7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain

7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain

Whether you’re arriving to Sofia by air, road or rail, the first thing that catches your eye as you enter the Sofia Valley is likely to be Vitosha, Sofia’s unmistakable natural landmark. Rising to 2290 metres above sea level and well over a mile above the valley floor, the dome-shaped Vitosha is Bulgaria’s fourth-highest mountain massif. And due to its proximity to the capital city and the accessible Aleko ski area, the mountain is also the locals’ favourite weekend retreat in all four seasons.

Do thickly forested slopes, subalpine plateaus, unique stone rivers, thundering waterfalls, secluded monasteries or snow-capped summits sound like a day well spent to you? Well then, prepare to discover kashkaval tourist’s 7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain!

1. Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

Though it might sound like a challenge with its respectable height of 2290 metres and its reputation for strong winds, Vitosha’s highpoint Cherni Vrah is in fact a very accessible summit in any season. Because of its closeness to Sofia and the multitude of transport links and trails, Cherni Vrah is by far the most climbed mountain peak in Bulgaria, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. That the meteorological station’s teahouse on the summit reliably serves warm bean soup and cold beer might also be contributing to its popularity!

Cherni Vrah (Черни връх, “Black Peak”) stands only a few hundred metres above the high-altitude plateaus and the tree line, making the hike from the slightly wonky Dragalevtsi chairlift’s top station (Goli Vrah) a literal walk in the park in good weather. The ascent from the Aleko ski area is only a tad more challenging. However, the low difficulty of the trails doesn’t in any way impact the grandeur of the panoramas, whether you’re looking down towards Sofia or around to the awe-inspiring ridges of Rila, Pirin or the Balkan Mountains.

2. Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

Ever heard of stone rivers? Imagine a stream-like accumulation of thousands of massive boulders, extending for kilometres down the mountain slope. Thanks to Vitosha’s extraordinary geological history, these unique landforms from the last Ice Age have become something of a signature for Sofia’s nearby mountain! And though stone rivers can be found in a multitude of locations in the higher parts of Vitosha, the most famous (and largest) of them ought to be the Golden Bridges.

This particular stone river is more than two kilometres long and its poetic name supposedly comes from the yellowish lichen that grows on the boulders. In summer, the Golden Bridges (Златните мостове, Zlatnite mostove) are a beloved location for picnics and sunbathing, with kids having the time of their life hopping from boulder to boulder while the parents are chatting and sipping a beer nearby.

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A taste of rustic Central Europe: 5 reasons to visit Bardarski Geran

A taste of rustic Central Europe: 5 reasons to visit Bardarski Geran

With their unique language form, their Central European customs and their Catholic faith, the Banat Bulgarians might be the most outstanding and curious Bulgarian ethnographic group of all. Having lived in the Austrian and later Hungarian lands beyond the Danube (nowadays in Romania and Serbia) for centuries, some of them returned in 1887 and founded the village of Bardarski Geran in northwestern Bulgaria.

The Banat Bulgarians brought back their remarkable rural architecture and their distinctive folk costumes with them… as well as some of their ethnic German neighbours. Together, the two communities turned Bardarski Geran into a fascinating representation of their former homeland in the Austro-Hungarian Banat – and a true Banat Bulgarian cultural capital!

From the village’s quaint appearance to the unmistakable food and drink and the wild carnival celebrations, kashkaval tourist gives you 5 reasons to visit Bardarski Geran!

1. Keeping the faith: marvel at the two impressive Roman Catholic churches

Keeping the faith: marvel at the two impressive Roman Catholic churches

Keeping the faith: marvel at the two impressive Roman Catholic churches

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bulgarian village with two Orthodox churches, what’s left for two cathedral-sized Roman Catholic churches! Because the Banat Bulgarians and the ethnic German Banat Swabian colonists didn’t quite feel like mixing and formed two separate communities, they also built two separate church buildings in Bardarski Geran.

The Church of Saint Joseph, the spiritual home of the Banat Bulgarian parish, truly impresses with its size and its sparse but monumental interior decoration. And the Gothic spire of the German Church of the Virgin Mary, unfortunately abandoned after the Swabians left in the 1940s, is quite the sight for a village in the remote Bulgarian Northwest. Peek through the church’s arched gate and spot the mural portraits of the Slavic apostles Cyril and Methodius with their names written in German!

2. Hungarian-style sausages and wine: taste the unique local food and drink

Hungarian-style sausages and wine: taste the unique local food and drink

Hungarian-style sausages and wine: taste the unique local food and drink

Sure, classic Bulgarian cuisine is a treat in itself. But if you venture to Bardarski Geran, you’ll encounter dishes that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Bulgaria. The old recipes from the Banat region show a strong Hungarian influence, and you can get a rare taste of homemade pork paprikash or kalbasa (kolbász) sausages in Bardarski Geran. In fact, after a kalbasa recipe from another Banat Bulgarian village won a nationwide Lidl recipe contest in 2017, the kalbasa sausages have become something of a hit, and will even be offered in Bulgarian Lidl stores.

And what goes with some award-winning Banat sausages better than local red wine from the Danube Plain? As it happens, the Bardarski Geran museum has its own vineyards and red wine they bottle happens to be the perfect pairing to the village’s unique meat specialties!

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6 blissful places on the enamouring Adriatic coast of Montenegro

6 blissful places on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro

Labyrinthine bays dotted by little islands, coastal towns drawing you in with their Italianate charm, the awe-inspiring Dinaric ridges above and of course, the calm blue waters of the Southern Adriatic below. Montenegro might be tiny, but its breath-taking littoral ought to be the closest the Balkans have to paradise.

Although it might be just a 120-kilometre drive from the Bay of Kotor’s entrance to the sandy beaches of Ada Bojana on the Albanian border, literally the entire coastline of Montenegro is stunningly scenic. Add to that the allure of the local taverns (konoba) with their mix of Mediterranean and Balkan food, and you’d be hard pressed to ever leave.

From a morning walk among some of the oldest olive groves in the world to an evening stroll in the hidden gem of the Bay of Kotor, kashkaval tourist will now take you on a journey to 6 blissful places on the enamouring Adriatic coast of Montenegro!

1. Guarding the gateway to heaven: Herceg Novi

Guarding the gateway to heaven: Herceg Novi

Guarding the gateway to heaven: Herceg Novi

Herceg Novi might be the ancient castle protecting the entrance to the Bay of Kotor from invasion, but it’s a welcoming, benevolent guardian. Its stark medieval fortifications share the streets with gentle Venetian and Austrian-style facades and the menacing slopes of Mount Orjen in the distance are offset by the verdure of palms and fig trees down by the sea.

As the first Montenegrin town you’re likely to encounter if you’re entering from Croatia, Herceg Novi is just the perfect place to say hello to the Bay of Kotor’s beauties. Explore the alleys and stairways of the Old Town before an opulent dinner on the promenade. For the finest beaches around, it’s a good idea to hop on a boat tour to a more remote location like Žanjice.

2. A tale of two islands: Perast

A tale of two islands: Perast

A tale of two islands: Perast

Headed for Kotor or hurrying to Dubrovnik, many visitors are likely to overlook the tiny town of Perast – and that’s the biggest mistake you can make when exploring Montenegro. Just a few kilometres north of Kotor, Perast is an absolute hidden gem of Italianate palazzos, graceful bell towers and mesmerizing island vistas.

Climb the St Nicholas’ Church tower for an iconic panorama of the Bay of Kotor and the two nearby islets of Saint George and Our Lady of the Rocks. From the promenade, you can easily arrange a boat taxi to the latter island and its Baroque church and museum. Or simply enjoy a glass of rakija with some Njeguški pršut and local olives on the side in a seafront konoba!

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6 adventurous activities in the awe-inspiring Albanian Alps

6 adventurous activities in the awe-inspiring Albanian Alps

With their steep and rugged slopes overhanging kilometres above deep and remote valleys, the Albanian Alps just have to be one of the Balkans’ (and indeed, Europe’s) most stunning mountain ranges. Their menacing appearance, thanks to which they have deserved the moniker “the Accursed Mountains”, only adds to their mysterious allure.

Whether you call them the Albanian Alps, the Accursed Mountain, Bjeshkët e Nemuna or Prokletije, it’s all the same mountain range, situated where the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo meet. They’re the highest section of the vast Dinaric Alps that follow the Adriatic coast of the Western Balkans. And it’s not just sheer height that the Accursed Mountains impress with: the traditional villages, turquoise lakes, elegant waterfalls, primeval beech and fir forests and authentic highlander cuisine make this secluded region the Balkans’ perfect nature getaway.

Entering the Albanian Alps via one of the world’s most epic boat rides and driving out over an exhilarating and treacherous mountain pass, with loads of quality hiking and the odd lock-in tower (north Albanian blood feud anyone?) in-between, kashkaval tourist presents 6 adventurous activities in the awe-inspiring Albanian Alps.

1. A boat ride to remember: hop on the legendary Lake Koman ferry

A boat ride to remember: hop on the legendary Lake Koman ferry

A boat ride to remember: hop on the legendary Lake Koman ferry

Departing on the world-famous Lake Koman ferry on a summer morning is indisputably your perfect introduction to the Albanian Alps. The ferry will take you on a three-hour boat ride among otherwise inaccessible mountain gorges. The peaks above you will turn more and more dazzling as you approach the terminus at Fierzë, but the waters retain their shade of turquoise along the way.

Getting on and off the Lake Koman ferry is an adventure in itself, as friendly locals volunteer to help foreign drivers with the perilous approach on and off the ferry ramp. Quite how the seemingly erratic logistics of loading and unloading the boats works is a bit of an Albanian mystery, but rest assured, not traveller would be turned back!

2. Alpine paradise: hike up the spectacular Valbona Valley

Alpine paradise: hike up the spectacular Valbona Valley

Alpine paradise: hike up the spectacular Valbona Valley

Once you get off the ferry at Fierzë, the gorgeous Valbona Valley is just a short minibus ride away. The glacial valley of the Valbona River is nestled between the almost vertical ridges of the Albanian Alps and the altitude difference of 1,700 metres from the river bed to the summits almost directly above it is absolutely dizzying. The Valbona Valley boasts a range of trails to everyone’s taste and ability, including a gentle path along the river, a short walk to the Liqeni i Xhemës pond or ambitious ascents of the colossal Kollata massif (2,554 m) or the highest peak Maja Jezercë (2,694 m).

However, by far the most popular day hike is the steep trek from Valbona to Theth via the Valbona Pass (Qafa e Valbonës) at 1,795 m. This six to eight-hour trek of medium difficulty will take you through secluded stone villages and ancient beech forests, along pristine mountain streams and just below the intimidating peaks of the Accursed Mountains. On either side of the pass, there’s a basic café where you can stop for refreshments or fill up your water bottles.

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Megalithic borderlands: 6 reasons to visit Sredets

Megalithic borderlands: 6 reasons to visit Sredets

Sredets municipality is situated between the Burgas Lakes region of coastal wetlands and the northern parts of Strandzha, the vast area of hilly woodlands extending on either side of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. With its Roman heritage, dozens of prehistoric megaliths, sunny climate and unspoiled Balkan nature, this wild corner of southeastern Bulgaria is waiting to be explored!

From “dragon houses” and sacred boulders dating back to prehistory to 20th-century Cold War memories, kashkaval tourist presents 6 reasons to visit Sredets municipality and its megalithic borderlands!

1. Ave Caesar: explore the Roman colony of Deultum

Ave Caesar: explore the Roman colony of Deultum

Ave Caesar: explore the Roman colony of Deultum

Founded by Emperor Vespasian in the 1st century AD as Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium, today Deultum is an extensive archaeological site with a museum. As a Roman colony with Black Sea access via the once-navigable Lake Mandra, ancient Deultum prospered for centuries. It traded precious local Strandzha oak timber for other goods from the Mediterranean world, minted its own coinage, welcomed Roman emperors and honoured imperial customs. In the Middle Ages, Deultum marked the border between the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empire as the Burgas Lakes region often changed hands between the two.

Along with other Thracian, Roman, Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian artefacts, the Museum of Deultum features a rare bronze head of Emperor Septimius Severus. Outside, near the village of Debelt (Дебелт), the ruins of the ancient colony are in part still being excavated and researched, so you can get a first-hand impression of the archaeological team’s work!

2. Dragon houses: step into ancient dolmens on a jeep safari

Dragon houses: step into ancient dolmens on a jeep safari

Dragon houses: step into ancient dolmens on a jeep safari

You have to delve deep into the forested foothills of Strandzha to uncover Sredets municipality’s best-kept secret: the prehistoric dolmens, or megalithic portal tombs. Rather poetically, Bulgarian folklore interprets these Iron Age tombs as “dragon houses”. Supposedly, they’re the homes of shapeshifting dragons who, transformed into handsome young men, would lure local maidens to their dens.

There are dozens of dolmens in western Strandzha, though most of them are extremely remote and barely accessible. Some of the best preserved “dragon houses” can be found near the border villages of Belevren, Granichar, Kirоvo and Dolno Yabalkovo. The dolmen in the Korubata area between Belevren and Kirovo is one of the most remarkable and easiest to access (it’s just off the asphalted village road). However, a sturdy four-wheel drive, a local guide and an adventurous spirit are well recommended in any case.

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7 mouth-watering Bulgarian fish and seafood dishes 

7 mouth-watering Bulgarian fish and seafood dishes 

Fish and seafood play an important part in many national styles of cooking, and Bulgarian cuisine is no exception. Thanks to its vast Black Sea coastline, its extensive access to the Danube and its numerous high-mountain rivers, lakes and reservoirs, Bulgaria has an abundance of freshwater and saltwater delicacies to choose from!

The Bulgarian fish and seafood tradition has a lot in common with how seafood is prepared and eaten in the wider Mediterranean region. However, the peculiarities of the Black Sea, with its relative isolation from the World Ocean, its anoxic depths, lower salinity and variety of marine life, add a unique touch to Bulgarian seafood. You won’t find native calamari, scampi or octopus dishes in Bulgarian restaurants, for instance (as they’re more than likely to stem from the markets in Thessaloniki), but you can feast on freshly-caught mussels, shrimps and rapa whelks!

From Bulgaria’s ubiquitous alternative to fish and chips to the Eastern Balkans’ favourite roe dip, kashkaval tourist presents 7 mouth-watering Bulgarian fish and seafood dishes. And as a bonus, there’s a list of my favourite fish and seafood restaurants at the end!

1. Bulgaria’s own fish and chips: deep fried sprats (tsatsa)

Bulgaria’s own fish and chips: deep fried sprats (tsatsa)

Bulgaria’s own fish and chips: deep fried sprats (tsatsa)

Walk by any little park or beach eatery in Bulgaria at the height of summer and you’re almost guaranteed to sense the smell of fried sprats. A national obsession with the funny-sounding name tsatsa (цаца), this crispy seafood snack is the perfect companion to a cold beer on a hot day. It’s essentially a meal of dozens of small herring-like fish (Sprattus sprattus), salted, coated in flour and deep fried, heads still on and all.

Serve fried sprats with a slice of lemon, some French fries and an ice-cold Bulgarian draught beer and you’ve created a legendary dish with minimum effort. In summer days, fried sprats are so popular out in the open that they even rival the ever-present kebapche. Locally, their cult status is only comparable to the institution that is fish and chips in the United Kingdom!

2. Black pearls of the sea: Mediterranean mussels

Black pearls of the sea: Mediterranean mussels

Black pearls of the sea: Mediterranean mussels

Dark Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) are one of the most widespread molluscs in the Black Sea and a favourite Bulgarian seafood. These days, over 40 mussel farms produce them in ecologically pristine areas of the Bulgarian coast, so they’re a regular feature in restaurants.

In Bulgarian cuisine, Mediterranean mussels, called simply midi (миди), are cooked in countless variations. These tasty and quite nutrient molluscs can be the chief ingredient of a mussel soup or a mussel salad. And as a main course, they’re usually stewed (often in white wine) and served with the shells. In that case, they’re accompanied by a vegetable sauce as midi plakia (миди плакия) or simply seasoned with fresh lovage.

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Book review: 203 Travel Challenges

Book review: 203 Travel Challenges

Book review: 203 Travel Challenges

Book review: 203 Travel Challenges

Feeling unmotivated, uninspired, stuck in a repetitive daily routine? It’s okay, happens to the best of us! Everyone needs a new challenge from time to time to get their positive energy back on track, be it a concrete goal, a big dream or… a long-coveted travel destination!

This is exactly what Maria Angelova and Ivalina Nenova’s project [amazon_textlink asin=’B06Y6DT971′ text=’203 Travel Challenges’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’kashkavaltour-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’7aa24b1e-4e86-11e7-8f8b-1bec255e7c45′] is there for. The book inspires you to change the way you travel, to go out of your comfort zone and to regularly make time to enjoy the small things in life. The challenges are suitable for experienced travellers as well as newbies and there’s a special section for couples who’d like to adventure together. In a nutshell, the message is one of progressive change: “Do at least one thing you have never done before in your life – and you won’t be able to stop.“

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Taking on the waves: Black Sea kayaking in Kavarna

Taking on the waves: Black Sea kayaking in Kavarna

When you return to the same place at the same time the very next year, you know there has to be a special reason. And in my case, the reason was that I fell in love with kayaking in the Black Sea. Touring the stunning red cliffs and marvelling at the maritime vistas of Bulgaria’s jagged northern coast is an unforgettable endeavour. Especially when you’re on your own in your kayak, taking on the waves and feeling like a true adventurer!

The guide and the gear

Trip Kavarna's Epic fibreglass kayaks are the cream of the crop

Trip Kavarna’s Epic fibreglass kayaks are the cream of the crop

I went on both sea kayaking tours together with Trip Kavarna, a licensed tour agent, an experienced kayaker and an incredibly calm and friendly guide who speaks English, Russian and Bulgarian. Both times I paddled one of Trip Kavarna’s five high-grade Epic GPX single kayaks with Epic carbon touring paddles. At just 15 kg, this fibreglass boat was easy to carry in and out of the water and a joy to navigate. When paddling, it almost didn’t feel like I was moving any extra weight but my own body.

At the same time, the boat was stable and robust. Keeping my balance wasn’t a challenge in one of the Epic GPX, so no, I never even came close to turning over… and I’ll admit I’ve been able to capsize in an actual full-sized boat in a city lake on another occasion! This time I was equipped with a life jacket and instructed on how to act in such a situation though, so it wouldn’t have been much of an issue anyway.

Getting ready: What to bring

Sportswear and an action camera are highly recommended for your kayaking adventure!

Sportswear and an action camera are highly recommended for your kayaking adventure!

Bringing a waterproofed action camera on board is highly recommended, but I wouldn’t take a phone or a DSLR with me. There’s dry bags to store your gear, but given that your kayak is covered by your sprayskirt at all times, you won’t be really able to easily access your camera. And you should be busy paddling and having fun anyway! Your guide will have an action camera on, so don’t worry, you’re guaranteed to have photographic proof of your kayaking adventure.

Needless to say, this is a serious physical activity so you’d better slip into your activewear or swimsuit. On a sunny day, you’re unlikely to be cold and you won’t get too much water on you thanks to the sprayskirt. But you don’t want cotton clothes keeping you wet in any case! On longer tours, it would be wise to bring a bottle of drinking water (the action and those sea views might quickly make you thirsty), but on my shorter tours in spring, I was just fine without one.

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8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine

8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine

The specific assortment of spices and the way they are used plays a huge part in shaping the general flavour of a national style of cooking. In Bulgarian cuisine, which is a trademark representative of Balkan cooking, spices serve the important task of bringing out flavours and hold the key to making a dish taste quintessentially Bulgarian.

Needless to say, preparing authentic Bulgarian food would be unthinkable without the local variety of seasonings. After all, Bulgarian cuisine is not just what we eat or drink, it’s also how we flavour it!

From the nation’s all-time favourite spice mix to the most appropriate spices to use for Bulgarian-style beans, meat or fish, kashkaval tourist will introduce you to the world of 8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine.

1. Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Sharena sol (шарена сол), meaning “colourful salt”, is without a doubt the most popular spice mix in Bulgaria and a feature in practically every Bulgarian spice rack. Ingredients and proportions tend to vary a bit, depending on the preferences of whoever prepared it. Sharena sol just can’t go without the holy trinity of salt, dried summer savoury (chubritsa) and sweet paprika, but fenugreek is a popular fourth ingredient, and thyme or roasted maize are common additions too.

Sharena sol tastes great on freshly baked bread or any other kind of savoury pastry, but it can also be applied to eggs, soups and almost every other dish, as long as you want an unmistakably Bulgarian flavour.

2. Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Legumes like beans and lentils are the basis of many Bulgarian soups and main courses, particularly in the mountainous regions where they are most often grown. And the seasoning Bulgarians most often use in bean recipes has to be the aromatic spearmint (Mentha spicata), locally called dzhodzhen (джоджен) or less often gyozum (гьозум).

The leaves of this Mediterranean perennial plant can be used fresh or dried. In any case spearmint brings a strong fresh aroma to the table that is a perfect match for those delicious Smilyan beans from the Rhodopes. In Bulgarian cuisine, spearmint is also used in lamb and rice dishes. It tends to be a very dominant taste, so it should be carefully paired with other spices, which it can easily overpower.

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Horses near Devin

5 things to do on a getaway in Devin

History Fangirl

Stephanie Craig is a amateur historian and travel blogger. She writes at historyfangirl.com

I first came to Bulgaria in the fall of last year, and I was immediately wowed by this wonderful country. Sofia charmed me right away, and I fell in love with the capital for its vibrancy, gorgeous architecture, and urban core. After bouncing from country to country for eight months, I came back in February to settle down in what I consider to be my new Balkan home.

But occasionally, even a city girl needs to escape, which is a great excuse to get out and explore the country’s quieter towns and villages. Desperate to get out of Sofia for the long Easter weekend, I decided to take Todor up on some of his advice from his post “7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria” and booked a quick getaway to the spa town of Devin. I’m so glad I did! The weekend was peaceful, beautiful, and relaxing – everything I needed it to be.

Since Todor has explained why Devin is a great option for a weekend (or more), I thought I’d report back and share with the kashkaval tourist community some of the highlights I enjoyed on my trip so you can prepare your own weekend away.

Devin sits high in the Rhodope Mountains, near Bulgaria’s southern border with Greece. The small town of about 7,000 looks like many other towns from afar: lots of traditional rust-red roofs, taverns, and the local Orthodox church. It is famous for its mineral hot springs. The largest bottled water company in Bulgaria is also called Devin, named for and bottled in the town.

1. Go for a stroll

Go for a stroll: Walking through Devin in the afternoon

Go for a stroll: Walking through Devin in the afternoon

The town is small, charming, and easily walkable. Centered around the Devinska River (as well as a few other streams and waterways), there are multiple picturesque bridges and parks nearby. Cottages and houses climb halfway up the mountain peaks.

2. Hit the spa

Hit the spa: Spa Hotel Persenk

Hit the spa: Spa Hotel Persenk

Why go to a spa town and not enjoy the spa? I swam in the mineral pool at my hotel, enjoyed the sauna and steam room, got a full body massage, and capped off the day with a Bulgarian rose oil infused body scrub. I was so relaxed that by the end that I couldn’t feel my face.

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