Visiting Sozopol With a Dog – Bulgaria
If there is one place in Bulgaria that the bipeds and I would like to revisit it’s Sozopol. Perhaps because it linked so well to our previous trip to Greece just a week before; the city owing its origins to Greek colonists. Maybe it is because it’s the oldest town on the black sea coast or perhaps because of the amazing wooden homes inspired and built in the Renaissance. Maybe it is because of the wonderful hybrid Greek and Balkan food or perhaps it was the beautiful beaches. Conceivably it could be the ancient icons and magnificent woodcarvings in the iconostases; but honestly, I think it’s because Sozopol feels like a town plucked out of a fairy tale.
Built on a rocky peninsula, this sleepy town is arguably the most charming place on the Black Sea coast and one of Bulgaria’s crown jewels. Everything in Sozopol is sunny, bright and attractive; starting with the cobblestone streets and old houses with strings of fish hanging from the roof. Even the language sounds a little softer, gentler; as if the locals had a southern drawl. And although too early to enjoy it, let us not forget the Apollonia Festival of the Arts, every September that gathers painters, actors, singers, musicians, poets and dancers. For ten days Art comes alive in the ancient streets of this small coastal town; and you benefit from the resulting infrastructure no matter when you time your visit.
Founded in 610 B.C. by Greek settlers from Miletus and named Apollonia in honor of their most adored god, it was a thriving and important place trading with Athens, and the Isle of Rhodes. The Apollonians acted as middlemen between the Greek world and the indigenous Thracians who provided them with copper, honey, grain, and wood in exchange for wine, salt, and textiles. It was a happy co-existence. The colony reached its zenith during the 5th century B.C., as many indigenous tradesmen gradually came to achieve rank and status in the Greek system. With its growth and importance, Apollonia in turn founded its own little colony in order to prevent a powerful rival (Nessebur) from penetrating into Burgas bay ; and for a time peace reigned.
Even way back then, Apollonia was an active arts and cultural center. A temple was built to Apollo the sun god and healer and a ten-meter-high bronze statue of the god guarded the harbor. When Roman legions sacked the town in the first century, the 13 ton statue was carted off to Rome and displayed on the Capitoline hill from where it later disappeared.
Sadly; under the Romans, Apollonia declined.
The offshoot colony however, thrived and grew to become the most important town on the Black Sea earning its current name of Sozopol in the 4th-century. Around this time, many ancient Greek towns called Apollonia changed their names to Sozopolis (City of Salvation) as they became Christian. When Sozopol was incorporated into the First Bulgarian “Kingdom” in 812 under Khan Krum it developed into a large and wealthy town. For a while things continued to prosper, but although Sozopol was one of the last holdouts to Ottoman domination, it did fall in 1453.
Under the Ottomans who changed the name Sozopol to Suseboly, numerous churches and monasteries were razed to the ground; this is also when The National Revival period saw the building of the typical Black Sea houses. The ground floors of stone generally were used for storage and supported overhanging upper stories of wood, with protruding bay windows and sheltered eaves, clustered along the narrow peninsula’s cobblestone streets and alleys. Today 45 of these houses are classified as cultural monuments and that’s why a strolls in the town is marvelous!
Our absolute favorite Church in Sozopol is The Church of the Holy Virgin dating back to the 16th C. When you first arrive all you see is the roof because it is partially dug into the ground. It is built below ground because the Ottomans had decreed that no Church could be taller than a Turkish soldier on horseback; and the only way around that, was to build down. We love the fighting spirit in that creative problem solving! The Church has three-naves, with an impressive interior; an iconostasis (1781) with luxuriant wood carved decoration. Sadly no photographs (or dogs) are allowed inside.
Note: Just like for Rila Monastery, ladies must cover shoulders and avoid shorts or “revealing clothing”. Pets are not allowed in the Church but unlike at Rila, pets are allowed to wait in the lovely lush, shaded courtyard garden.
The town (all of it a Unesco site) has had its fair share of tragedy. It was under Ottoman rule. It saw its Greek citizens shot in the streets, it’s had fires, and floods. It’s seen it all. But somehow Sozopol has maintained, more than any town or city we saw in Bulgaria, an air of hope. It is a joyful place. It’s a place of art, and music and dance. It’s a place of ice cream, fun and weird t-shirts and hand made lace. Its history is celebrated and showcased not hidden in shame. The tiny coble stone streets welcome and invite you to discover the hidden treasures, peeking behind stone walls. Massive fig trees groan under their fruit begging you to stop, and savor a while.
If you want to have a truly wonderful pet friendly pied-a-terre on the black sea coast – we can’t recommend Sozopol enough. We even found a most amazing B&B that accepts pets for about $12 per person a night with no Pet Fee. It’s in one of the traditional homes, right across from the Church complete with passion fruit vines and charming hostess.
If what you want is to feel lost in time… go spend some in Sozopol.