Famed for its delightful medieval churches, nineteenth-century wooden architecture and labyrinthine cobbled streets, Nesebar’s (Несебър) old town, 35km northeast of Burgas, lies on a narrow isthmus connected by road to the mainland. It was founded by Greek colonists and grew into a thriving port during the Byzantine era; ownership alternated between Bulgaria and Byzantium until the Ottomans captured it in 1453. The town remained an important centre of Greek culture and the seat of a bishop under Turkish rule, which left Nesebar’s Byzantine churches reasonably intact. Nowadays the town depends on them for its tourist appeal, demonstrated by the often overwhelming stream of summer visitors. Outside the hectic summer season, the place seems eerily deserted, with little open other than a few sleepy cafés.
A man-made isthmus connects Nesebar’s old town with the mainland. Standing just inside the city gates, the Archeological Museum has an array of Greek tombstones and medieval icons on display. Immediately beyond the museum is Christ Pantokrator, the first of Nesebar’s churches, currently in use as an upmarket art gallery. It features an unusual frieze of swastikas – an ancient symbol of fertility and continual change. Downhill on ul. Mitropolitska is the eleventh-century church of St John the Baptist (now also an art gallery), only one of whose frescoes still survives. Overhung by half-timbered houses, ul. Aheloi branches off from ul. Mitropolitska towards the Church of Sveti Spas, outwardly unremarkable but filled with seventeenth-century frescoes.
A few steps to the east lies the ruined Old Metropolitan Church, dominating a plaza filled with pavement cafés and street traders. The church itself dates back to the sixth century, and it was here that bishops officiated during the city’s heyday. Standing in splendid isolation beside the shore, the ruined Church of St John Aliturgetos represents the zenith of Byzantine architecture in Bulgaria. Its exterior employs limestone, red bricks, crosses, mussel shells and ceramic plaques for decoration.