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325km (200 miles) northeast of Sofia

Bulgaria's Danubian Plain stretches from the northern Balkan range to the Danube River Valley with a patchwork of gold and green topography that is a colorful overlay on the plain's gentle hills and valleys. Almost nothing man-made interrupts the ever-changing patterns until you get to the river and the Austro-Hungarian-flavored town of Ruse. Nonetheless, even before you get to that sparkling Bulgarian river town, there are a few must-see gems sprinkled among the wheat and sunflower fields that cover almost 325km (200 miles) of northern Bulgaria.

Bulgarians refer to Ruse as "Little Vienna," a moniker that aptly describes the atmosphere of this Danubian town on the country's northern river border. Yes, Ruse has its share of ugly concrete towers, but that visual insult is overshadowed by the gorgeous Art Nouveau-style homes and public buildings that dominate its downtown. Unlike the dour, silent, heads-down demeanor of people on the streets of Sofia, there is a palpable joie de vivre among the folks on the streets of Ruse that is contagious. Perhaps it's because Ruse once was a transit city for travelers going from Central Europe to Istanbul, or perhaps it's because of the city's vibrant cafe society, several important cultural attractions, hotels, and restaurants that actually cater to the customer, and one of the most interesting, active promenades in Bulgaria. Whatever the reason, Ruse is a place where you can almost feel people shedding their stress as they mingle on the korso. It's a place where you will feel relaxed and welcome to become part of the party. If only the city fathers would clean up the riverfront.