Industrial tourism from Albena to Primorsko, Bulgaria

Ioana Calinescu
The minute we entered Albena, a feeling of nostalgia bringing memories of my childhood by the seaside seized me. Carriages drawn by horses with bells and red cuffs, tandem bicycles, coloured mini trains carrying tanned children, old-fashioned music, cotton candy, miniature golf, slides and lady bug rides. The parking lots were filled with cars with Romanian tags, the hotels reminded me of Eforie, the alleys of Neptun.

All this triggered an extraordinary return to the days of my childhood, so I desperately wanted us to spend the night in Albena. However, that wasn’t possible. Although the general atmosphere in the resort and on the beach was peaceful and airy, the hotels were packed with tourists. Armed with patience, we went to every hotel displaying ‘80s architecture and over-crowded parking lots. Not one single room was available. A salty breeze came from the sea, bearing a high SPF sunscreen smell which made one want to get down on the sand. We, however, got on the road, but only after having paid the five-lev resort fee on our way out of Albena, which reminded me of my beautician’s theory: ‘I paid that fee from my heart; it was for our protection, wasn’t it? It’s an extra precautionary measure against having your car stolen. You can’t drive the car out of the resort unless you show the entry ticket.’

I have to admit that from Albena onwards I could feel the blood hysterically throbbing through my veins. I hate saying idiotic clichés such as ‘Bulgarians are a nation of...’, ‘Romanian always...’ etc., but, I have to remark that the road infrastructure in Bulgaria, especially at nightfall, is an utter nightmare: full of holes and lacking any sort of signals. I’ve no idea how crossing Varna comes as easy as pie to some, but we ended up driving around through every neighbourhood and slum until we hit upon the exit towards Burgas.

There is one golden rule: never go to the supermarket on an empty stomach; I’d add another one after this Bulgarian experience: never go to the heart of Bulgarian industrial tourism without a previous booking. Approaching Nesebar, the lights in the back keep pressuring you (just like on the Romanian A2 motorway - nicknamed The Sun Motorway - in August), honks will drive you mad, while on your left and right huge colonies of industrial, mammoth-like structures with rooms for tourists rise.

You know that congestion of apartment blocks queerly thrown in the field, huddled into one another as if in front of an execution platoon, a view representative of a transition-driven Eastern Europe? Well, starting with Elenite, Bulgaria does provide a great example regarding the capacity / footprint relation. If such architectural sights are rather scarce in the Romanian industrial area, in Bulgaria, this area itself is full to the brim with tourists. As far as the eye can see, only barren outskirts, looking almost squatted by new gigantic hotels exhibiting ghetto features, with tens of thousands of apartments that are rented as vacation homes, with kitchen and balcony, with a boutique on the ground floor, a washing machine in the bathroom and smells of fried onion in the kitchen.

The image of Bulgaria’s savagely exploited tourism is breathtaking not only through its enormous union-like accommodation capacity, but also through its indifference to common spaces, waste grounds between hotels, the chipped asphalt and the residue from the construction materials thrown away into the neighbour’s yard.

The Bulgarian seaside stretching from Albena to Primorsko has two facets: one wallowing in dust and weeds, with resorts on the city outskirts where cranes from the days of the building sites can still be seen, and a cardboard one, exhibiting stately hotels with marble columns, inner malls and pools with palm trees, all-inclusive services and waiters in tuxedos.

The dusty facet presents the same architectural disease of Romanian buildings – incoherent and mismatched buildings (even in terms of bad taste), while the cardboard one is coloured by people with average income, their heads filled with dreams of luxury, who spend a week as if on a film set, miming their celebrity and wealth and virtually never laying eyes on the sea because they spend their vacation at the hotel pool, hide behind ‘Channel’ sunglasses, harbour a seemingly indifferent attitude to the surrounding ‘luxury’ and lie in the shade of plastic palm trees.

Falling into the first category is Sozopol where one can relive the folksy feeling at a fair by measuring the force in one’s fist when hitting a punching bag and one’s resistance when taking a ride on the dress (with the paint chipped) of a huge ballerina, which can be quite fun if you do it with a sense of humour; next comes Primorsko, offering you great food if you go by the restaurants with wooden tables and smells of fried fish. Falling into the second category is Sunny Beach where we put up at a hotel on Sunny Beach Mall Street, right opposite a… mall that blocked the view of the seaside.

From Sozopol onwards, the Bulgarian seaside can breathe in relief. Unfortunately, the road isn’t close to the coast, so until one reaches the Turkish border, the entire drive feels like a long sleep with spots of light on the asphalt. In Sinemorets, one starts to fall in love with Bulgaria; pity this is the end. The landscape is marked by high cliffs whose base hides secluded beaches with fine sand and salty waves. On the left of the village, a spit of beach (separating a lake from the sea) stretches; there, hidden under a cliff, is a small garden with an improvised roof of advertising banners, serving fried anchovies at a price as cheap as chips, cold beer and great music. The village roads lead one into shaded gardens, accommodation is easy to find (either with the villagers or in dainty boarding houses), the main street is enveloped in fruits and the supermarkets in ayran.

A piece of advice for future trips: if you reach Sinemorets, make sure you have leva on you. There are no bureaux de change whatsoever and the locals are positive you’re trying to rip them off with fake dollars.

And because, before leaving Sinemorets to go to Turkey, we decided to have a bite, Bulgaria left me with a taste of fresh cucumbers, buried under a layer of salad leaves. This is what Bulgarian salads were made of everywhere we went: 75% cucumbers stifled by a bunch of salad leaves, a boiled egg and three tomato slices. I may not be a fan of cucumbers, but, even if I were, I’d still feel a bit screwed over. However, every Bulgarian salad I had put a smile on my face as it reminded me of a friend who was in the West on a scholarship and was virtually going hungry. He’d eat at the students’ canteen and, in order to save whatever money he could, he’d hide a hunk of roast under the salad leaves...