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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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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6 things you must do around the Drina Valley in Bosnia and Serbia

6 things you must do around the Drina Valley in Bosnia and Serbia

The Drina, nested between the most rugged regions of Bosnia and Serbia, is one of the Balkans’ most legendary border rivers. In the Upper Drina Valley (Podrinje), steep forested slopes meet winding karst canyons, Serbian Orthodox churches coexist with Bosniak mosques and whitewater rapids interchange with calm turquoise river stretches.

The Drina’s main headwater, the Tara, is lauded as one of the world’s top rafting destinations, and the Ottoman-era bridge at Višegrad has been central to the opus of a Nobel Prize-winner. To introduce you to this stunning region of the Balkans, kashkaval tourist presents 6 things you must do around the Drina Valley in Bosnia and Serbia.

1. Take on the rapids in Europe’s deepest canyon: Rafting on the Tara

Take on the rapids in Europe’s deepest canyon: Rafting on the Tara River

Take on the rapids in Europe’s deepest canyon: Rafting on the Tara River. Photo credit: Elena Ivanova, Drumivdumi.com

The Tara, which merges with the Piva to form the Drina, is without a doubt one of the best places to try rafting worldwide. Its sections of whitewater range from absolutely wild to suitable for beginners. And all this under the dramatic ridges of Europe’s deepest river gorge, with Montenegro to the left, Bosnia to the right and you battling the rapids in the middle.

For a top-notch rafting experience, book a rafting holiday with Rafting Tara at the Rafting Centar Drina-Tara near Foča. The instructors are well-trained to take you through the treacherous rapids of the Tara while cracking jokes in between the stretches of whitewater. And there’s nothing like a well-deserved evening by the fire at the cozy rafting camp after a satisfying afternoon of hardcore rafting!

2. Step into the Balkans’ last primeval temperate rainforests: Sutjeska National Park

Step into the Balkans’ last primeval temperate rainforests: Sutjeska National Park

Step into the Balkans’ last primeval temperate rainforests: Sutjeska National Park

Because of their downwind location along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, the vast Dinaric Alps are one of Europe’s most humid and rainiest regions. As a result, old-growth temperate rainforests can still be found in isolated pockets of the Dinarides. The Perućica forest in Bosnia’s Sutjeska National Park is a perfect example of this rare biome, where lichens grow on centenarian black pine trees within sight of a majestic waterfall. Hopping on a jeep safari tour from Foča is probably the easiest way to reach these otherwise secluded woods.

If it’s a clear day and you’re longing for a more Alpine vista, head up the trail to the Prijevor lookout (1,668 m) at the very foot of Maglić (2,386 m), Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest summit. The panorama towards the neighbouring peaks is truly breathtaking, and in summer the shepherds’ huts in the area serve homemade cheese to tourists. Be aware that the patches of snow on the trail and the frequent rainfall can make the trek unpleasant and unrewarding in other seasons though.

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6 things to do in the captivating Rhodope Mountains

6 things to do in the captivating Rhodope Mountains

The Rhodopes, a vast chain of forested mountains, scenic towns and mystical villages, dominate Bulgaria’s south near the border with Greece. With its mix of pristine coniferous forests, high-quality ski resorts and unique local culture, this secluded region attracts Bulgarians and foreigners alike.

From working online out of a geodesic dome igloo to trying out the Rhodopes’ unusual local cuisine, kashkaval tourist presents 6 things to do in the captivating Rhodope Mountains.

1. Ski down the slopes from the TV tower in Pamporovo

Ski down the slopes from the TV tower in Pamporovo

Ski down the slopes from the TV tower in Pamporovo

Surrounded on all sides by endless hills covered by coniferous forests, the vast Pamporovo ski area is one of Bulgaria’s top winter resorts. Pamporovo’s location not far from Greece makes it one of Europe’s southernmost ski resorts, and as a result it boasts reliable snowfall as well as an unusually large number of sunny days in winter.

Almost all ski runs in Pamporovo descend from the unmistakeable Snezhanka TV Tower, which stands at an elevation of over 1900 metres. So as you can probably imagine, the tower’s panoramic café is the perfect place for a lunch with a view before another action-packed afternoon of skiing or snowboarding!

2. Escape to an office in the woods in Chepelare

Escape to an office in the woods in Chepelare

Escape to an office in the woods in Chepelare

Chepelare is a charming mountain town just 15 minutes away from the ski runs at Pamporovo. And believe it or not, the local factory, which manufactures ski equipment for Atomic and Salomon, is the world’s largest ski producer! Chepelare’s scenic location and ties to business are probably why it hosts Bulgaria’s first Office in the Woods, a community for co-working and co-living.

Office in the Woods is a great way to escape from your urban office environment to a space where you can work comfortably as well as enjoy the natural environment of the central Rhodopes. A stunning view from your office window is guaranteed, and the list of outdoor activities in all seasons is practically endless. You can also pick out different accommodation and office options, from camping to luxury and from a traditional office space to a wood-and-glass geodesic dome igloo!

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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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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

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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Fresh lamb feast and army holiday: happy St George’s Day!

Fresh lamb feast and army holiday: happy St George's Day!

Fresh lamb feast and army holiday: happy St George’s Day!

On 6 May each year, Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians celebrate St George’s Day (Гергьовден, Gergyovden). Because a whole lot of people are called Georgi or Gergana or some variation thereof, this is one of the most widespread name days in the country. And not only that, but it’s a national holiday — it’s been the official Bulgarian Army Day since 1880. The Bulgarian armed forces parade their best units and military equipment in central Sofia.

As St George is also the patron day of shepherds, it’s an old Bulgarian tradition that lamb must be eaten on St George’s Day, a custom which may stem from ancient pagan sacrificial rituals. Many Bulgarian families purchase a whole lamb before 6 May and have a huge feast with delicious lamb meals and a fresh green salad on the side on that day.

Happy Easter! Hristos voskrese!

Today happens to be Easter for Eastern Orthodox Christians like most Bulgarians as well as for Catholics and Protestants. Kashkaval tourist wishes you a Happy Easter!

If you’re set on celebrating Easter (Великден, Velikden) the Bulgarian way, don’t forget that:

  • Eggs are painted on Thursday and Saturday during the Holy Week, never on any other day. The first egg must be painted red and is saved for as long as possible to bring good fortune and prosperity to the family.
  • At midnight, you go around your local church three times in a counter-clockwise direction, carrying a candle in your hand (and trying to keep the flame burning during the whole procession!)
  • Kozunak (козунак) is the most delicious sweet bread in existence. Now’s your chance to try it!
  • The traditional greeting among Bulgarian Christians is in Church Slavonic. It goes as follows: Hristos voskrese (Христос воскресе), meaning “Christ is risen”. The proper response is: Voistina voskrese (Воистина воскресе), “Truly, He is risen”.
  • Egg fighting begins from midnight on and whoever has the strongest egg (the “beater”) will be the healthiest during the year. However, beware of cheaters with wooden eggs!