It's escaped the notice of most traveling Americans, but Bulgaria has become a growing tourist destination in Eastern Europe as it works to attract visitors to its scenic countryside, new ski areas and Black Sea beach resorts.
The major cities of Sofia and Plovdiv are cosmopolitan, but the real rewards are in the countryside, according to the Bulgaria guide at InfoHub (www.infohub.com/Destinations/ Europe-&-Russia) where you can start looking for tips on places to see at "Where To Go And When." The country has a network of hiking trails, mountain biking is becoming popular and there are caves to explore, according to "Outdoor Activities."
Take a break from the rustic countryside with a stay at one of the beaches on the Bulgarian Coast (www.bulgariancoast.com) which provides profiles of resorts and towns. Their "Photos" link doesn't lead to any pictures, and you skip "Beach Safety Tips" (No. 1 is "Learn to swim") but they provide a quick history lesson, and a primer on Bulgarian wines.
And if the beach isn't what you need, BulgariaSki (www.bulgariaski.com) has information on a range of new resorts that provide some of the southernmost skiing in Europe.
For more information on the mountains, beaches and more, the official BulgariaTravel (www.bulgariatravel.org) has everything from a stunning photo gallery of town and country scenery to facts on places such as the Valley of Roses. "Accommodations" links you to Web sites for hotels and reservation agencies, including one that specializes in chalets. Click on "Destinations" and you can browse by categories or regions to find spots such as Pernik, site of a historic fortress, or the old capital of Pliska, founded in 681 by Khan Asparoukh.
In the capital city of Sofia, get acquainted with the local news at Sofia Echo (www.sofiaecho.com) and then click on "Sofia Guide" and "Sofia Sights" for information on the sprawling St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Move on to Webtourist (www.webtourist.net/cityguides.phtml) and click on Bulgaria to reach capsules of information on towns from Ahtopol, at the southern end of the Black Sea coast, to Zheravna, a village with a quiet rural atmosphere. Take a look at the old town of Nessebur, home of medieval and Byzantine churches, or Veliki Preslav, the nation's second capital.
Want someone else to handle all the details? There are travel agencies specializing in Bulgarian travel such as Balkan Tourist (www.balkantourist.bg) which advertises hunting and fishing trips along with tours and hotel bookings.
If Bulgaria is starting to look interesting, the nation's embassy in Washington (www.bulgaria-embassy.org) has a section of links to additional Web sites on tourism and Bulgarian culture.
Then, check in with the U.S. Department of State (http://travel.state.gov/index.html) and click on "Consular Information Sheets" for information on Bulgarian visas, safety and health.
Roger Petterson, Associated Press