When it comes to holiday destinations, there are good resorts and there are bad ones. And then there are those resorts that have Channel 4 producers descend on their beaches to shoot a documentary about intoxicated young men putting fireworks where they don’t belong. Bulgaria’s notorious (and notoriously cheap) Sunny Beach falls into the latter category.
Located on the southern Black Sea coast, Sunny Beach was purpose-built in the 1950s as a holidays destination for tourists from across the Soviet Union, children in particular. After the Soviet Union’s collapse the resort’s low, low prices started attracting a new tourist crowd from countries like Germany, Holland and the UK. Last February, Sunny Beach was proclaimed the cheapest holiday destination in the world. Budget family trips aside, today it mostly caters to those in their late teens. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a Dutchman, who said: “At my age, you simply don’t go to Sunny Beach anymore.” He was 24.
My own recent trip there was fueled by an unhealthy dose of teenage nostalgia. I was originally lured to Sunny Beach at the age of 17. Back then, Bulgaria was a perfect vacation spot for a freshly graduated squad of high schoolers, desperate to soak themselves in sea water and all kinds of cheap coconut-flavoured drinks (the concept of ID is clearly lost on Bulgarians). I was originally lured by a classmate who would spent all of her summers at Bulgarian summer camps — another name for hotels packed with underage kids — and who promised us “a party of a lifetime”. And trust me, she was no liar.
That summer of 2007, scored by Rihanna’s Umbrella, will forever remain a vital coming-of-age moment for me: getting one’s heart broken while sipping budget vodka named “Flirt” on a moonlit beach is the closest a young Muscovite could get to that Cali-lifestyle of the kids on TV. It was a land of many opportunities and zero control. “Why buy a small bottle of tequila, get a large one,” a sales clerk would cheerfully mentor our fresh-out-of-high-school squad. Flash forward to 2017 and a week-long reunion trip was painfully in order.
Over the last decade, the rouble may have had its ups and downs (well, most downs), but a week at Bulgaria’s biggest resort remains a cheap alternative to other breaks in the sun. Booked in late May, the trip (flights, accommodation and a breakfast that we all agreed to never attend again after the first day) cost around $405. A local sim card for 3G data cost 10 lev (roughly $6) — the same as a bottle of fairly decent wine in any store.
During the day the streets are packed with families, but as the sun goes down, the debauchery level goes up. Dozens of “party promoters” hound you with the same question: “Where are you from?” Whether the answer is Russia, Germany or Westeros, when it comes to partying the promoters are convinced that all young people enjoy a night full of people screaming “shots, shots, shots” in their faces and teenagers dry humping all around them.
During the day the streets are packed with families, but as the sun goes down, the debauchery level goes up
If that’s something you’re into, the only downer is that it’s actually pretty expensive to get in: for the same 30 levs nightclub cover charge you can buy five bottles of decent Bulgarian wine. Yet hundreds of teenagers spend their pocket money on this first chance of experiencing the #partylife. There are also bar-hopping tours, in case you need a sense of community to go with your beer cup.
A typical night out involves a bus trip to a “Bulgarian dinner” party including folk and fire dancers; a hearty dinner, live music and disco for people aged 8-67 and an all-you-can-drink wine bar that turns you into the kind of tourist you swore you’d never become. Before you know it you’re singing every Russian song under the sun at the top of your lungs on your way back to the hotel.
Upon returning to Sunny Beach we headed to the local British/Scandinavian/German heaven known as “Den Glade Viking”: 20 lev ($12) entrance fee; Top 40 songs of all eras mashed together; boys dancing on the bar table; girls dancing on the bar table; someone from Geordie Shore as a SPECIAL GUEST. While many in the crowd ended the night losing their virginities in the loos, we managed to fall foul of a Kim Kardashian-style robbery.
After a skinny dipping session in the sea (no one tells you to get off the sunbeds at night), we returned to our hotel at 3am, checked our social media to make sure we hadn’t posted anything embarrassing and fell asleep, forgetting to lock the door to our room on the fifth floor. When we woke up a couple of hours later, we found several items missing: an iPhone, cigarettes and some change from a wallet. Back in 2007, our teen squad occupied several bungalows that belonged to a hotel and we would frequently notice iPods and money gone missing, even though all the locks seemed to remain untouched. Ten years later it seemed the local thieves had become bolder.
Loud teen clubs aside, there is not much to Sunny Beach’s party scene. For anyone over the age of 25, the best bet is to grab a bottle of wine and sit on the sun beds at the beach, lulled by the gentle breaking of waves and the aggressive house music behind you.
We were pleased to discover that one of the best bits of the Bulgarian resort remained unchanged: the food. No meal can begin without an enormous plate of shopska salad and you can’t resist the local wine: it’s cheap and delicious. Meat plates come with a side of pre-made French fries, but the meat itself is stunning. A dinner at the seaside restaurant Morris cost around 40 lev ($24), and the food — fried mussels, shrimp and cheese — was good enough for us to suffer through the two-hour-long “live music” program, which for some reason always seems to include a rendition of Hallelujah. Lots of dishes are better ordered for two, because the grandiose portions and the shish kebabs are not to be missed. One thing that has changed over the years is the disappearance of beach commerce: the shoreline felt almost naked without guys screaming, “Corn! Maize! Sexy maize!”
Taking advantage of the car, we also visited the Bulgarian version of the Hamptons — the town of Sozopol, with its endless rows of private yachts, Greek-style restaurants and scenic rock views
This time around we wanted to explore a bit more of Bulgaria. And since renting a six-seater car was beyond affordable ($90 for 2 days), we went to the wild beach of Irakli, which is known for being the finest nudist beach in the area. While that policy was rather questionable (about two thirds of the people there preferred to keep their bathrobes on), the water itself was wonderful and much cleaner than the main strip.
Taking advantage of the car, we also visited the Bulgarian version of the Hamptons — the town of Sozopol, with its endless rows of private yachts, Greek-style restaurants and scenic rock views. The best souvenir you can find there is a jar of delicious homemade green fig jam for 4 lev ($2). There are also thrift stores, where among flip-flops and sun cream you can, for some unknown reason, also find mugs with pictures of Hitler.
Our fresh look at the familiar landscape proved that there is still an elusive charm to Bulgarian beach life. It’s easy-going without becoming monotonous and naïve without being innocent. Nothing can rob this teen paradise resort of its elusive charm. Even getting robbed. At times Sunny Beach is too much, but come the end of the stay you find yourself feeling that you can’t quite get enough. One more shot of rakia, please. Make it a double.