Winter arrives early in Bulgaria’s highest mountains, turning the alpine landscapes into a wonderland of snow and ice. You might think the end of autumn also signals the conclusion of the hiking season in the Balkans — but that’s far from the truth. Rila, Pirin, the Rhodopes and the Balkan Mountains are especially alluring in their winter coating, and one of the most rewarding ways to experience this is on a guided snowshoeing tour with Top Guides Bulgaria.
I’m a seasoned summer hiker with dozens of treks in Bulgaria and abroad, but I only started venturing to our highest peaks in winter a couple of years ago. I had never tried snowshoeing, so in late December I booked a day trip with Top Guides to add a new skill to my trekking portfolio. I had a delightful day up on the slopes of Rila, battling the wind, basking in the winter sun and practicing my snowshoeing technique.
110 kilometres of Arctic trekking through the wild tundra of Swedish Lapland – that’s Fjällräven Classic Sweden in a nutshell. I participated in this inspiring multi-day hiking adventure in 2019 and in this unaffiliated guide, I’ll reveal all about my preparation and my experience of summer hiking on the Kungsleden (King’s Trail) in Northern Sweden.
Read on for details about the 2021 ticket price and trekking route, tips for your packing list, links to downloadable maps of the area and answers to many frequently-asked questions!
What is Fjällräven Classic? 🦊
Fjällräven Classics are organized by the Swedish outdoor equipment company Fjällräven (famous for Kånken, those trademark boxy backpacks), so in a sense, they’re promotional events for the brand – but I found the experience authentic enough and not too commercial, and I don’t own a single piece of Fjällräven gear.
The Sweden Classic is the original event, taking place annually since 2005 – as of 2020, there’s a total of eight Classic events in places like Denmark, South Korea, the USA and Germany. The Sweden Classic remains the longest and one of the most challenging though.
In essence, this is a self-guided hiking and camping adventure with thousands of participants from all over the world. You begin in one of eight starting groups, you can complete it on your own or with friends or family – and you’re practically guaranteed to make friends with like-minded fellow hikers on the trail. You are obliged to sleep in a tent and you’re expected to cook your own meals and carry everything necessary on your back.
The event is by no means a race or a competition. Spending longer on the trail and revelling in the wilderness is encouraged, but you do have to mind the closing time for the supporting checkpoints and the finish (if you want to get a finisher’s medal).
Durmitor National Park in northwest Montenegro covers this tiny Balkan country’s most eminent mountain massif. As one of the most epic parts of the Dinaric Alps, Durmitor is a hub of mountain tourism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site of outstanding natural beauty. With its surreal cliffs, vertigo-inducing canyons, serene forests and mirror-like glacial lakes, Durmitor is a perfect outdoor destination both for leisurely hikers and hardcore mountaineering enthusiasts alike. And thanks to the legendary Tara River Gorge and Nevidio Canyon, this Montenegrin national park happens to be one of Europe’s top rafting and canyoneering spots as well!
From a pleasant walk on the shores of the captivating Black Lake to an ambitious summit attempt on the mighty Bobotov Kuk, kashkaval tourist presents 7 outdoor activities in Durmitor, Montenegro’s prime national park!
1. Marvel at a geological wonder: Prutaš
Although its 2,393 vertical metres might not be enough to make it Durmitor’s highest peak, Prutaš can proudly claim the title of “most attractive”. Not only does its summit boast what might be the most spectacular panorama around (with incredible vistas of the Sedlo Pass, Škrčka Lakes and the champion Bobotov Kuk), but the peak itself impresses with its shape and morphology. The twig-like vertical layers of rock that form it are unlike anything else you’ve seen!
most easily ascended from Dobri Do (a scenic stop on the Sedlo Pass road) in about
2.5 hours of moderate uphill walking. From Škrcka Lakes hut in the interior of
Durmitor, it’s a strenuous, but not particularly technical hike of around 2
hours with a steep gradient practically the entire time. The shortest way up is
1.5 hours via Todorov Do (further on the Sedlo Pass), but this route is also
the most technical, steepest and most exposed. Even if you don’t hike this way
though, Todorov Do is still worth a visit for the most rewarding views of Prutaš’s
2. Gaze into the eyes of the mountain: the Black Lake
The Black Lake counts as Durmitor’s trademark and most recognizable natural sight – and with good reason, as nothing quite prepares you for the spectacular view when the shores of the lake open before you for the first time. In fact, to make the most of the moment, I recommend walking to the Black Lake on one of the marked forest trails from Žabljak rather than on the asphalt street. Whichever way you take, it’s an easy and light walk that would take not much longer than half an hour from central Žabljak.
The Black Lake (Crno jezero) is actually formed by two lakes connected by a strait that dries up in summer. It is surrounded by thick, mostly evergreen woods, with the imposing summits of Međed, Savin Kuk and Crvena Greda towering in the background. You can circle the lake and sample the views by following a delightful forest trail. Or you can just admire its colour from the lakeside restaurant.
If you’re looking tо do some more lake spotting, the hike further on the leisurely Mlinski Potok trail to the small Zminje Lake (Zminje jezero) o and marvel at its emerald waters. Barno Lake (Barno jezero) is another of Durmitor’s “mountain eyes” that you can visit in the surroundings – this one makes for an impressive sight from the peak of Savin Kuk.
As part of a recent seaside camping holiday in Sithonia, Chalkidiki’s idyllic middle peninsula in the north of Greece, I spent a day cruising around the small but splendid Diaporos Island. The Aegean island’s dozens of sandy beaches, quiet coves and rocky headlands are surrounded by crystal clear turquoise waters and tiny islets – all yours to explore any way you see fit, you’re the captain for the day. Just bring some basic snorkeling gear to fully appreciate the Mediterranean’s underwater environment… and choose your own adventure!
bang in the middle of Bulgaria, is a historic little town perfect for a long
weekend getaway in every season. Boasting Bulgaria’s best-preserved (and most
instagrammable) town square from the Revival period, a strong woodworking and icon-painting
tradition and delightful natural surroundings, Tryavna is classic Bulgaria
in a nutshell.
The town lies in the valley of the Tryavna River, surrounded by forested ridges of the middle Balkan Mountains just northeast of the heroic Shipka Pass. As a true Bulgarian heartland, Tryavna and the surrounding regions of Gabrovo and Dryanovo are a fitting introduction to the quintessential culture and nature of Bulgaria.
Be it exploring the Balkan outdoors or treating yourself to a tranquil spa holiday, kashkaval tourist presents 6 things to do around Tryavna, an enchanting corner of quintessential Bulgaria.
The incredibly scenic small town of Koprivshtitsa might be the perfect place to experience the authentic Bulgarian spirit of yore. Tucked into the deep valley of the Topolnitsa River, among the forested hills of the Sredna Gora mountains between Sofia and Plovdiv, Koprivshtitsa is a true museum town and an architectural reserve. Just imagine the sight: hundreds of brightly-coloured Bulgarian Revival houses (danger: cuteness overload!) line the winding cobblestone alleys connected by little arched bridges.
Koprivshtitsa, once a prosperous town of well-educated merchants, is remembered all over Bulgaria as the birthplace of dozens of eminent writers and revolutionaries, including some of the leading figures of the Bulgarian Revival. In 1876, it was also the focal point of the epic and tragic April Uprising against Ottoman rule, a historic moment leading up to hard-fought Bulgarian independence.
With its dazzling mix of splendid traditional architecture, dramatic history and crispy fresh mountain air, Koprivshtitsa is one of the Balkans’ most beautiful towns and an incredible journey back in time. So stay a few days, enjoy the hearty food and the strong rakia, delve into the local lore and explore the surroundings. But before you go, read on to get acquainted with Koprivshtitsa, the jewel of the Bulgarian Revival!
Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s oldest and most colourful city and in 2019, it’s hotter than ever. Not because of global warming or the infamous heat of Thrace – now that it’s been crowned the 2019 European Capital of Culture, its bohemian chic is deservedly making rounds all over the world. To make the most of your time in the “ancient and eternal” Plovdiv, enhance your visit with Plovdiv City Card! You’ll get free admissions to many of the must-see sights as well as dozens of discounts in some of the coolest places around town!
“People and streets, a town like any other”, starts a famous Bulgarian popular song from the 1970s. But of course, not quite. Urban spaces define the vibe of a city, and the animated Bulgarian capital Sofia is no exception. In Antiquity reportedly cherished by Roman emperor Constantine as “my Rome”, then described as a “little Vienna” at the turn of the 20th century, and finally hailed as “my little London” by the legendary singer Todor Kolev, modern Sofia is its very own living and breathing Balkan metropolis. Admittedly, its effortless and at times somewhat rough charm has been often misunderstood and neglected – but there is no better way to rediscover it than to get to know its iconic streets!
The foundations of Sofia’s street network date to Ancient Roman times – and the contemporary city centre is still exactly where Roman Serdica used to stand. The city’s urban plan was then shaped by the medieval Bulgarians, before the Ottoman conquest gave Sofia a decidedly oriental character. As it became the capital of an independent Bulgaria in the late 19th century, the sleepy Ottoman provincial town was transformed into a dignified European capital with an Austro-Hungarian twist. Finally, the socialist period brought the world’s “favourite” Soviet-style panel apartment buildings, and the last couple of decades have seen a hit-and-miss influx of modern architecture.
Be it the Bulgarian Broadway, Sofia’s own Little Beirut, the capital’s up and coming arts and crafts district or its aristocratic thoroughfares, kashkaval tourist presents 8 signature Sofia streets revealing the Bulgarian capital’s charm.
1. Little Beirut in the former Jewish
district: Tsar Simeon Street
Stretching for four kilometres through the northern part of the city centre, Tsar Simeon is by some definitions Sofia’s longest street (and not a boulevard, that is). And though for most of its length it’s just a neighbourhood thoroughfare with a notable number of car parts shops, its middle section between the Hristo Botev and Maria Luiza Boulevards is incredibly lively and like no other street in Sofia.
Simeon carries a scent of Middle Eastern
spices and moves to the
beat of oriental music as it crosses the famous Women’s Market (and no, women
aren’t literally sold there). It’s the
main street of Sofia’s Little Beirut, an unfavoured but incredibly curious
area, a harbour for refugees, Middle Eastern migrants and local Roma. In this
part of Simeon, you’ll find dozens of little spice shops, hookah stores, oriental
bakeries, halal butchers and especially barbershops, where the old craft of
shaving with a straight razor is still masterfully practiced.
This Little Beirut, now populated by many Arabs, was once curiously the Bulgarian capital’s Jewish ghetto. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Bulgarian Jewish community survived World War II, only to move en masse to Israel in the 1940s, leaving this part of the city deserted. Nowadays, the influx of Middle Easterners has breathed new life into the Tsar Simeon area and the beautiful turn-of-the-century townhouses are beginning to regain their grandeur. And fittingly, the synagogue and the mosque are just a block away from Simeon, almost facing each other, with the Market Hall in between.
Ever wondered what life was like for an average Bulgarian family during communism? In The Red Flat, an interactive and immersive exhibition in an authentic socialist-era apartment in central Sofia, you can do just that.
The Red Flat’s front door might just as well be a time portal to the 1980s. As you enter the apartment, you’re instantly teleported to the private world of the Petrovi family for an audio-guided, true-to-life journey back in time.
Yogurt, cheese and milk are an integral part of Bulgarian cuisine – and in a sense, Bulgaria is the original homeland of yogurt! Dairy products are part of almost every meal in the country and a Bulgarian would find it hard to imagine classic local dishes like banitsa, musaka, shopska salad or tarator without cheese or yogurt.
Cow milk is the most popular source of dairy products in
Bulgaria, though sheep’s milk products are well-appreciated and quite ubiquitous
too. Perhaps not as commonly consumed, goat cheeses are also traditional and considered
a bit of a specialty because of their tart flavour. Native buffalo dairy products
are increasingly fashionable too – buffalo yogurt from the Balkan Mountains is
a real treat, especially served as a dessert with fresh blueberries!
From the legendary Bulgarian yogurt (big in Japan and China!) to the secrets of the gourmet green cheese of Cherni Vit (that the Moon is made of), kashkaval tourist presents 6 delectable Bulgarian dairy products.
1. Omnipresent Balkan crumbliness: sirene (white brined cheese) 🐄
In Bulgaria, white brined cheese (or sirene) is so universally beloved that it has come to own the word for cheese itself. Unless you specify something else, any Bulgarian would assume you’re referring to this classic Balkan cheese when you say “sirene”.
Sirene can be made of cow, sheep’s, goat’s or buffalo milk,
or a mix thereof. What sets it apart from other cheeses is the maturing in a brine
solution, which is responsible for its white colour and its trademark
saltiness. Bulgarian white brined cheese shares many similarities with its
Greek cousin feta and other regional cheeses like the Turkish beyaz peynir and Romanian telemea. Compared to feta, sirene (сирене) is somewhat softer and crumblier.
A variant of sirene is Dunavia, which is even softer, with less fat content and
a milder flavor.
Sirene is often enjoyed as a table cheese (sprinkled with some red pepper) and it’s a vital ingredient in characteristic Bulgarian dishes like shopska salad, banitsa with cheese, French fries with cheese, sirene po shopski (Shop-style sirene) and yaytsa po panagyurski (Panagyurishte-style eggs).
2. Fermented longevity food: Bulgarian yogurt 🔬
Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp.bulgaricus. Sounds fancy, right? We owe the very existence of yogurt to these benevolent bacteria, naturally found in Bulgaria and discovered by Bulgarian doctor Stamen Grigorov in 1905. If you’re feeling geeky, you could learn more about it in the world’s only Yogurt Museum in Grigorov’s home village of Studen Izvor. 🤓
Bulgaria is regarded as the “birthplace of yogurt”, and as you can imagine, this fermented milk product is a huge part of the local culinary tradition. Known as kiselo mlyako (кисело мляко, „sour milk“), yogurt is a yummy Bulgarian breakfast staple, and it’s also used in appetizers, desserts, beverages and even soups (think tarator).
The research of Nobel Prize winner Élie Metchnikoff attributed the longevity of Bulgarian villagers to their regular consumption of yogurt, turning this dairy product into an international health fad. Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt has been a hit in Japan since 1973, spreading the fame of Bulgarian yogurt all over East Asia. And in China, the yogurt drink Momchilovtsi draws inspiration from the Rhodope village of the same name. Seeing a Rhodope-branded product in faraway China would be surreal to any Bulgarian, but it’s a testament to Bulgarian yogurt’s well-deserved worldwide popularity. 😏