7637), flies direct from London Heathrow to Sofia, and there are flights from most European capitals to Sofia or Varna. Many agents operate package holidays to Bulgaria which can work out cheaper. There are train and bus links from the surrounding countries, but lengthy delays are possible on road crossings from Romania.