Tolerant and lovely, Bulgaria makes Eastern Europe surprisingly gay-friendly
"You know, Bulgarians are the first European people in the world," an older gentleman tells me just minutes after stepping off of my bus. "We also invented the saddle and horseback riding."
These moments are telling of the national pride and history this once mighty and now re-emerging Eastern European nation possesses. Nowhere is that past more apparent than in the country’s bustling capital Sofia, which stands as one of the most religiously tolerant cities in the world — a mosque, synagogue, evangelical church and Orthodox cathedral have co-existed for hundreds of years within 100 yards of each other.
Charming lanes, a bustling market culture and lovely parks make this city the perfect jumping off point for a Bulgarian adventure. The gay scene is booming as well. With five gay bars and one world-class dance club, there is no shortage of gay nightlife. Clustered near Place Pozitano, this part of the city may very well be Eastern Europe’s first real gayborhood. Whether you’re after ancient relics, cool cafes or an all-night party, Sofia has got it all.
Bulgaria is squeezed between Romania, Turkey, Greece and Serbia, with Sofia in the west central portion of the country. The world famous Rila monastery is roughly 100 miles south, deep in the magnificent Rodopi mountains. East of there, in Plovdiv, are some of the best-preserved Roman relics in Europe.
Go north and you’ll end up in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval center complete with castles, old city walls and narrow streets. You’re now near the world class Black Sea coast in Varna. Tiny beach towns and resorts dot the entire eastern edge of the country along the coast, so give yourself ample time to explore the empty beaches.
Homosexual acts have been legal here since 1968, though public attitudes toward homosexuality are mixed and the gay scene stays mostly to itself. You’ll want to tread lightly, but gays and lesbians are allowed to serve openly in the military and the nation’s constitution bans all discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many high-profile gay celebrities and athletes have made a splash in this nation of nearly 9 million.
You’ll want to eat Bulgarian food as much as possible. Try Divaka for one of the best meals you’ll ever have. Don’t leave the country without eating a shopska salad and spicy meatballs.
Sofia’s gay nightlife rocks. Whether you’re after a quiet lounge, ruckus bar or all-out nightclub, this city delivers. I.D. Club boasts a state-of-the-art sound and light system, go-go boys and drag queens with drink prices that aren’t over the top and a cover charge that’s pretty standard for this part of the world.
Why Not? is an excellent bar and mini-disco that features shirtless bartenders and very flattering lighting. Discreet, a cute but tiny bar located underground in the center of the city, centers around a dance pole that no doubt leads to some wildly entertaining moments. The bar hosts regular shows of all sorts.
Like so much of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is best seen by car. There is just one major highway and it’s about 20 miles long. Still, the slower speeds mean more time to take in the gorgeous scenery.
Be warned, though: Driving in Bulgaria is not for the faint of heart. Speed limits change often and usually seem to be oddly slow. If you get pulled over do not pay any fines directly to the officer. (If you’re staying in town, taxis are remarkably cheap.)
Set in a valley surrounded by massive snow-capped peaks, Koprivshtitsa is a quintessential Bulgarian village. This town of 6,000 is where Bulgaria’s revolution began, and several homes have been turned into museums that allow for an inside look at how life used to be.
Perhaps one of the world’s most well-known monasteries, Rila is set deep in the Rila Mountain Range of the Rodopi Mountains along a soothing river. If for no other reason, make a stop here for a few moments of serenity. There is also a church, museum and book shop inside if stepping out of the real world isn’t enough for you. The monastery lets rooms to weary travelers at very reasonable rates.
Once a mighty Roman city, Plovdiv is certainly Bulgaria’s most laid back mountain city. Open-air bars, trendy cafes and quite possibly one of the most well-preserved second century Roman amphitheaters make it a must-see.
Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital of 70,000 offers fortresses, cobblestone streets and an impressive sound and light show that is certain to wow visitors. •
For more information about this country and other destinations, visit GayTravel.com
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 2, 2010.