8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus

8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus

Nested south of the magnificent Caucasus – Europe’s highest mountain chain – and on the opposite shore of the Black Sea from Bulgaria, Georgia is by all means one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Whether it’s fertile valleys, antique towns, secluded monasteries, coastal jungles, arid semi-desert plains or mind-boggling glaciated mountain peaks, Georgia has it all!

Sure, Georgia may not be a Balkan country, but I instantly felt at home in this Caucasian heaven during my two-week vacation. The warmth of the people, the dynamic landscapes, the secluded monasteries and the wonderful cuisine are but a few features Georgia and Bulgaria have in common. And there was no lack of excellent wine and rakia (or chacha, as they call it beyond the Black Sea) to keep me happy during my holiday!

From the region’s most romantic capital to the highest villages in Europe, kashkaval tourist presents 8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus!

1. Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Tbilisi, the romantic Georgian capital, is an excellent introduction to the culture, history, cuisine and nature of this incredible country and indeed, to the entire region. Tbilisi mixes East with West, tradition with modernity and old-town serenity with the hustle and bustle of a capital metropolis… and it does it all remarkably well!

Tbilisi’s Old Town with is quaint alleys and antique architecture will be your best bet for a leisurely walk or a casual Georgian wine dinner. Further away, the Dry Bridge flea market is a great place to buy antique souvenirs, especially if you’re curious about communist memorabilia.

Above the Old Town, the ancient Narikala Fortress on top of a steep hill will reveal vistas of the winding Mtkvari River and the ultramodern Peace Bridge crossing it – as well as the huge Holy Trinity Cathedral in traditional Caucasian style. If you’d rather spare the short but vertical walk to the fortress, you can always take the chairlift from the other side of the Peace Bridge. You’ll be rewarded with a short but exhilarating ride above the entire city!

2. Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Drive just a few hours north of Tbilisi along the legendary Georgian Military Road and you’ll end up in the heartland of the Central Caucasus, surrounded by peaks more than 4,000 metres high. Above the quaint medieval church of Tsminda Sameba and even further above the mountain town of Stepantsminda you’ll find the 5,047-metre-high Mount Kazbek, the mythical stratovolcano that Prometheus was allegedly chained on.

With its grassy slopes, dramatic glaciers and unmistakable volcanic shape, Mount Kazbek is one of Georgia’s prime hiking destinations. A steep two-hour walk will take you to the Tsminda Sameba Church above the village, which is perhaps the country’s most photographed location.

Add another four hours and you’ll end up at the foot of the massive Gergeti Glacier. And if you’re into some relatively light ice hiking, then you can overnight at the former weather station on the other side of the glacier, a further two hours away. Conditions at the hut are basic to say the least, but at 3,670 metres above sea level, you’ll take anything!

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7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea

7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea

Situated in Bulgaria’s southeast corner, adjacent to the seaside and extending beyond the border into Turkey, the lush Strandzha Mountains have preserved a unique local culture and timber architecture. What’s more, Strandzha’s endless humid old-growth forests resemble those of the Caucasus more than anywhere in Europe!

Sparsely populated and away from the big cities, Strandzha is the perfect getaway for those seeking tranquillity and enriching cultural and natural experiences. From mind-boggling sand spit beaches to quaint villages with antique wooden houses, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea!

1. Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan

Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan

Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan

A historic Bulgarian village in the western part of the region, Brashlyan boasts possibly the best-preserved collection of traditional Strandzha houses. Constructed out of timber with stone foundations and unmistakable thick chimneys, Brashlyan’s houses are an absolute wonder of vernacular architecture!

Rent one of the traditional houses for a weekend to fully immerse yourself in the authentic surroundings and use Brashlyan (Бръшлян) as a base to explore the rest of Strandzha. Or visit the village on a day tour and take a look inside the 17th-century wooden church with a bell tower to learn more about Brashlyan’s turbulent history as a rebel hub.

2. Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail

Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail

Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail

In the eastern part of Strandzha near the Black Sea, the mild and humid local climate has preserved a belt of vegetation more typical of northern Turkey and the coast of Georgia than of Europe. Strandzha’s thick forests of oriental beech trees hide an understory of Caucasian evergreen shrubs, including Pontic rhododendrons.

And with all this natural beauty, it’s no coincidence that Strandzha Nature Park is by far the largest in Bulgaria! Walk the “In the Realm of the Rhododendron” eco-trail starting in the village of Kondolovo (Кондолово) in May and June, when the rhododendrons bloom in violet-purple, and you’ll feel like you’ve uncovered a humid Asian tropical forest hidden inside the Balkans!

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Bulgarian folklore across the ocean: support kaba gaida to Chicago and beyond!

Do you love Bulgarian music and would you like to help five young bagpipe players represent the unique Bulgarian folklore at festivals in Chicago and Richmond this autumn? The team of KabaGaida.com, who offer free online tutorials for Bulgarian kaba gaida bagpipe enthusiasts, have been invited to the World Music Festival Chicago and the Richmond Folk Festival.

To be able to cover their significant airfares and visa fees and be able to perform Bulgarian bagpipe music at these festivals, the KabaGaida.com team and the Kaynak Pipers Band have started a fundraiser at Indiegogo. Help them raise awareness about Bulgarian folklore and make their American dream come true by donating!

8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast

8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast

Dramatic sea cliffs, secluded beaches and a subtropical steppe landscape home to ancient fortresses, cave dwellings and wind turbines: the region of Kavarna on Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast is a dream for outdoor enthusiasts!

Still relatively unexplored compared to Bulgaria’s bustling southern coastline, the North remains a hidden gem on the Black Sea coast. And in particular, the region around Kavarna offers so much to do for those looking for something more active than lying on the beach all day.

From breathtaking kayaking tours to refreshing early morning bike rides to catch the sunrise over the sea, kashkaval tourist presents 8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

1. Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

How does having the sea to yourself, battling the waves and enjoying the epic cliffs north of Kavarna from a different perspective sound to you? If that’s your idea of a day well spent, then Trip Kavarna’s amazing kayaking tours are sure to be the highlight of your holiday.

Whether it’s a half-day tour from the mesmerizing crescent-shaped Bolata cove around the legendary Cape Kaliakra or a full-day adventure along the scenic coastline, this kayaking experience is guaranteed enjoyment for paddling novices and experienced sea wolves alike!

2. Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

With a variety of enjoyable routes to choose from and little traffic on the roads, the Kavarna region is perfect for cycling fans! Hire a bike from Levana Guest House, who also offer accommodation in authentic Dobrudzha village houses in beautiful Balgarevo, and tour the coastline at your own pace.

Distances in the area are no greater than 30 kilometres, the roads are fit for cycling and the diverse landscapes where the Black Sea meets the Dobrudzha steppe are made to be explored on a bike. So take the camera with you and off you go!

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Bulgaria celebrates Lazarus Saturday (Lazaritsa) and Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa)!

Bulgaria celebrates Lazarus Saturday (Lazaritsa) and Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa)!

Bulgaria celebrates Lazarus Saturday (Lazaritsa) and Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa)!

The weekend before Orthodox Easter is a special time in Bulgaria. Associated with the height of spring and all the positivity, hope and love that come with it, Lazarus Saturday (Лазарица, Lazaritsaand Palm Sunday (Цветница, Tsvetnitsa) are a lot more than religious holidays!

Lazaritsa, the Saturday, is the time for a curious love and marriage custom performed by unmarried girls. The girls, called lazarki, tour each house in the village. Wearing their traditional folk dresses, they sing a unique set of songs not performed on any other day. The girls also pick flowers and make colourful wreaths. On the following day, the lazarki simultaneously throw the wreaths into a river in a sort of “catch the wedding bouquet” contest. Whoever’s wreath ends up first will be the first to marry!

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It’s Saint Theodore’s Day: Happy Horse Easter!

It's Saint Theodore's Day: Happy Horse Easter! Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis, Flickr.

It’s Saint Theodore’s Day: Happy Horse Easter! Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis, Flickr.

Huh, Horse Easter!? That’s right, believe it or not, we have that holiday in Bulgaria! Saint Theodore’s Day or Todorovden (Тодоровден) falls on the first Saturday of the Orthodox Great Lent, the traditional period of forty days of fasting before Easter.

Because Todor, Teodor and Teodora are popular names among Bulgarians, Todorovden is a widely celebrated name day around the country. But it’s not just people that celebrate on this day: in fact, horses are the well-deserved highlight of this somewhat unusual Bulgarian holiday.

Todorovden is also known as Horse Easter (Конски Великден, Konski Velikden) because many Bulgarian villages organize a recreational horse race known as kushia (кушия). In some rural regions, these equestrian events turn into major celebrations, complete with traditional music, food and drinks.

So whether you like horses or you’re just into wild Bulgarian festivities, Happy Horse Easter and Saint Theodore’s Day to you!

7 natural features you never expected to find in Bulgaria

7 natural features you never expected to find in Bulgaria

Geographically, you probably imagine Bulgaria as a country of high snowy mountains and gentle Black Sea beaches, of fertile plains and valleys in Thrace and Moesia, and with a mix between continental European and Mediterranean flora and fauna to cover it all. And you wouldn’t be wrong – that’s exactly what most of Bulgaria looks like!

But hidden in between, there are some natural features that you never would have thought you could see in Bulgaria, and some of them even in Europe! From the tiny sandy desert of Varna through the Pliocene volcano of Kozhuh to the exotic evergreen rhododendrons of Strandzha, kashkaval tourist presents 7 natural features you never expected to find in Bulgaria!

1. The Stone Desert: Pobiti Kamani

The Stone Desert: Pobiti Kamani

The Stone Desert: Pobiti Kamani: Photo credit: Infobgv, Wikipedia.

As you approach the coastal city of Varna from the west, you might notice a small, but rather uncanny landscape around you. Stone columns of peculiar shapes tower on each side of the road and the ground is covered by sand and rubble rather than soil: it looks as if you’re in the middle of a small desert!

The Pobiti Kamani (Побити камъни, „Impaled Stones“) natural phenomenon, also known as the Stone Desert, is striking with its desert-like vegetation and landscapes. For a second, you might think you’re in a forgotten corner of the Sahara or Atacama rather than a few kilometres from the Black Sea coast!

2. Volcano from the Pliocene: Kozhuh

Volcano from the Pliocene: Kozhuh

Volcano from the Pliocene: Kozhuh

Although not particularly high, the Kozhuh Hill rises prominently above the Sandanski-Petrich Valley in Bulgaria’s southwest, surrounded by mineral waters and Mediterranean vegetation. Though the hill is attractive with its characteristic shape resembling a fur coat, you would never have guessed that Kozhuh was an active volcano a million years ago!

Kozhuh (Кожух) may have last erupted in the Pliocene, when the ancestors of modern humans were only learning to walk on two legs, but the volcanic geology of the hill is still evident in the tuff and tuffite rocks that dominate its composition. And of course, in the warm mineral waters that abound in the nearby area of Rupite, where the famous Bulgarian clairvoyant Baba Vanga spent most of her life!

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The Bulgarian Black Sea coast in winter

The Bulgarian Black Sea coast in winter

With the freezing temperatures in Bulgaria during the winter, your first thought might not be to swap the ski resorts for a visit to the Black Sea. But in fact, even in the coldest season the Bulgarian Black Sea coast is absolutely stunning with its serene wintry beauty and offers a whole lot of ways to have a good time!

With all the sunbathers far away, you can have the shore all to yourself. The rough waves and iced-over breakwaters lend the seascape an almost Arctic feel. Only the planted palms, although perhaps covered with snow, can break that illusion.

In winter, you can still go for a relaxing walk along the beach, this time undisturbed by the flocks of tourists. On the central beach in Varna, you can observe and feed the swans casually approaching the shore or alternate between resting in an open-air hot-water pool and taking a quick dip in the chilly sea waters.

If you enjoy cultural attractions, then you’d be delighted to explore wonderful sights like the medieval churches of Nesebar, the Balchik Palace or Cape Kaliakra with its castle free from the summer crowds. And remember that Varna and Burgas are quite big, beautiful coastal cities which boast trendy bars, quality restaurants and all kinds of accommodation throughout the year!

And while temperatures may be a few degrees higher than elsewhere in Bulgaria because of the sea’s influence, just be sure to bring a trusty windbreaker for the refreshing summer breeze’s often less than pleasant winter counterpart!

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6 unusual Bulgarian holiday season traditions

6 weird Bulgarian holiday season traditions

Like elsewhere in Europe, the holiday season starts in early December, with the preparations for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, two of the biggest holidays of the year. Unlike other places, though, Bulgaria tends to do the holiday season in quite a weird way.

There’s no Advent for most of us and Saint Nicholas won’t bring you gifts (unless you count seafood), but we’ve gone all out with our own set of quirky ways to mark the holiday season at the end of the year. From the students’ crazy party holiday on 8 December to the customary Bulgarian beating with sticks for good luck on New Year’s, kashkaval tourist presents X unusual Bulgarian holiday season traditions!

1. A good beating for a good year: Survakane

A group of survakari from the region of Sofia on their way to delivering a traditional beating.

A group of survakari from the region of Sofia on their way to delivering a traditional beating.

A tradition rooted in antiquity, survakane is basically children (lightly) beating adults on the back with elaborately decorated sticks! Along with the beating, the children recite cryptic incantations supposed to bring good luck to the adult, and at the end, the kids receive some money for their “service”. The custom takes place on New Year’s Day (1 January) each year, a holiday the Bulgarians once called Survaki (Сурваки).

Though the ritual varies from region to region, survakane is popular throughout Bulgaria. The stick, named survachka (сурвачка), is always made of a cornel branch adorned with yarn, wool, dried fruit, beads and other small items.

2. Saint Nicholas as a fishermen’s holiday: Nikulden

Fish is the staple of a Bulgarian Saint Nicholas' Day dinner.

Fish is the staple of a Bulgarian Saint Nicholas’ Day dinner. Photo credit: Kiril Kapustin, Images from Bulgaria.

You may be aware of Saint Nick as the precursor to the modern Santa Claus, and in Western and Central Europe he is still hailed as a bringer of gifts. In Bulgaria, just like in neighbouring Greece, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. The maritime association is carried over to the traditional meal of the evening: fish or any seafood is an absolute must and the most popular dish is ribnik (рибник), carp wrapped in dough and filled with walnuts, onions and raisins.

Known locally as Nikulden (Никулден), in Bulgaria Saint Nicholas’ Day falls on 6 December. Because many Bulgarians are named Nikolay or Nikola, this is a very popular name day and a great occasion for a gathering with family and friends… as long as there’s fish on the table!

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8 fun things to do in Bulgaria in winter

8 fun things to do in Bulgaria in winter

Winter is coming! Despite the sunny weather in November, temperatures have been dropping slowly but steadily. The seaside resorts have long turned into ghost towns until next summer and the less than predictable conditions have rendered the high mountains increasingly inaccessible for inexperienced hikers.

Is winter really the right time to visit Bulgaria, then, you might wonder? Absolutely, Bulgaria’s snowy winters actually offer more holiday opportunities than you might realize! From world-class winter sports facilities to the homely comfort of a traditional restaurant, kashkaval tourist presents 8 fun things to do in Bulgaria in winter! 

1. Hit the slopes for top-notch skiing and snowboarding

Hit the slopes for top-notch skiing and snowboarding

Hit the slopes for top-notch skiing and snowboarding

Boasting Europe’s highest mountains between the Alps and the Caucasus, Bulgaria offers some remarkable winter sports opportunities. Be it the top-quality facilities in Bansko and Borovets or the budget resorts of Dobrinishte and Vitosha just above Sofia, anyone who’s into skiing and snowboarding has their winter fun guaranteed in Bulgaria.

The ski season typically begins somewhere in December and lasts all the way till the end of March. So if you’re considering a visit to Bulgaria in the winter months, by all means consider a ski vacation!

2. Enjoy a lavish traditional meal by the fireplace

Enjoy a lavish traditional meal by the fireplace

Enjoy a lavish traditional meal by the fireplace

Of course, not everyone likes skiing or snowboarding. And even those who do tend to enjoy a delicious après-ski meal after an exhausting day on the slopes. Luckily, traditional Bulgarian restaurants are absolutely perfect for a long lunch or a cozy dinner in winter!

The all-wood interiors and the slow-burning fireplace are possibly the most inviting sight for a winter tourist. And while you’re unlikely to enjoy Bulgaria’s famous fresh vegetables in winter, culinary specialties like turshia (туршия; a selection of veggies pickled in vinegar and brine), oshav (ошав; dried fruit) or mulled rakia (греяна ракия, greyana rakia) with honey are sure to leave you satisfied!

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