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!Continue reading
Tryavna, located 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.Continue reading
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!Continue reading
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!Continue reading
“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.Continue reading
Locked in between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains, the Iron Gates and Timok Valley regions ought to rank among Serbia’s cultural and natural highlights.
The branching tributaries of the Timok River irrigate the hillsides as they flow north towards the Danube, merging into one and briefly forming Serbia’s border with Bulgaria. And to the west, the mighty cliffs of the Danube’s scenic Iron Gates gorge overlook the Romanian bank of Central Europe’s iconic river.
This fertile borderland has been inhabited for millennia, and prehistoric sculptors have left their mark on the country jut as much as Roman emperors, medieval overlords or even 18th-century wine merchants. From what might be the oldest urban settlement in Europe to peculiar but merry wine cellars, kashkaval tourist presents 7 sensational sites in eastern Serbia!
1. Sentinel of the Iron Gates: Golubac Fortress
Whether you’re arriving from the west from Belgrade or the east on the winding road along the Danube, the sight of the Golubac Fortress’s ten towers is sure to stop you in your tracks. Built in the 14th century at the strategic western entrance to the Iron Gates, the castle controlled river traffic at this key location in the Middle Ages. As such, it’s no surprise Golubac was the site of epic sieges and bloody battles from the Middle Ages on.
Today, Golubac’s gorgeous location and imposing architecture make it possibly Serbia’s most attractive castle. As of early 2018, entering the fortress’s inner yard was impossible because of ongoing renovation, but you can admire this Danubian bulwark from the surrounding gardens of the modern visitors’ centre.
2. Stone villages of wine: Rajac & Rogljevo wine cellars
Hidden in this faraway corner of Eastern Serbia are Rajac and Rogljevo, two of the country’s most peculiar and charming villages… namely, villages inhabited not by people, but by casks and bottles of wine and rakia! Okay, admittedly, there’s also people around, but the main inhabitants are most definitely the beverages.
These compounds of hundreds of wine cellars with a characteristic stone architecture were established in the 18th century. Then, vine-growing and wine production in the Timok Valley were booming and even French merchants appreciated the quality of the local wines. Today, only a handful of the cellars in Rajac and Rogljevo are open for tastings, but the captivating architecture and the atmosphere of old are still there to be experienced.
For a pleasant stay in Rajac, including delightful homemade wine and superb Serbian hospitality, Zoran and Emina Milenović’s bed and breakfast comes highly recommended!
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
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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
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!
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
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
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.