Where can you hear some of the most haunting and beautiful Grammy Award-winning music? In Bulgaria. Watch the prayerful dance of the Sufis? In Turkey. Visit the castle that inspired the Dracula character? In Romania. The fascinating countries of the Black Sea region straddle the transition between Europe and Asia, offering you an exotic blending of East and West.
The sea itself
Scientists suspect that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake about seven thousand years ago, until seawater from the Aegean breached the Bosphorus, the strait bisecting western Turkey, turning it into an inland sea. The Danube River, the border for miles between Bulgaria and Romania, is one of the primary European rivers supplying the Black Sea with fresh water. Some scholars believe that the Black Sea was the site of the deluge in the story of Noah and the Ark.
Turkey is where the Greeks (remember Helen of Troy?) the earliest Christians, and the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires flourished. Wander among the ruins at Ephesus, including the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and later the home of the Virgin Mary and St. John. Stop in Antalya where St. Nicholas lived; you may know him as Santa Claus.
Bulgaria, birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet, was a powerful empire for centuries. The Thracians’ success as mighty warriors and good land managers is reflected in their many monuments. Bulgaria’s historical sites and treasures include what appear to be the world’s oldest worked gold objects, from the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis, graceful stone carving at the Sveshtari Tomb and the slightly mysterious Madara Horseman.
Romanian history is truly dramatic, as wave followed wave of invasion and foreign rule over many centuries. The Dacians (Roman for Thracian) left modern-day Romania with loads of amazing archaeological sites. The Byzantine Painted Churches of Bucovina are covered in mesmerizing frescoes, and you’ll find a significant Saxon influence resulting from the arrival of Germanic immigrants in the 12th century. There’s a lot to discover about Romania!
On the northeast coast of Turkey lies Trabzon, where you can climb to the Sumela monastery, clinging to the cliffs outside the city since the 14th century. Further west is Safranbolu, a UNESCO Site, the last and largest repository of 19th century, half-timbered Ottoman houses. Drop down the Bosphorus, the strait connecting the Black Sea to the rest of the world, to visit Istanbul. The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and dozens of other sites will keep you busy for days of captivating touring.
Bulgaria’s largest coastal city is Varna, established by the Greeks and a busy seaport ever since. A variety of museums will keep you entertained when you can tear yourself away from the coast; choose from archaeological, medical, maritime, history, and art collections. Go for a scenic drive or boat ride in the Kamchiya River Valley, or settle in at one of Varna’s beach resorts. Nessebar is a must-see for its UNESCO-listed collection of architecture and it’s incredibly fine sand beaches. If you’re in the neighborhood of Osmar, plan a stop to taste some of its famous wines.
Jason and his Argonauts landed at Constanta, it’s said, Romania’s Black Sea coast hotspot and the 4th largest port in Europe. That would have been sometime ago, but clearly the spot was well-chosen. The city if happily littered with ruins and remnants of all the civilizations that recognized its excellent harbor. Travel inland to take in lovely Bucharest, once known as “little Paris”, thanks to its Belle Époque architecture and active social scene. There is a wide choice of museums, historic buildings, and galleries to enjoy as well as a thriving and performing arts scene.
Nature and Adventure
Romania is famous for its soft sand beaches and the string of popular resorts strung along its Black Sea coast. The Danube Delta, listed by UNESCO, is a birdwatcher’s paradise and wonderful for anyone who enjoys unsullied nature. The Delta is large beyond description and shelters over 300 species of birds and dozens of different freshwater fish species. Further inland, all the active tourism you can dream of are catered to, from gentle forest walks to rock climbing.
Bulgaria is blessed with some of Europe’s last untrammeled wilderness and the entire gamut of nature appreciation and outdoor activities are yours for the choosing. In addition to all the water sports you’d expect on a resort-rich seacoast are attractions such as the Balchik Botannical Garden and the Zlatni Piasatsi (Golden Sands) Nature Park. This region is unique as a flyover for myriad of our winged friends who travel along a migration route known as the Via Pontica.
How about running the rapids in Turkey on the River Coruh, one of the world’s fastest flowing rivers? It runs through the Kackar Mountains, which are covered with lush evergreen and hardwood forests. Well-suited to mountaineering, canoeing and trekking, this Black Sea region will let you fill your lungs with fresh air, your eyes with unforgettable scenery, and delight in the varied wildlife making its home here. During a winter visit to the Black Sea, put on your skis at Kastamonu - Ilgaz Mountain National Park or near the towns of Bolu or Trabzon.