Yes, it's true: Europe airfare prices are outrageous this summer and the dollar is being beaten to a pulp by the euro. Fortunately, there are still a few places that offer American travelers good value. After crunching the numbers on airfare, hotel, and activity prices, I've come up with a list of five places that are both fascinating and reasonably affordable if not (dare I say) cheap.
(Editor's Note: Most prices quoted in this article are in euros. At press time, the conversion rate was €1 to $1.55. For current rates, go to XE.com.)
Quick—which European country 1) is the continent's oldest state, 2) is the birthplace of a sophisticated ancient society that produced some of antiquity's finest gold artifacts and the gladiator Spartacus, 3) has topography ranging from white-sand beaches to snow-capped mountains, and 4) has a colorful culture that blends the ancient with the modern?
Nope, it's not Greece, Turkey, or any place on the Mediterranean—it's Bulgaria. The E.U.'s newest member (along with Romania) is now a post-communist country that's working hard to catch up with Western Europe. For tourists, this transitional period means that while things don't always work as they should (some service industry workers don't practice the best customer service and infrastructure is poor in rural areas), you can enjoy things like great food (sort of a blend of Greek and Middle Eastern), stunning scenery, and seaside resorts for far less than you'd pay in other countries.
Although only about the size of Tennessee, you could easily spend several weeks exploring Bulgaria. Kristine Dimitrova, a Boston lawyer who was born in Bulgaria and visits every few years, recommends starting in the capital of Sofia, then visiting one of the mountain regions like the Rhodope and the ancient city of Plovdiv, and finishing up with a few days at the Black Sea resort of Varna.
"Sofia is like a combination of New York, London, and Italy—it has ultra modern stores, phenomenal food, and lively entertainment," says Dimitrova. Aside from its many elaborate churches, Sofia is a fairly modern city, so you'll have to go out into the countryside to discover traditional Bulgaria. In Rhodope, a few hours' drive from Sofia, you can wander between mountain villages where you'll witness locals still using traditional farming and craft-making methods, and be warmly welcomed in country guesthouses.
Next, head to Plovdiv, a 6,000-year-old (or older) city known as the cultural capital of Bulgaria and the jumping-off point for visiting the Valley of the Thracian Kings, a site of about 1,500 burial mounds. "Plovdiv is a really place to get a sense of ancient Bulgaria," says Dimitrova. "In the Old Town, you'll see lots of Greek and Roman ruins, including a large Greek amphitheater, as well as a good sample of period Bulgarian villas."
Finally, go east to the Black Sea for some relaxation time in Varna. "Varna is essentially a major destination beach resort for all of Western Europe," says Dimitrova. "It has natural hot mineral springs and modern spas with all the amenities and treatments you'd find in other places, but for a lot less." It also has an excellent Archaeological Museum (about $3) which displays artifacts like intricately made Thracian gold jewelry from the 4th century B.C. and 100,000-year-old stone tools.
The bigger cities in Bulgaria have many western hotel brands, but you can usually save by staying at an apartment hotel. Try the centrally located Niky Hotel in Sofia and Antonio's Apartments in Varna, both of which start at €40 per night. In the mountains, you can stay in a guest house such as Kapsazov's Guest House (from €30 per night) in the village of Kovachevitsa, which is known for its owner's spectacular home-cooked meals. You'll easily be able to afford the nicest hotel in Plovdiv, the Hotel Hebros, a grand 19th century Renaissance house where rates start at €89 per night.
Late August flights from New York to Sofia start at $1,036 round-trip, including taxes and fees, from Airfare.com. It's best to rent a car to get around; you can rent economy models at the Sofia airport for about $35 a day. Dimitrova says the main roads are modern and lightly traveled, while the country roads may be worn and harder to navigate, so be alert.
To learn more about the country, visit the Bulgaria State Tourism Agency website.