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

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 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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Bulgaria celebrates 130 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. 130 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!

8 breathtaking places in the Pirin Mountains

8 breathtaking places in the Pirin Mountains

Pirin may only be Bulgaria’s second-highest mountain range, but it easily competes with the national champion Rila in terms of scenic Alpine summits, crystal-clear glacial lakes and unbelievable high-altitude hiking trails.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Bulgaria’s three national parks, Pirin’s highest marble and granite peaks reach over 2,900 metres in height in Bulgaria’s southwest corner. Its stunning landscapes, rich flora and fauna and diverse trails of any difficulty have consistently placed it among the Balkans’ most amazing hiking experiences.

From a super-narrow ridge that you cross at 2,800 metres above the abyss to Bulgaria’s oldest evergreen tree, kashkaval tourist presents 8 breathtaking places in the Pirin Mountains! 

1. Ridge so narrow you can ride it: Koncheto

Ridge so narrow you can ride it: Koncheto

Ridge so narrow you can ride it: Koncheto

Situated between Pirin’s second and third-highest peaks, Kutelo and Banski Suhodol, Koncheto is perhaps Bulgaria’s most notorious mountain ridge. And with good reason, as crossing it from side to side is a challenge for anyone with a fear of heights! At times just half a metre wide, Koncheto (Кончето, “The Foal“) has that name because reportedly, inexperienced tourists would rather cross it by riding it than walking on top of it.

Koncheto is about 400 metres long and it has an abyss on each side, dropping almost vertically towards the Banski Suhodol cirque and glacieret and at a 70° angle towards the Vlahina River valley. For the ultimate high-altitude experience and an amazing sunrise, you can spend the night at the tiny Koncheto shelter at the ridge’s northwestern end.

2. The split marble peak: Sinanitsa

The split marble peak: Sinanitsa

The split marble peak: Sinanitsa

Regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful summits, Sinanitsa (Синаница) lies in Pirin’s western parts, above a stunning little glacial lake and the cozy Sinanitsa Hut. Sinanitsa’s unique appearance owes much to its characteristic split shape and its vertical walls of pink-grey marble.

Ascending Sinanitsa is a challenging one-hour hike from the hut at its foot, but the breathtaking views of Vihren, Koncheto and Kamenitsa from the top and the sheer pleasure and pride of conquering this marble giant is worth all the effort!

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9 pristine beaches on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast

Bulgaria’s breathtaking Black Sea coast is one of the country’s greatest assets. And accordingly, Bulgaria is one of the leading beach tourism destinations in Europe, with major resorts like Sunny Beach and Golden Sands and romantic coastal towns like ancient Nesebar and historic Sozopol.

And although much of Bulgaria’s coast has been urbanized and adapted for mass tourism, many pristine sandy beaches and places of unspoilt natural beauty still remain on its Black Sea shores. From cult hippie oases to scenic red rock coastlines, kashkaval tourist presents 9 pristine beaches on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast!

1. Where the mountain meets the sea: Irakli

Where the mountain meets the sea: Irakli

Where the mountain meets the sea: Irakli. Photo credit: Alex Yofisov, Flickr.

A few kilometres south of Obzor near Emona, Irakli has achieved cult status as a favourite hangout of hippies and other young people with alternative views. Nowadays, everybody who respects nature is welcome on this unspoilt sandy beach, and camping there for weeks at a time is a common summertime activity. Irakli is often visited by nudists, and skinny dipping is by all means encouraged!

Irakli (Иракли) lies just next to Cape Emine, the Balkan Mountains’ easternmost point, and this is where Kom – Emine, the epic and gruelling hiking trail along the entire length of the mountains terminates… with a refreshing bath in the clear Black Sea waters, of course!

2. Protected by the rocks: Silistar

Protected by the rocks: Silistar

Protected by the rocks: Silistar. Photo credit: Marcin Szala, Wikipedia.

Silistar (Силистар) is a protected coastal area in the southernmost Bulgarian coast, south of Sinemorets and not far from the border with Turkey. With its beautiful sandy beach somewhat off the beaten path, Silistar is the best-kept secret of the residents of Burgas.

Located in a tranquil cove within the Strandzha Nature Park, Silistar has avoided the mass construction and urbanization that has befallen other pieces of beauty on the Bulgarian coast. Silistar features a quiet camping site, so you can spend the night by the sea and wake up for a majestic sunrise!

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7 exciting things to do in Dobruja

7 exciting things to do in Dobrudzha

A fertile agricultural region of hilly plains shared between Bulgaria and Romania, Dobrudzha has usually been overlooked as a tourist destination. And though it may lie somewhat off the beaten path in the northeastern corner of the Balkans, between the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, Dobrudzha (also spelled Dobruja, Dobrudja or Dobrogea) definitely has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment and tourism opportunities.

From spotting huge aquatic birds in the Danube Delta to visiting the glorious Black Sea beaches and extravagant summer palaces of “Bulgaria’s Granary”, kashkaval tourist presents 7 exciting things to do in Dobrudzha!

1. Pelican paradise: bird watching in the Danube Delta or Lake Srebarna

Pelican paradise: bird watching in the Danube Delta or Lake Srebarna

Pelican paradise: bird watching in the Danube Delta or Lake Srebarna. Photo credit: Luke1ace, Wikipedia.

With its wetlands bustling with life, the Lower Danube is one of Europe’s top birding locations. And it can’t get better than the Danube Delta in Romania, the continent’s second largest delta inhabited by over 320 species of birds. Take a memorable boat tour towards the Black Sea on one of the delta’s branches and become one with nature!

A UNESCO World Heritage Site just like the Danube Delta, Lake Srebarna in the Bulgarian part of Dobrudzha hosts 180 bird species in a very compact area. At Srebarna, arm yourself with binoculars and observe the colony of giant white Dalmatian pelicans from the observation point!

2. Rock it like a Roman: Trajan’s massive ancient monument in Adamclisi

Rock it like a Roman: Trajan’s massive ancient monument in Adamclisi

Rock it like a Roman: Trajan’s massive ancient monument in Adamclisi

1900 years ago, Roman Emperor Trajan and his legions marched in Dobrudzha to defeat the sturdy Dacians and conquer this fertile region for the empire. To commemorate this major victory, Trajan built a glorious monument at modern Adamclisi, Romania: the Tropaeum Traiani.

Trajan dedicated the memorial to the god Mars the Avenger and decorated it richly with 54 magnificent depictions of legions fighting Rome’s enemies. Reconstructed in 1977, the Tropaeum Traiani today rises 40 metres above the plains of Dobrudzha, reminding of the Roman conquest.

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It’s the Day of Bulgarian Culture!

Happy Day of Bulgarian Culture!

It’s the Day of Bulgarian Culture! Photo credit: Mark Ahsmann, Wikipedia.

On 24 May, Bulgaria celebrates Saints Cyril and Methodius Day, officially known under the longish name Day of Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavic Literature. Or rather, it’s the day when Bulgarians honour the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet in 9th-century Bulgaria, an event which effectively marked the beginning of Slavic culture and literature.

And for high schools all over the country, this is the time when 12th-graders finish their secondary education and have their prom night. Though this is a night which has little to do with culture and more with questionable fashion choices, binge drinking and reckless activities… but we’ve all been young! So happy Saints Cyril and Methodius Day to all, whether you appreciate Slavic literature or you’re a high school senior, or both!