Bulgaria works hard to promote a sunnier image

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Bulgaria is full of surprises. For U.S. travelers, the country is still largely unknown or must overcome a grey reputation as a dour, communist state, although it is nearly 20 years since it threw off that yoke.

The country joined the European Union in January and has spent a fortune to improve its tourism infrastructure to make it easier for visitors to get around and explore. 

While the first stop is usually capital city Sofia -- packed with historical sights and the usual urbane urban delights, such as shopping and dining -- sunny Bulgaria's real draw even in socialist times has always been its Black Sea coast and countryside. 

South of Sofia, the Rila Mountains offer excellent skiing at the winter resort of Borovets. The exquisite Rila Monastery, deep in a mountain valley, draws visitors from around the world to its colorful buildings and ecclesiastical treasures.

East of Sofia, the village of Koprivshtitsa contains examples of traditional 18th and 19th century architecture. The houses are constructed of stone and wood, brightly colored and ornamented; carpets and wall hangings are especially noteworthy.

Farther on, near Kazanlik on the Thracian plain, lie vast fields of small roses, white and pink, from which rose oil is recovered. The area is called the Valley of the Roses and is a blaze of color in early June.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, lies on the Maritsa River. Its many archaeological finds include an old mosque, a Roman forum and a restored Roman amphitheater where open-air operas are held.

The country's Black Sea resorts, stretching from Varna to Sozopol, have been popular with sun lovers for years, initially catering to tourists from the old Eastern Bloc. 

Varna has some old Roman baths, the lovely Assumption Cathedral and a wonderful Museum of History and Art that's home to a dazzling display of artifacts, including ancient gold jewelry in designs so modern you'd swear they were made recently.

Vast blocks of apartments and hotels crowd the country's Black Sea shores, especially at Sunny Beach, near Nesebar. In summer, Bulgarian beaches are jam-packed.

Nesebar, on a tiny island, boasts many ruins, including a second century Roman theater. Unfortunately, its charm is being eroded by rampant commercialism, the shops along its narrow, cobbled streets being packed with overpriced tourist junk. 

A highlight of any visit to Bulgaria is the native food, a mix of Slavonic, Greek and Turkish cuisines, and excellent wines.

For more on Bulgaria, contact the Bulgarian Tourist Authority at www.bulgariatravel.org or (011) 359-2 933-5845.

Operators offering Bulgaria tours include Quest Tours and Adventures (800-621-8687; www.romtour.com) and General Tours (800-221-2216; www.generaltours.com).

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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