Bulgaria - Rough Guides.com

If Westerners have an image of Bulgaria, it tends to be coloured by the murky intrigues of Balkan politics, exemplified by the infamous tales of poisoned umbrellas and plots to kill the pope. From the Bulgarians' standpoint, though, the nation has come a long way since it threw off the 500-year-old yoke of the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s, and is now struggling to cope with the aftermath of Communist misrule. Renaming themselves the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Communists long remained the dominant force in national politics after 1989, and progress towards free-market reforms was lethargic, to say the least. The election of a right-of-centre government in April 1997 gave ground for new hope, although low wages and high unemployment remain ever-present features of Bulgarian life. War in neighbouring Serbia in 1999 took its toll, especially for traders who once relied on the Danube as a vital link with central Europe, but normality is slowly returning.

Independent travel here is not common, but there are relatively few restrictions, the costs are low, and for the committed there is much to take in. The main attractions are the mountainous scenery, and the web of towns and villages with a crafts tradition, where you'll find the wonderfully romantic architecture of the National Revival era. Foremost among these are Koprivshtitsa in the Sredna Gora range; Bansko in the Pirin mountains; Plovdiv, the second largest city; and Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital. The monasteries can be startling, too - the finest, Rila, is on every tourist's itinerary. For urban thrills, the capital Sofia and the animated coastal resort of Varna are the places to aim for.