The captain has an announcement. ‘If you see fire engines waiting for us when we land, please don’t worry,’ he says. ‘They’re here to welcome us.’
And the hullabaloo begins: there’s a water cannon salute, girls waving pom-poms and a blast of Bulgarian folk music. Then every passenger is handed a blue kiss-me-quick-style hat.
Uh-oh. We’ve walked into a Seventies’ Eurovision Song Contest. Except we haven’t — the ceremony is to mark the first ever easyJet flight into Varna.
Varna? Me neither. It’s in Bulgaria, the third largest city in the former Eastern bloc country and its main beach resort.
German and Polish holidaymakers have been coming to this part of the Black Sea for decades, but Varna now wants to open itself to the British — which explains why it’s so excited about easyJet’s arrival.
In a world where every city is rebranded the Venice of the North or the Paris of the South, this stretch of Bulgaria reckons it may just be the new Riviera.
‘Varna is as sunny as Nice, the beaches are as nice, but Varna is a third of the price,’ says a tour guide. And you can fly here from the UK for less than £60 return.
So how does it stack up? The Black Sea isn’t the Med, but it does a passable impression. There are tree-lined boulevards, the sea is warm and deep blue, the sand is soft and golden and the deckchairs are laid out in neat rows, just like in France.
And the nightlife is surprisingly smart, most of the time. One big difference is that there are no yachts. The plutocrats don’t come here: it is far too inexpensive. A poolside mojito is £3.30, a beer 90p. You can eat out for a tenner a head. That’s less than I was paying at university in the Eighties.
On our first evening, we wander along the town’s seafront. A row of Art Deco bathhouses has been converted into elegant bars and clubs.
There are really two Varnas. The city itself — a place of cool clubs, pretty people and plenty of history; it has, over the years been ruled by the Etruscans, the Romans, the Ottomans and the Iron Curtain bureaucrats — and then there are the resorts a few miles outside.
We’re staying in Golden Sands, the biggest and best-known. It’s a village on the seafront built in the Fifties by Bulgaria’s Communist regime to bring in foreign currency.
Drab and state-owned? Once, certainly. But now the hotels are sleek and modern with a focus on families (unlike the town centre, which has a more adult vibe). It’s the best-value beach holiday I’ve found in Europe.
According to Vincent Graff, the Black Sea isn’t the Med, but it does a passable impression
But one thing needs clearing up: despite what the woman in the airport says, it’s not the French Riviera.
Here’s why. One night we go to a nightclub in the centre of town. At first glance, it’s achingly cool. There’s a runway high above the ground with five professional dancers gyrating to the music in very little clothing.
Then a sixtysomething man dressed in dirty overalls with a greasy moustache walks over and stands beneath the dancers. He dad-dances there for a full ten minutes before a bouncer wanders over to put a stop to it.
In Saint-Tropez, if you go to a nightclub you might just meet Leonardo DiCaprio.
Here in Varna, I’ve spent the evening with Super Mario.