Varna on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria
Bulgarian 1980s pop pops from loudspeakers in this cavernous black-ceilinged space that houses dozens of Ladas, Dacias, Trabants and other gleaming Soviet-era cars, all fresh from the factory, with strategically mirrored mirrors proudly placed display their working engines.
Still, it’s not a film set, I’m on the top floor of a glitzy new shopping center in Varna on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, ushered through a red velvet curtain into the Retro Museum.
Next to each exhibit is a disarming wax of a different Communist leader resembling sneaky car salesmen next to their offspring.
There are also display cases of packets of cigarettes, toys and all kinds of other paraphernalia. It sits perfectly between the kitsch and the cultural.
Although Bulgaria embraced Soviet-style communism, it was also the first Communist state to sell Coca-Cola, brought back from a state visit to the United States in 1956.
The best of Varna’s three beaches, Rappongi Beach, is a short walk from the center
Perhaps the best little European coastal town that no one has heard of
He was also a prodigious producer of equally decadent consumer goods, such as cigarettes and chocolate, which were more elusive in other places behind the Iron Curtain.
Three decades after communism, this era has been exploited to some extent as another consumer product. In this case, it is “ostalgic” communist tourism that is the product, a somewhat learned nostalgia for a simpler, albeit harsher, era.
Elsewhere around Varna, there is a strong feeling that “Bulgaria’s maritime capital” is keen to make up for lost time and capitalize on its many strengths.
To begin with, the city has an important cultural weight.
The fourth largest Roman Baths in the Empire are found in the heart of the city’s cultural quarter, while the Archaeological Museum houses the world’s oldest golden treasures, a collection of impressively complex gold costume jewelry unearthed in 1972 in a necropolis dating from 5000 BC. .
In the historic center, spectacular buildings from the turn of the 20th century in varying states of faded glamor stand alongside more brutalist structures.
Some of the most eye-catching include the striking Baroque Opera House and the Grand Musalla Hotel, built in 1927 as a smaller-scale replica of New York’s Flatiron Building. Leaning against the building is another equally impressive grande dame, the Grand Hotel London.
Varna sits perfectly between kitsch and culture
My excellent guide Christian tells me about Dabko Dabkov, the long forgotten architect behind the two buildings, with obvious pride.
He has written three books on Dabkov and led the campaign to erect an elegant statue of his idol, admiring his own work from a nearby bench.
The historic center of Varna has a laid back and laid back feel.
Vibrant flower baskets seem to spring from every corner along wide boulevards, couples feed goblets of mighty rakia in the plazas and skinny stray cats optimistically choose around restaurant terraces at tables laden with assorted meats. juicy grilled and salad dishes, heavy with meaty tomatoes and chunks of pesto-glazed feta.
Of course, McDonald’s ubiquitous golden arches take pride of place above an English language school, and rightly so. But I also see a British craft brewery and the wrought-iron balustrades of the rarefied Social Teahouse.
English is widely spoken in the city
In a shady square next to the beautiful ethnographic museum, a group of people come together to organize a culture-themed outdoor Monopoly game for the city, one of the many art projects born from Varna’s status as a city. as European Youth Capital 2017.
Varna is as much coastal as it is cultural. The best of Varna’s three beaches, Rappongi Beach, is a short walk from the center.
This is a popular spot for wakeboarders, I am reliably informed, but I prefer to lounge under rattan umbrellas and palm trees and order a random cocktail from the menu only in Cyrillic.
Don’t worry English is widely spoken here, I just appreciate the novelty of ordering this way. A deckchair, shade and a cocktail cost me 16 lev for the afternoon, less than ten dollars.
Even Varna’s nightlife manages to be classy and classically influenced. Coastline Alley is a 12-mile stretch lined with beach clubs, nightclubs, and pool bars that wouldn’t seem out of place in Ibiza Town or Mykonos.
Many are housed in beautiful old Art Nouveau stucco bath houses, a few meters from the Black Sea itself.
Varna’s nightlife is chic and classically influenced
In one of them, Disco Club X, I timidly groove to chalga tunes (a European variety of oriental folk dance) before taking to the air on a balcony directly above the lapping waters.
A sixties-year-old Super Mario lookalike in shades and a flying jacket struts around playing the aerial guitar before unsuccessfully attempting to join the dancers in swimsuits on the neon-denuded track before the bouncers do not intervene politely.
A surreal finale to an invigorating few days that leaves me wondering why there is yet to be discovered that slice of Black Sea nirvana that is Varna, perhaps the best little European coastal town that no one has heard of.
easyJet (easyjet.com) offers round-trip flights from London Gatwick to Varna from Â£ 52. The Grifid Hotel Metropol in the Golden Sands complex offers two nights from Â£ 160 all inclusive. Tourism in Varna: visit.varna.bg