There might something in the mix of testosterone and sea air, or the fumes from sun-screen lotions, that makes men of all ages behave like they are teenagers whenever they approach the coast. This strange effect descended on us as soon as we entered Varna’s brutalist suburbs, and started discussing horrid facial hair experiments and buying fake Adidas tracksuits.
It was the air, and definitely not our insecurities and frustrations, that had five guys, aged around 30, all from different countries, highly educated and relatively cultured, devolving to a “lads-on-tour” stereotype. But given that neither of us are exactly “lads-on-tour” material, our attempts at teenage behaviour, from almost breaking each other necks in the water to exchanging sordid stories, were interspersed with doing Boho Beautiful’s full body exercises at the beach to a crowd of perplexed Bulgarians, and occasional melancholy musings about purposelessness and aging at the point where were hurtling out of the “young” age bracket.
As soon as we arrived to the flat, G. a natural organiser and PMO par-excellence, whipped us into shape and got us to the beach of a fancy resort. Although I was initially excited to see if the Black sea is really black, as soon as I arrived to the beach, it was the other type of natural beauty that caught my eye. Not that the sea was bad – it was blue, clear and not too salty and infinitely better than a dark lifeless expanse that I imagined at the back of my mind. Still was outshone by the abundance of local talent, bronzed, curvy and chiselled, lounging below elegant parasols, and, surprisingly often, playing with cute children.
It was here, despite clearly seeing the beach’s genteel air, that N., our other whip, decided to rope us into his fitness routine. G. stayed back, slightly embarrassed, while were contorting to N.’s commands, delivered in uncharacteristically breezy way. Once we got back, we subconsciously decided we needed to ramp up our manliness so we resorted to getting on each other’s back and wrestling. I almost drowned and broke my neck, but that was the part of the fun.
After sampling mint liqueur with soda, a popular local refreshment, we decided to bid the disinterested beauties goodbye and walk around Varna a bit. But before going out, we still styled our beards into Wolverine-inspired monstrosities. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, we immediately draped ourselves around the sign announcing that Varna is the European Youth Capital in 2017. G. was not impressed. Sensing an easy target, a friendly street vendor immediately offered to enhance our experience with psychoactive drugs, but we respectfully declined and decided to stop embarrassing our host.
Varna’s old centre was very beautiful and lively. Part belle-époque resort, part port-city, the city has a titillating mix of elegance and seediness. There are wonderful huge parks as well as shady alleyways, beautiful ornate theatres as well as grey socialist-era hotels. The city is also very ancient: it was founded in 7the century BCE, when it was known as Odessos. The name was changed to Varna, possibly by the Vikings, and stuck, while Odesa erroneously took the old one.
On our first night in Varna, however, bursting with boyish excitement, we were less concerned with history. After a stroll through the coastal park and got a drink in one of the bars set in an art-deco looking pavilion, and proceeded to “Hemingway”, an elegant fish restaurant. Later we were joined by G.’s considerably more elegant friends who lived in London and proceeded to a series of clubs. After a few attempts at fun, I quickly resigned myself to shooting Russian breakfasts (Bloody Mary with olives) and being ignored by anybody I wanted to chat to. N., my fellow kill-joy, did the same, while G. was busy facilitating interactions between S., I. and a group of disinterested-looking local ladies. After doing the required time at the club, N. and I stumbled home through Varna’s labyrinthine streets via a fantastic late night bakery, while the remainder of the group decided to work on multi-cultural integration until the early hours.
Needless to say, the following morning we were all worse for wear. After briefly considering to stay in Varna and skip a night of camping, we fuelled up on caffeine and pressed on. On the way to Gradina camp site, we stopped for bit in Nesebar, to see one of Bulgaria’s more famous UNESCO sites. A Byzantine city built on a peninsula and with remains of a walls and churches, Nesebar looked fantastic in the photos. The reality, however, was that everything around beautiful historic buildings were shops selling touristy trinkets to masses of tourists who were more interested in burgers than Byzantium. After having a drink next to a group of tourists whose abundance of St George’s flag tattoos suggested a soft spot for the English Defence League, we decided we had enough.
Gradina, located on the other side of the Burgas’s bay, close to Sozopol, was a completely different world from Nesebar and Sunny Beach. This peaceful long stretch of sand was popular with Bulgarian outdoor enthusiasts who built their camps in May and stayed in them till the end of August. We stayed at a clean and comfortable campsite located in a serene and photogenic pine-tree forest. Our Bulgarian friend M. was also staying nearby with a bunch of friends in an ingeniously designed temporary homestead.
After dinner in a hipsterish but good reasturant/shack, we went with M. to check out their digs. Nicknamed “refugee camp”, much before the Syrian crisis, the camp was first started by M.’s friend’s family. Every year the “camp” grew and attracted their friends, including M., and this year there was space for about 20 people. This pleasant crowd, ranging from 2 to 60+ lounged around, surfed and even made an app which served as beer-drinking leader board. It was a warm, unpretentious community of friends, the likes of which I have only seen in beer commercials and they immediately made us feel at home. This chilled atmosphere was much more my scene than a club, and it was great getting to know these lovely people, many of whom considered this camp an ultimate refuge from busy lives in Sofia and London.
In the morning, we bid farewell to Gradina, and continued to Rezovo. On the way we stopped at Sozopol, Nesebar’s much prettier sibling. Sozopol, was beautiful, quiet and dignified and we went to a great café overlooking the sea and an ancient gate.
In Rezovo, we were hosted by G.’s family and made utmost attempts to behave as normal as possible in front of our lovely hosts. As Rezovo is on the border of Turkey and Bulgaria, the village has an ethereal end-of-the-world feel to it, accentuated by the fact that it is located in a nature reserve. The village’s relaxed atmosphere is at odds with two over-sized phallic flagpoles bearing Bulgarian and Turkish flags. Obviously built to compete with each other in size, the two rise from rocks where a diminutive creek flows into the sea.
During our stay with G’s family, we decided to vent our teenage impulses physically. On the first day that meant diving from ragged cliffs into the crystal clear sea. While G.’s, S.’s and I.’s dives put Tom Daley to shame, N. and I attempted a few puny dives and then contented with swimming around sharp rocks for our dose of adrenaline.
On the second day we went to the beautiful Silistar beach. There we subjected ourselves to being dragged by a jet-ski while sitting on a giant inflatable sofa and holidng for our dear life. N.’s and mine sheltered upbringing betrayed itself once again, by the fact that we shrieked constantly during the ride. Probably annoyed with us, the jet-ski rider decided to go full speed which resulted in G.’s brother, N., and I being catapulted from the sofa into the sea. For a few moments, while tumbling in the Black sea, I wondered if I will actually die in a freak inflatable sofa accident trying to approximate a teenage thrill. It was not to be and we were dragged back to safety by our unrepentant driver, while I vowed never to do anything fun again.
That night, our last together, we tried to have one last club blowout, but ended up with a few chilled drinks at a nearby bar. We were all tired from being teenagers for these four days, but were immensely grateful that G. showed us his beautiful country. Of course we didn’t say it then, and just exchanged a few sordid comments and went to bed.