Bulgaria, which was founded in 681 A.D., is the oldest state in Europe, but its roots reach far deeper into the past. In tombs adorned with frescoes and bas-reliefs in the Valley of the Kings, archaeologists continue to discover beautifully worked golden objects buried with Bulgaria's Thracian forebears, some dating to 3000 B.C. Uncovering the countless burial mounds that dot central Bulgaria is a process started in earnest just a decade ago. In that short time, it has become clear that Bulgaria once was home to the world's most sophisticated goldsmiths. The discoveries also have prompted local claims that it was here, in the shadow of the Balkan Mountains, that Europe's first civilization was born.
Traversing Bulgaria's mountain ranges, which are carpeted with ancient forests and carved by mineral-rich rivers, you can see why the country's sophisticated warrior-artists chose to settle in its fertile plains. Bulgaria is a fascinating country, with a temperate climate that is more southern European than eastern. It is this gentle climate, along with a sweeping, sandy beach bordering the Black Sea coastline, that continues to attract new visitors, the vast majority of whom arrive in high summer.
Most of Bulgaria's unique treasures lie hidden in the ancient tombs of the Valley of the Kings; in the mixture of Bulgarian Renaissance architecture and ancient Roman ruins lining the cobbled streets of Plovdiv; in the medieval university town of Veliko Tarnovo that rises precipitously from limestone cliffs above the winding Yantra River; and in the architectural museum towns snuggled deep in Bulgaria's mountains. It is particularly the latter, their narrow cobbled lanes and alleys lined with 19th-century stone-and-timber homes, that define Bulgaria as an undiscovered gem.
Getting to the villages is an adventure as you snake along empty roads edged with high embankments billowing with red poppies and white elder flowers. You'll inevitably pass women in patterned headscarves tilling fields by hand, and wizened old men driving horse-drawn carts piled with hillocks of hay so huge you can't see their wheels. It's Bulgaria at its unspoiled best, a cache of natural beauty and ancient history, comfortable accommodations, and fresh cuisine in surroundings that show few signs of the so-called advances of the 21st century. It's no surprise that Bulgaria's tourism is on the increase, albeit it slowly, with 7.7 million visitors now including this unpolished Balkan jewel in their Eastern European itineraries. With a lack of tourism infrastructure, shockingly uneven service levels, and a foreign alphabet, Bulgaria may not be the easiest destination to master, but armed with this chapter, it will provide some of the most authentic experiences Eastern Europe has to offer.