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Wednesday, October 04, 2006 

Bulgaria: Get the party started

This country is looking forward to joining the EU, but we're already heading over to Europe's new funky-town, says Adrian Mourby

It wasn't all that long ago that the first secretary would summon apparatchiks in black limousines to his summer residence in Varna. "Oh yes," says Anelia. "We used to say the party is everywhere. We still do - but we're not talking politics anymore!" This is the Varna joke. The people of this noisy seaside town enjoy it, but then they enjoy everything. These days it's the all-night party that rules in Varna. In fact, the place has proved so popular with British holidaymakers since British Airways launched flights here earlier this year, that it has extended its schedule to year-round.

A university town with one of the youngest populations in Bulgaria, Varna is the good-time capital of a nation renowned for its love of music, drinking and eating. Anelia and her friends save up all week for one good night out. "We are really snobs," she laughs. "We only want the best. We dress up and stay up dancing till dawn. Then we go into work the next day. I don't know how we do it."

It's all a far cry from the Communist days, and pre-Communist days when King Ferdinand of Bulgaria built his summer palace outside this small garrison port. Until then, Varna had been famous for very little except recurring cholera epidemics and Count Dracula, who, according to Bram Stoker, shipped out of here en route to Whitby. The Ottoman Turks who ruled Bulgaria for centuries preferred a long stretch of beach just to the north of Varna, which they called Ouzounkoum (Long Sands), today known as Golden Sands, the fastest-growing tourist resort on the Black Sea.

With independence from Turkey there came three Saxe-Coburg kings to Bulgaria - Ferdinand, Boris and Simeon. The first of these built Euxinograd, a faux 18th-century palace, for his summer holidays. In 1946, when the People's Republic wrested power from the monarchy, Euxinograd became the first secretary's summer home and people in Varna grew used to the limousines that swept in bearing hatchet-faced men intent on furthering socialism and their suntans. Now Euxinograd belongs to the president of the new democratic republic of Bulgaria. It's open to the public at 10 lev (£3.50) a visit when foreign dignitaries aren't in residence.

Anelia has never been there. People in Varna don't seem very interested in the past. They seem only to look forward, usually to the next party. With beer at only 1 lev (35p) a bottle it's not surprising.

"Is it true they say the sun never sets in Varna?" I ask my young guide.

"Of course it's true," she replies. "In Bulgaria all our sea coast faces east, so we never see the sun go down. Maybe that's why we forget to go to bed!"

I've never met a people with such a zest for life. It's as if generations of fizz built up under Communism and now they can't get the cork back in the bottle. Of course, having near-perfect temperatures helps. Sitting on the same latitude as Biarritz, Varna enjoys very long summer days from May all the way through to October.

The stucco may be falling off the city's gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings and the Navy Museum may consist of just one rusty old submarine but everyone is upbeat. Walking down King Boris Boulevard, Anelia and I are overwhelmed by fashion boutiques and baseball-capped skateboarders. We pass showrooms for expensive Japanese cars and cafés that double as showrooms for micro-skirted waitresses. Everyone is in a hurry to have fun or make money.

"So where do I eat round here?" I ask my cheery companion.

"Everywhere," she says. "You don't need a guide book to eat. Just go walk along the beach till you find somewhere you like."

There is a more serious side to Varna if you want to find it. The Archaeological Museum is housed in an impressive neo-Baroque building that used to be a girls' high school. It contains case after case of burial artefacts from Varna's Eneolithic Necropolis discovered only in 1972. The amount of gold worn by people in pre-Bronze Age Varna is staggering, as is the amount of Greek and Roman statuary in this museum dating from when Varna was the Roman port of Odessus.

But Anelia has not been into the museum since a school trip 10 years ago. This is a town hell-bent on present joys and future affluence. Anelia has seen the big digital clock in Sofia that is counting down the seconds to 1 January 2007, the day that her country - it was announced last week - will join the EU. Then I think she, and many of her friends, will leave in search of their European dreams. All of which makes me sad. Varna could be a beautiful city if people worked a bit harder to repair it, and the tree-lined coast is gorgeous, providing you overlook the occasional gulag-style hotel complex from the Communist era.

I say goodbye to Anelia and drive back to my hotel, the Kempinski, in Golden Sands. It's a huge new marble palace with an Ayurvedic spa and a delightful flight of broad steps down through woodland to the beach. I'm struck by how the steps are much, much older than the hotel.

When I ask inside if there was a building here before the Kempinski no one knows until I meet up with Herr Obermeir, the deputy manager, who has heard that during the days of Communism there was a grand casino on this site. "For apparatchiks only, of course. They arrived by sea and would enter up those steps. When we built the hotel we kept the staircase."

It's ironic that the locals have no memory of this at all. So, it takes a recent arrival from Germany to rootle out the past - but that is typical of Varna nowadays. Absolutely no interest in politics or the past, excited about the future, giddy and hedonistic, just like Anelia herself.


HOW TO GET THERE: Adrian Mourby travelled to Varna with Balkania Travel (020-7636 8338; balkaniatravel.com). It offers six-night packages from £285 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and bed & breakfast. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com) offers return flights to Varna from £200.

FURTHER INFORMATION: See bulgarianembassy.org.uk

Source: The Independent

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