The author gets behind the wheel of a ‘classic’ Soviet car to discover the Bulgarian coast.

‘You’re taking her to the Black Sea? It’s been 17 years! And now she’s going to be happy again!’ This proud father, a Bulgarian in his 80s, isn’t talking about his daughter, but something equally as dear: his squat 1972 Moskvitch-408 car, with a sky-blue shell and a ruby-red vinyl interior. Made in the same Russian factory as AK-47s before production stopped in 1976, the Moskvitch is truly the people’s car. And it’s now mine for 1,100 Bulgarian leva (about £475).

With the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR falling in the year ahead, the Moskvitch seems like the best Cold War transport for a trip along what was once known as the Red Riviera, Bulgaria's famed 240-mile Black Sea coast. Top Gear's James May might have declared the Moskvitch-408 the worst car in the world, but he missed out on the unique quirk of this old jalopy: it's the best possible ice-breaker when it comes to meeting Bulgarians along the way. In the 1960s and '70s, the coast became the playground of choice not only for locals, but comrades from the USSR and Czechoslovakia. The state-run tour operator Balkantourist set up resorts at Albena, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. By the '80s, many Western Europeans came in too, some succumbing to the charms of 'sex 007s' - spies of both sexes who used seduction to wheedle out 'secrets' from unsuspecting tourists. Things have changed. Sunny Beach has grown from 3,000 beds in 1989 to 300,000 today. Other rising attractions are historic villages such as Nesebâr and Sozopol, with their cobblestone charm and vendors selling Russian fur hats, sea shells and naughty postcards. I set out to see how the rest of the Bulgarian coast has fared since the days of the Red Riviera. Going much of the way with me is Assen, a friend from the capital Sofia. Assen is young enough to fully embrace Bulgaria's EU entrepreneurial era but old enough to remember how meaningful a Snickers bar once was. When a friend visiting the West brought one back with him in 1979, Assen cut it into 30 pieces - to savour one morsel a day for a month.

The heavy-metal mayor

Eastern Europe is filled with dying towns that haven't rolled with the changes since state subsidies ceased after communism. At first glance, Kavarna, a seaside town about 35 miles shy of Romania, looks like one of them. A stream of grey housing blocks greets our arrival, decorated with fading murals championing people's heroes. But these heroes hoist guitars, not sickles. Instead of Lenin or Marx, the paintings are a tribute to Motörhead and Uriah Heep. Kavarna is a real-life city built on rock'n'roll.

Since 2006, Kavarna has slyly dubbed itself 'capital of rock', largely due to its annual Rock Fest. The July event has attracted tens of thousands of head-bangers and bands such as the Scorpions. Eventually, word about the town spread to foreign businesses - less for barre chords than for its natural resources and undeveloped coastline.

The mad genius behind Kavarna's mini-boom is Tsonko Tsonev, mayor since 2003. At a central office, his buttoned-up assistant Maria (a fan of 'melodic death metal') leads us to him. Seated at a desk with a statue of Ronnie James Dio (the late metal singer who popularised the 'devil' hand salute) on the corner, Tsonev wears a black T-shirt reading 'k'metal', playing off the Bulgarian word for mayor - kmet. 'I didn't run for office on a heavy metal platform,' he says. 'It just happened that way, step by step.' Soon the opening riff of AC/DC's Hells Bells kicks in, and Tsonev reaches for his mobile. He quickly dismisses official business to take us on a personalised metal tour, which includes his sedan dashboard thickly scrawled with the autographs of visiting metal bands, the site of a planned Alley of Rock statue park, and a grain elevator refashioned as a medieval castle ('My idea,' he cheerfully claims).

At a housing block with Dio painted on the side, six elderly women sit chatting on park benches. When I ask the group what they think of the new Kavarna, a lady with dyed-cranberry hair eagerly volunteers, 'Whenever someone asks where we're from, we say the capital of rock.'

Sunflowers and nudity

Mass tourism has been slow to discover Bulgaria's rugged north coast, home to few beaches but a long stretch of triumphant limestone cliffs popular with Bulgarian rock-climbers who leap into the crashing waves below. But the ancient Thracian tribes who once ruled here loved the area, settling sites more than 2,000 years ago that were later built up by conquering Romans and Byzantines. The main site is Kaliakra, a limestone cape extending a couple of miles out to fortress ruins.

Further north, a string of villages huddles along cliffs reached by a quiet loop off the main highway to the Romanian border. One is Kamen Bryag (Stone Beach), a cluster of terracotta buildings - many with rooms for rent - that seem to sit on the edge of the Earth. We pull onto a dirt road through a sunflower field, heading towards the abyss, and find the jagged shoreline and a lonely parking lot. Down a path past fig trees and brush lie scattered fortress walls from the 4th century BC and the remains of 100 cave dwellings carved into the cliffs. Another track, curling downwards, reaches a tiny pebble beach. Ahead, a giant man sprawls naked atop a pink towel on an inclined slab of stone, holding his chubby arm over his eyes to block out the sun. We turn back.

Continuing north, after pausing to let a herd of goats cross the road, we reach Kariya: a village of wooden fishing shacks and a red and white lighthouse built in 1880. One hand-painted sign leads to a two-storey restaurant facing a dunebacked beach. 'Do you want a job?' comes a voice as I enter through a screen door. Inside is a man with a thick beard the colour of sea salt. 'I need someone who can keep up with my drinking.'

Bai Pesho, or Uncle Pesho, moved here in 1972 from the inland town of Dobrich and set up his eatery, semi-legally, a decade later. We order a couple of dollops of white caviar and lightly fried palamud, a Black Sea whitefish that passes by from Romania and Ukraine in late summer. Fidgeting on his feet, Pesho soon joins us, pulling up a chair and pouring us each a glass of his own plum rakia (brandy). 'You can't make whiskey at home in America?' he asks, semi-seriously. 'That's the biggest strike against capitalism: no freedom.'

The end of the Balkans

Half the locals I meet along the Black Sea coast insist I watch a film called With Children at the Sea. The iconic Bulgarian comedy, made like my car in 1972, begins with protagonist Chicho Mancho driving his Moskvitch, his outrageous moustache and his young mistress to the central coast. As they arrive, some kids he knows snap an incriminating photo, and he vainly spends the rest of the movie trying to retrieve the camera. In the end, he learns the kids never loaded it with film anyway. Much of the story is shot at Sunny Beach, which has changed massively since its days as the 'socialist St Tropez'. Midway between Varna and Burgas, its skyline today is made up of tacky hotels and condos the colour of urinal mints. We drive through a web of backstreets, reaching dead ends and passing weedy lots and a sad pedestrian mall selling pizza slices and pirated DVDs. We finally find the beach at an ugly concrete boardwalk, where I meet a silver-haired Scot. I ask how he likes the place and he gives a quick, dismissive shrug. 'I hate that so many people only see this of Bulgaria,' says Assen as we drive off.

We're heading somewhere very different: Cape Emine, the spot where the knuckled end of the Balkan mountains meets the Black Sea. Reaching it from the condo zone requires a drive north over a steep pass, a detour on the battered road towards the nudist beach of Irakli, then a second detour on a far worse road over a mountain. After a rough half-hour ride, we reach Emona village. Once a forgotten fishing community, the government opened it to artists during the Communist era. Today only about 28 people live here year-round. And it's simply gorgeous: a medley of villas scattered across three wide hills sloping downwards to an out-ofsight shoreline. On the deck of a small kâshta (tavern-style guesthouse) in the village, we listen to the falsetto howl of a jackal over a dinner of kebabs and Shumensko beers. The middle-aged woman running the place says, 'We don't want that road to be fixed.' She gestures towards the dark profile of a seaside mountain, illuminated by Sunny Beach's distant glow. 'We know what roads can do.'

The joy of fishermen's sorrows

The Black Sea is nine-tenths dead. And has been that way since long before Jason and his Argonauts, the legends of Ancient Greek mythology, crossed it. The big rivers that feed it, such as the Danube and the Dnieper, bring masses of sediment. This is broken down by bacteria that absorb oxygen and release deadly hydrogen sulphide, killing life below about 150 metres. In other words, there's no deep-sea fishing here. Above 150 metres, marine life flourishes. Chernomorets ('Place at the Black Sea'), 14 miles southeast of the port city Burgas, is an unassuming village, and not unattractive. Locals chat in a quiet park and at an outdoor café on a tiny square. We find our way past homes crowding the crooked lanes to the port, where five fishermen are waiting.

'Don't expect much,' Todor yells over the roar of his open-bed fishing boat's engine. A veteran fisher of these waters, Todor makes five trips a day to his offshore nets. 'We haven't got a fish in six days. I don't know what's going on.' The setting is lovely though. Todor, in a good mood despite his fishing woes, steers us slowly around a rocky spit extending across the blue water; a young fisherman naps in a muscle T-shirt while a grey-haired one pulls on an oversized canvas jumpsuit. When we reach the offshore nets the crew leans in to pull them up, discarding a dozen or so jellyfish, and finding a keeper: one lone, snake-like fish.

Back at the docks, I hand Todor a bottle of rakia. 'Thank you, but I cannot drink rakia bought from a store,' he replies. Instead he waves us to their fishermen's hut, its yard littered with empty bottles, old buoys and rusting boat parts. A sign in Bulgarian hanging over the gate reads 'Fishermen's Sorrows'. Todor smiles. 'When there's no fish, we're here, drinking our sorrows.'

By the look of things, they don't mind that much. The floral-print table top is dotted with cigarette burns and holds a buffet of Coca-Cola bottles refilled with Todor's own white wine, red wine and several rakias. Our tumblers are filled with a 'special 10-year-old rakia', and out comes a plate of local lapina, a chubby, bony fish the colour of ash. I have second thoughts about drinking - it is only 10.30am - but it's hard saying no to a Black Sea captain, on a dry spell, pouring his best brandies on his 56th birthday.

An hour's drive north is a Roma village, a humble collection of wooden shacks on the outskirts of the village of Sinemorets, the modest home to the best beaches on the coast. A rotund woman wrapped in a towel steps out of a stand-alone shower and lets out a good-natured yelp. 'Don't look,' she laughs, 'I'm a grandmother!' Assen playfully fires back, 'Can't you see all the men here lined up to see you?' Bulgarian relations with the Roma community aren't always so cheerful. Assen, who's fond of waving at passers-by from the car, says, 'It's easy to tell the difference between Bulgarians and gypsies. Gypsies always wave back.'

Several guys happily follow us as we walk about the shack community of 30 families. Outside one home, where a teenager dances for us through an open window, a couple of men break from making rakia to offer us a snack of grapes. Another man, jokingly called 'little Indiana Jones' by the group, puts on a cowboy hat and plays a bongo for us. Nearby a few horses trot over gently rolling fields. I comment on the area's pastoral beauty to an elder, who says they moved here two years previously for a different reason. 'We get electricity here.'

Off the beach

After a splash in the water at a virtually empty gold-sand beach between Sinemorets and the closed border at Rezovo (where Bulgaria sassily hangs a triumphant EU banner in Turkey's face), Assen returns to Sofia. But I'm not done.

I backtrack much of the way up the coast, admiring the passing hills and sea views in the late-summer sunlight, and occasionally stopping for a roadside banitsa (white-cheese pastry) or to field a couple of questions about the blue car I'm in. Just north of Burgas I venture inland to the west. Even with the sea in the rear view mirror, the scene is inspiring. I follow tree-lined roads through rolling hills, golden fields and little villages inhabited by Bulgaria's Turkish minority. It is here that the inevitable finally happens: the Moskvitch engine coughs and sputters, then falls silent.

With help from a local shop-owner, I make it to a garage in a neighbouring village. I park by an 18-wheeler and meet Koko, a young mechanic wearing matching pirate earrings, two arms of tattoos and blue overalls. He grins when he sees the car. After a few minutes of poking, he concludes in broken English, 'Starter: kaput. I think your fault.' Throughout the trip, the Moskvitch has been a continued draw for onlookers, who greeted it with smiles, curiosity and nostalgic yarns. One student hitchhiker we picked up said, 'I hoped the Moskvitch would stop!' Returning to the car at one beach stop, we found two parents cupping their hands against the windows to admire the interior. And at a modern Sunny Beach petrol station, a kid with an eyebrow piercing (and a sports car) shyly asked, 'Antique?'

Only faintly concerned that the repair costs will exceed what I paid for the car, I have a leisurely lunch of kebabs and shopska salad (cucumber, tomato, white cheese) while Koko goes to nearby Burgas to retrieve a replacement starter. When I return to the garage, Koko's already back and busy under the hood. Soon the new starter's in, and the car is ready to hit the road again. The bill is almost nothing, not much more than the return taxi fare to Burgas. I protest, but Koko insists on the price. 'Some day, when I drive around America, and break down, you can help me.'


Robert Reid is Lonely Planet's US-based travel editor and has written more than twenty guidebooks, including Eastern Europe, New York City and Colombia.


The article 'The Black Sea by Moskvitch' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.