The Lay of the Land
Bulgaria is in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, sandwiched between Greece and Turkey to the south and the Danube River (which denotes most of its border with Romania) to the north. Macedonia and Serbia lie to the west, the Black Sea to the east. More than half the country is mountainous, with the Sredna Gora and Balkan ranges slicing the country in half, and the southcentral plains (Valley of the Kings) flanked by the Pirin, Rila, and Rhodope mountain ranges.
The Regions in Brief
Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, is by far the country's most populous area, with 1.2 million citizens. But the southern mountain ranges 90 minutes away are where the country really starts to strut its stuff. The eternally snowcapped and majestic Rila and Pirin peaks dominate the region, stopping just short of 3,000m (9,840 ft.). These mountains are home to the country's most popular hikes and skiing opportunities as well as the hottest mineral spring in Europe -- a scalding 216°F (102°C). East of the Rila and Pirin lies the Rhodope range, with gorges and valleys covered in virgin forest and dotted with mountain villages. Touring this region by car is a must for any traveler serious about seeing the "real" Bulgaria.
Sredna Gora and the Balkan mountain ranges east of Sofia run through central Bulgaria, creating the Danubian plains of the north, while their southern slopes drop into the evocative-sounding Valley of the Kings (aka Valley of Roses after the rose farms there that produce some of the world's best-quality attar). Kazanluk is the unofficial capital of the region, but Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-most populous city (pop. 340,000), has a gorgeous historic center and makes a far better base for exploring.
Veliko Tarnovo is a short drive north from Plovdiv and just as captivating. Once Bulgaria's medieval capital, it is in the central Balkan range and a good stopover on your way to Varna, Bulgaria's third largest city (pop. 300,000, but larger during summer). Varna marks the beginning of a highly commercialized concrete ribbon of resorts that line the 380km (236-mile) Black Sea coastline, broken by the UNESCO-listed village of Nessebar, with its numerous Byzantine-influenced churches, and laid-back Sozopol.
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