With my bike safely parked in front of the Divesta Hotel in downtown Varna, I exchanged my motorcycle boots for walking shoes and headed to the Black Sea Coast. Varna is the third-largest city in Bulgaria and the largest in the Bulgarian Riviera. It is the northernmost city on the Black Sea and is served by an international airport.
As my time in Bulgaria winds down, it’s with a bit of sadness and trepidation that I will soon cross into Romania without exploring the southern resort towns and villages or the fourth largest city, Burgas. Still, despite its size, commercial nature, and traffic, Varna has much to offer in terms of history, architecture, the arts, beaches, nightlife, and good food and wine.
Here in Varna, I’m thrilled to have made new friends in Marin and Nina. This way, I can explore the city like a local. Marin is one of Bulgaria’s leading sommeliers and serves as a consultant and ambassador for the Bulgarian wine business. Nina Nikolova also is a sommelier and specializes in Bulgarian wine. After working the past few years on cruise ships and in Qatar, she’s part of what I hope is a new trend of young people returning to their home country of Bulgaria after chasing opportunity outside the country.
For my first night in Varna, I accept Marin’s invitation to join him for the weekly wine tasting at the Sea Terrace, where he serves as a sommelier and manages the restaurant’s wine program. Nestled at the beach, the bi-level seaside restaurants offer alfresco dining on the expansive terrace upstairs. Diners can take in views of the coastline and enjoy the gentle breeze while dining on fresh fish, salads, and meats.
For those who failed to book early enough for a seat on the terrace, a large dining room with big windows and views and decor that seems more like a ship than a restaurant. Both the patio and dining room offer a comfortable and elegant seaside dining experience in Varna.The downstairs level is less formal, more kid-friendly, and offers a more straightforward menu catering to more casual diners. There is also a small bar area where Marin holds his wine tastings. As a solo visitor, I find a single barstool at the bar. Before I can pull out my camera, Marin pours me a sample the first wine, a single-vineyard white varietal known as Tamyanka (Tamianka) by Raynoff, one of several brands produced and marketed by Wine Union.
Tamyanka is the Bulgarian, Serbian, or Russian name for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. It’s an early ripening, aromatic, and likely the most widely planted member of the Muscat family. Though native to the Balkans, under communism, the Soviets used the vigorous grape to produce large quantities of sweet or semi-sweet wine. In Italy, it’s the grape used to make the refreshing and fizzy Asti Spumante or Moscato d’Asti sparklers. But here in Bulgaria, the Raynoff Tamianka leans to the dryer side with bright aromatics revealing notes of citrus, flower, and banana and on the palate with mild acidity and smooth and balanced. Not a complicated wine, but a perfect wine for a hot day in Varna at the beach in the sunshine.
I’m impressed by Marin’s command of the busy bar, switching from English to Bulgarian while explaining tonight’s line up of wines. We go through a series of another four of five Bulgarian white wines, including two different Miskets, two Dimyats, a Chardonnay, and sparkling wine from Eduardo Miroglio. Several locals must be regulars at his tasting, all of whom listen with intent—and asking for their next taste. One of them is a guy from the UK, Colin. We strike up a conversation, and I learn he is a new ex-pat who moved to Varna just over a year ago. Soon he found a Bulgarian wife and now operated his England-based company remotely from here in Varna.
Tonight, Colin’s wife is out with friends visiting from California, two from San Diego. Given that’s my home, it’s an amazing coincidence, and we agree to get together tomorrow evening for dinner and after to take in some of Varna’s nightlife.
After the tasting and closing down the restaurant, I join Marin and Nina at Cubo & The Beach Bar Menthol, two after-hours clubs with tables and chairs on the sand next door to Sea Terrace. The music is loud and thumping. People are laughing. Many take their drinks down to the shore and where they wade in the water.
It’s nearly 3 AM by the time we call it a night. Walking along the pedestrian promenade, Marin guides me back to the hotel. It’s just my first night in Varna, and he wants to make sure I don’t get lost.
Disappointed that his wife made reservations for the first-floor dining room, I meet Colin the next evening at Sea Terrace. The lower level is more casual and offers a simpler menu and wine list than the cozier upper-level dining room, which also provides much better views. He tries to change tables, but the dining room and terrace there are no available tables. That’s okay, Marin finds us downstairs and gives the okay to order wines and a few dishes from the upstairs menu.
After much wine, laughing, and storytelling, we head down the beach a few hundred meters to the Makalali Beach Bar. After a few more stops, we walk down the usual pedestrian promenade stopping to listen to a street musician, a late-night gelato, and more laughs.
At the recommendation of Marin, I change my scenery tonight from the Sea Terrace to Mr. Baba—another restaurant in Varna on the Black Sea Coast. Mr. Baba is a full-service restaurant on an old ship—a galleon. No need to worry about getting seasick, the boat never leaves the shore. Near the Naval Museum and just off of Varna’s infamous seaside and beautifully landscaped Sea Garden park, I also discover a local food festival with live music happening next door.
At first glance, I had the uncomfortable feeling this would be a Disney-esque experience. It wasn’t. The food is decent, the service excellent, and a great wine list with servers who know their wines. Mr. Baba gets busy, and without a reservation in the summer, you could wait or starve well into the evening. It’s fun, not expensive or very formal. I started with a “Bulgarian Flavors Salad” of grilled sweet pepper, tomatoes, eggplant (kiopoolu), and white cheese. To accompany my dish, they offer sliced baguette with the ajvar traditional Balkan roasted red pepper spread. For my main course, I try the pan-fried Turbot, one of the few fish caught in the adjacent black sea.My meal is more than satisfactory, though they cooked the Turbot, perhaps a tad too long, and was a bit too dry for my taste. I must try it again. I pass on dessert and head back to the Sea Terrace for another glass of wine while waiting for Marina and Nina to finish their work. After closing the restaurant, Marin grabs the last bottle of Tsarev Brod 2012 Pinot Noir, and together along with Nina, we find a place on the beach and finish the bottle.
Just another great evening of food and wine in Varna, Bulgaria.
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