7 things to do in lovely little Slovenia

7 things to do in lovely little Slovenia

On the map of Europe, Slovenia fits neatly between Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary – and indeed, this delightful little country is a fascinating mix of cultural influences against the backdrop of diverse natural landscapes. In Slovenia, the sophistication of Central Europe meets the raw charm of the Balkans. Slavic, Germanic, Latin and Hungarian legacies shake hands along the banks of the Sava River. And the dazzling Julian Alps rise to 2,864 metres, not too far from the country’s tiny but scenic Adriatic shoreline. In short, Slovenia is a cultural heaven as well as a natural paradise!

Starting in the European green capital, passing through an endless cave system, washing up at the Mediterranean coast and ending high above the clouds in one of the Alps’ top national parks, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in lovely little Slovenia.

1. A capital to fall in love with: go for a leisurely walk in historic Ljubljana

A capital to fall in love with: go for a leisurely walk in historic Ljubljana

A capital to fall in love with: go for a leisurely walk in historic Ljubljana

With its 280,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana is one of Europe’s smallest capital cities – and that’s no bad thing! The city is compact, walkable, bikeable, surrounded by parks and low mountains. A stroll in Ljubljana’s car-free city centre feels like a journey back to Austro-Hungarian times. And a short walk up to the medieval Ljubljana Castle will reward you with the best city panoramas as well as views of the Kamnik–Savinja Alps in the distance.

When you’re done with checking off the main sights like the curious Dragon Bridge, the baffling Triple Bridge next to Prešeren Square and the classical Town Hall with the Robba Fountain, you can enjoy a glass of local wine on the banks of the pristine Ljubljanica River. A bike tour through the scenic Tivoli Park might well end up with… a beer tasting at the Union Brewery pub. And for nightlife enthusiasts, the semi-legal bars and clubs in the Metelkova autonomous cultural centre (or “squat” for short!) provide a refreshing Berlin vibe.

A canal cruise on the pristine Ljubljanica is a great way to enjoy the city

A canal cruise on the pristine Ljubljanica is a great way to enjoy the city

2. Slovenia’s postcard: chill by the shores of Lake Bled

Slovenia’s postcard: chill by the shores of Lake Bled

Slovenia’s postcard: chill by the shores of Lake Bled

Situated at the foot of the Alps in the country’s northwest, the elegant resort town of Bled lies by the shores of a gorgeous mountain lake. Surrounded by jagged Alpine peaks, thick forests and classy hotels, Lake Bled and its blue-green waters might be Slovenia’s prime tourist destination. Traditional pletna boats take visitors to the quaint little island in the middle of the lake for a pilgrimage to the Church of the Assumption of Mary. And on the other, northeastern side of the lake, the thousand-year-old Bled Castle adorns the cliffs above the town.

For the top vistas of Lake Bled including the castle and the island with the church, your best bet is a brief hike to the Osojnica hill west of the lake. And if you’re too lazy for that or think you’ve deserved a culinary reward for completing the hike, you can always end your day with a slice of Bled’s legendary cremeschnitte cake. The classic place for this is the splendid Park Café, where it has been served (with cappuccino and calming lake views on the side) since 1953.

Don't miss out on the cremeschnitte cake, Bled's famous pastry!

Don’t miss out on the cremeschnitte cake, Bled’s famous pastry!

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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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Bulgaria celebrates 132 years since its Unification!

Nikolay Pavlovich's lithography "United Bulgaria" has come to symbolize the Unification

Nikolay Pavlovich’s lithography “United Bulgaria” has come to symbolize the Unification

On 6 September each year, Bulgaria celebrates its Unification Day. 132 years ago on that day, two Bulgarian-majority entities joined together to form a united Bulgarian state.

The vassal Principality of Bulgaria, which before the Unification included more or less modern northern Bulgaria and the Sofia region, merged with the Ottoman autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia, roughly corresponding to Northern Thrace, or most of modern Southern Bulgaria.

The Unification of Bulgaria was a daring political act that defied the separation of the Bulgarian lands as per the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, which had formally restored Bulgarian statehood. And while the revolution itself was peaceful and cause for celebration among the majority of the population, it had to be successfully defended against the Serbs in the Serbo-Bulgarian War of the same year.

Traditionally, the biggest Unification celebrations take place in Plovdiv. As the former capital of Eastern Rumelia, Plovdiv was the site of the most important events associated with the act. Tonight, the city will host a formal ceremony attended by the president and a fireworks show.

Happy Unification Day to everyone!

Ordering food online with foodpanda (service review)

foodpanda's restaurant selection may be used to order traditional Bulgarian dishes... or a surefire Italian pizza.

foodpanda’s restaurant selection may be used to order traditional Bulgarian dishes… or a surefire Italian pizza. Photo credit: Ikonact, Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by the online food delivery service foodpanda, asking me to review their service and share my opinion with the kashkaval tourist readership. Over the weekend, I used this opportunity and ordered a family dinner through foodpanda’s service.

foodpanda basically acts as a platform connecting restaurants and customers and currently operates in 8 Bulgarian towns. I found the selection of restaurants in Sofia pretty good, with things like traditional Bulgarian food and Balkan grill, Italian cuisine, sushi and stir-fried wok to choose from. However, I noticed that other Bulgarian towns usually have only a few restaurants on offer and as a result the selection can be quite limited there.

The app and the website are available with both an English and a Bulgarian interface, which is great if you’re still unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet and the local language. Unfortunately though, most restaurant menus are only in Bulgarian, so some Google Translate will be unavoidable there

My own user experience with foodpanda was quite seamless. I selected a local pizza place that I had been recommended by friends, placed my order entirely online, paid by debit card and received a confirmation from the restaurant literally within a minute. The food arrived warm and fresh and no wonder, as the delivery happened well before the promised arrival time… so a job well done on that part!

Overall, I’d say testing foodpanda made for a smooth and pleasant experience and I can recommend it if you’re in Sofia at the moment and you’re confident you can manage with reading a restaurant menu in Bulgarian. If you’re outside the capital and the least bit of Cyrillic writing scares you though, you’ll have to deal with some issues.

kashkaval tourist turns 1 year old!

kashkaval tourist turns 1 year old!

Today, 12 March, kashkaval tourist turns exactly one year old! For the past year, this blog has had:

  • 46 posts, or nearly 4 per month
  • almost 100,000 views, or an average of 8,000 per month
  • almost 6,000 views on a single day, the incredible 9 April 2014
  • 1,670 loyal subscribers to the kashkaval tourist Facebook page.

Here’s to another successful year together and may the kashkaval cheese not get spoiled for many more years!

It’s Trifon Zarezan: happy Wine Day!

It's Trifon Zarezan: happy Wine Day!

It’s Trifon Zarezan: happy Wine Day!

What? You thought 14 February is Valentine’s Day? Not in Bulgaria… or at least not traditionally. On 14 February, Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians celebrate Trifon Zarezan (Трифон Зарезан) or the day of Saint Tryphon, patron of vine growers and wine makers, according to the Old Style (Julian calendar).

This curious Bulgarian holiday stems from the tradition of cutting the vines in February so that they grow properly and provide a great quality and quantity of wine come autumn. And of course, Bulgarians saw fitting to add a fair bit of wine drinking to this feast, ensuring some unforgettable fun is to be had in the evening! That is, if you don’t black out instead…

Of course, in the last few decades Valentine’s Day has gained in popularity among couples in Bulgaria, yet some pairs and particularly singles prefer honouring Trifon Zarezan. Though who’s to say you can’t celebrate both? A candlelight dinner with a few bottles of enchanting Bulgarian wine and your significant other by your side… it hardly gets any better!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Or as Bulgarians say, Честита Коледа и щастлива Нова година (Chestita Koleda i shtastliva Nova Godina)! Christmas Eve may have brought temperatures and sunshine more typical for Australia for that time of the year, but today’s snowstorm made sure Bulgaria is now covered by a layer of snow. Perfect for some merry holiday spirit!

May 2015 bring us lots of wanderlust and many exciting opportunities to discover Bulgaria and the Balkans together with kashkaval tourist! Nazdrave!

8 striking communist buildings in the Balkans

8 striking communist buildings in the Balkans

With the descent of the Iron Curtain after World War II, all of Southeastern Europe bar Greece and Turkey fell into the hands of communist regimes – some like Bulgaria and Romania were Soviet satellites, secluded Albania’s closest ally was, curiously, China, and the vast Yugoslavia followed its own direction as a non-aligned state.

One thing that united these countries in their (ultimately unsuccessful) pursuit of a communist society was the construction of awe-inspiring monumental buildings. The new communist architecture in the Balkans followed a radically different trend than that of the past and left behind some truly imposing buildings.

From the world’s largest civilian building to an abandoned concrete flying saucer on a mountain top, kashkaval tourist will guide you through 8 striking communist buildings in the Balkans.

1. 99 domes and some fishing net: National Library of Kosovo, Pristina

99 domes and some fishing net: National Library of Kosovo, Pristina

99 domes and some fishing net: National Library of Kosovo, Pristina. Photo credit: A. Dombrowski, Flickr.

Kosovo may still have some bad rep over the war in the late 1990s, but the Kosovar capital Pristina may stun you with one of Southeastern Europe’s most unique buildings. The current National Library of Kosovo was opened in 1982 and designed by a Croatian architect, since at the time Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia.

The one-of-a-kind appearance of the building owes a lot to the 99 white domes topping it… and the thick metal net which covers it entirely. Curiously, ethnic Albanians and Serbs still argue about the cultural influences in the building’s design – some find elements of Islamic art in its design, while others argue that the shapes were inspired by Byzantine traditions.

2. Administrative behemoth: Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

Administrative behemoth: Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

Administrative behemoth: Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

Well, Bucharest isn’t strictly in the Balkans, but being so close, it would be a shame not to include the world’s largest administrative building in this list. Enter the Palace of the Parliament, the child of infamous Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s megalomania. Located bang in the middle of the capital of Romania, the construction of the Palace of the Parliament required that an entire historic neighborhood be torn down in the 1980s… as well as the underlying hill!

With its well over 1000 rooms, 12 overground and 8 underground floors and nearly square shape measuring 270 by 240 metres, the Palace of the Parliament was meant to host the entire administration of Romania’s communist government. And while those plans never came to fruition, the gargantuan edifice remains one of Bucharest’s most famous attractions.

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Bulgarian football fairy tale: Ludogorets in the Champions League

One of European football’s most unforgettable games took place in Sofia on Wednesday. The seemingly uninteresting second leg match between Romanian powerhouse Steaua Bucharest and Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad was to decide which of the two teams would enter the group stage of the Champions League, the world’s most lucrative club competition.

With the Romanians leading 1-0 from the first game in Bucharest, it was expected that Ludogorets would have a hard time making it through. Indeed, the game was nearing its goalless end when, in the 89th minute, a sensational volley by Ludogorets player Wanderson made the score 1-0 and sent the tie into extra time.

Ludogorets Arena in Razgrad, the club's home stadium

Ludogorets Arena in Razgrad, the club’s home stadium. Photo credit: Tsonpen, Wikipedia.

It seemed that extra time wouldn’t decide the winner either, as by the 118th minute there were no additional goals. Then, a clever pass opened space for a Steaua forward to face Bulgarian keeper Stoyanov one on one. Stoyanov fouled the Steaua player outside the box and was sent off. With no substitutions remaining, this meant that an outfield player had to be in goal for Ludogorets till the end of extra time and for the penalty shootout.

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Bathing prohibited: Sofia's forgotten mineral baths

Bathing prohibited: Sofia’s forgotten mineral baths

One of Sofia’s unique traits has to be the city’s wealth of hot springs and mineral water sources. You would have thought, then, that Sofia’s historic public baths with their medicinal properties and splendid architecture would be among the city’s chief attractions? After all, in not-so-distant Budapest the baths of Széchenyi and Gellért are luring thousands of tourists!

Instead, Sofia’s thermal baths in the districts of Bankya, Gorna Banya and Ovcha Kupel are currently abandoned and in an ever-worsening condition. And the conversion of the curious Vienna Secession-style Central Mineral Baths into a Museum of Sofia has been dragging on forever too.

To reveal the endangered beauty of Sofia’s historic baths, photographers (and urban explorers, dare I say!) Zdravko Yonchev and Martin Radnev entered the abandoned buildings and took some memorable snapshots of their captivating but neglected interiors. The resulting exhibition Sofia’s Old Mineral Baths can be viewed in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre from 28 August to 10 September.