Top 5 Golf Courses of Bulgaria 2019
We attended a European Golf and Travel Media Association press trip to Bulgaria a couple of weeks ago to have a close look at the Pirin resort, located in the mountains to the south of Sofia. At that time, we featured only three Bulgarian courses, all of which were located in the east of the country, close to the Black Sea city of Varna.
In an exercise similar to one we conducted for Slovenia and Slovakia a couple of years ago, when we established a Top 5 chart for both central European nations, we thought it made sense to run the rule over some other Bulgarian golf facilities whilst we were in the country in order to expand our ranking chart for this southeast European nation.
But first, we began our visit at our new national #5, Pirin Golf & Country Club, located close to the popular ski resort of Bansko, around 150 kilometres from the capital. Developed by Balkanstroy, one the biggest construction companies in Bulgaria, the Pirin resort lies within the Razlog Valley, in the shadow of the Rila, Pirin and Rodopies mountains.
Pirin Golf & Country Club
It’s a wonderful sporting complex offering a variety of residential options, from a 5-star hotel to spa apartments and luxurious chalets. The commercial centre comprises a number of bars and restaurants, along with shops, boutiques and galleries – there’s even a dentist on hand for those who require treatment while they’re away from home.
Unveiled in 2007, the golf course is an 18-hole Ian Woosman layout, designed in partnership with architect Gary Johnston from European Golf Design. The facility is currently affiliated to the European Tour Properties network, which is a very good indication of the quality to be found both on and off the course at this mountain retreat.
The second stop on our golf tour was to the new Bulgarian #4 at Pravets Golf Club, on the other side of Sofia, where a Peter Harradine design has been in operation since 2011. This is a course that’s been built to championship standard, hosting quite a few PGA Professional Championship of Europe events and European Golf Association tournaments. The new floodlit golf academy beside the clubhouse is a top tier learning centre, equipped with teaching studio, practice range bays and a dedicated short game area.
Pravets Golf Club
The course is laid out across a valley next to Lake Pravets and even though there was a fair bit of earth moved to create some of the layout’s contours, it all looks rather pleasing on the eye, with tree-lined fairways affording a degree of seclusion as they mature. Another agreeable aspect of the design is the way the returning nines both finish at the same large double green in front of the clubhouse.
A short 45-minute flight east to Varna gave us the opportunity to see how well the three Black Sea tracks in Cape Kaliakra shape up against their counterparts on the other side of the country. Without being at all dismissive of the golf product around Sofia, this trio – Thracian Cliffs, BlackseaRama and Lighthuse – pretty much sets the standard for others to try and emulate in Bulgaria.
And so, remaining at number #3 in our new national chart, the course at Lighthouse Golf Resort is another 18-hole layout from the design partnership of 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam and architect Gary Johnston at European Golf Design. It has ties with Pirin, so like its Bansko stablemate, you’ll also find Lighthouse in the European Tour Properties portfolio, with a 180-bedroom 5-star hotel providing a very comfortable and convenient base when golfing in the area.
Lighthouse Golf Resort
An event on the Staysure Tour (formerly the European Senior Tour) was held here last September – sponsored by the Ministry for Tourism and hosted by Ian Woosnam – to mark the 10th anniversary of the course opening in 2008. In addition to the main tournament, various pro-am competitions allowed golfers in a wide range of handicaps to play alongside the senior professionals.
Still holding on to the #2 spot in our revised chart for Bulgaria, the 18-hole layout at BlackSeaRama Golf & Villas is a Gary Player Signature design that has also been welcoming visiting golfers for more than a decade now. Interestingly, the club produces bottles of red and white wine from its own on-site vineyards and guests are served organically produced fruit and vegetables from eco gardens within the resort.
On the course, there are links-like elements to enjoy throughout the round, ranging from fast running fairways to lovely swales surrounding many of the greens. Little stone walls and arches have also been carefully recreated around the course to demonstrate how the ancient landscape appeared before its modern day transformation into a golf resort.
That just leaves another Gary Player design, Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort, which retains the #1 position at the top of our rankings for Bulgaria. This revelation is hardly a shock if you consider it was a new entry at number 30 on arrival in our 2012 European Top 100. Even though it has slipped half a dozen places in the table since then, it still occupies a very prominent position in a chart reflecting the best golf to be experienced across the continent.
Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort
Along with the other two Balchik golf resorts at BlackSeaRama and Lighthouse, Thracian Cliffs co-hosts the 6th edition of the Cape Kaliakra Open next month, giving amateurs in three handicap divisions the chance to play one round over 18 holes on each of the three local courses. Sponsored by the Kaliakra Golf Foundation, this national golf event has quickly grown since 2014 into one of Bulgarian golf’s most prestigious tournaments for male and female participants.
After flying back to Sofia, there was just enough time before heading home to the UK for a quick visit to St. Sofia Golf Club & Spa on the outskirts of the city. It’s located near the small village of Ravno Pole, which translates into English as “Flat Fields” and that tells you all you need to know about the nature of the rather lacklustre landscape in that part of the Elin Pelin municipality.
St. Sofia Golf Club & Spa
Now under Chinese ownership, the golf complex was established in 2004 but Paul McGinley Golf Design was called in to renovate the course not long after it debuted. A number of fairways were remodelled to bring greater definition to the holes, involving the introduction of new water features and the installation of additional fairway and greenside bunkers. In May of 2012, the Bulgarian Prime Minister was on hand to officially open the upgraded layout.
There’s another golf club located 50 kilometres southeast of St. Sofia at Air Sofia in Ihtiman and this was actually home to the only Bulgarian golf course in existence at the end of the 1990s. Unfortunately, it’s now somewhat shrouded in mystery as the club relinquished its membership of the Bulgarian Golf Association in 2012 and it doesn’t appear to have any connection with other clubs around the country.
As there’s no club website for this course, a glance at an unofficial Facebook page reveals the clubhouse is literally built around the fuselage of a former Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Tupolev TU-134 plane – hence the club name, of course – but, for the moment, we can only wonder whether the 18-hole course at this club was constructed in keeping with such a bizarre building.
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To view further details of our Bulgaria Top 5 rankings click the link.
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