7 things to do in the regal Vidin in the Bulgarian Northwest

Tucked away in the top left corner of the map of Bulgaria, Vidin is the country’s northwestern-most town. Situated on a bend of the majestic Danube River opposite Romania and not far from Serbia, Vidin, “The Danube’s Eternal Guardian”, lies at the centre of a Balkan region that is often undeservedly underestimated by travellers.

With its long history as a stronghold of the Bulgarian Northwest, its impressive vistas of Central Europe’s longest river and its eclectic architectural and cultural heritage, Vidin is a wonderful destination off the beaten path. From entering Bulgaria’s best-preserved medieval castle to exploring the imposing ruins of the former synagogue, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in the regal Vidin in the Bulgarian Northwest

1. Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida

Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida

Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida

Standing proudly by the southern bank of the Danube, the impressive Baba Vida castle is perhaps Vidin’s best claim to fame. Baba Vida was constructed in the 10th century, establishing Vidin as the key fortress of this often rebellious and separatist northwestern region of the Bulgarian Empire. Though it was briefly conquered by the Hungarians and the Austrians, it was the Ottomans that last used the castle as a fortification up until the late 18th century.

Remarkably, Baba Vida has been preserved in its entirety, including a moat, two curtain walls and numerous defensive towers for you to see and tour. Cross the draw bridge into the main courtyard, see the medieval prison and torture chambers and then climb up the tunnel to the higher level complete with Ottoman-era cannons… and mesmerizing river views!

2. Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius

Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius

Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius

The construction of Vidin’s cathedral church commenced in 1885, and with its elaborate architecture it remains one of the biggest and most beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox cathedrals. Designed by Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian architects and Italian engineers, the Cathedral of St Demetrius mixes Orthodox and Western influences. And its turret clock, built by the Munich clockmaker Johann Mannhardt, has been working without a fault since 1900!

Inside the church, you can see some impressive (and rather unusual) Art Nouveau frescoes from the 1920s. On one of the walls, the artist painted 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival heroes like Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev and Georgi Rakovski… in medieval attire! And what’s more, they’re all depicted as being blessed by Bulgaria’s national saint, John of Rila, who lived in the 10th century. For the interior of a religious site, the painting is truly bizarre and quite unorthodox indeed!

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8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus

Nested south of the magnificent Caucasus – Europe’s highest mountain chain – and on the opposite shore of the Black Sea from Bulgaria, Georgia is by all means one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Whether it’s fertile valleys, antique towns, secluded monasteries, coastal jungles, arid semi-desert plains or mind-boggling glaciated mountain peaks, Georgia has it all!

Sure, Georgia may not be a Balkan country, but I instantly felt at home in this Caucasian heaven during my two-week vacation. The warmth of the people, the dynamic landscapes, the secluded monasteries and the wonderful cuisine are but a few features Georgia and Bulgaria have in common. And there was no lack of excellent wine and rakia (or chacha, as they call it beyond the Black Sea) to keep me happy during my holiday!

From the region’s most romantic capital to the highest villages in Europe, kashkaval tourist presents 8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus!

1. Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Tbilisi, the romantic Georgian capital, is an excellent introduction to the culture, history, cuisine and nature of this incredible country and indeed, to the entire region. Tbilisi mixes East with West, tradition with modernity and old-town serenity with the hustle and bustle of a capital metropolis… and it does it all remarkably well!

Tbilisi’s Old Town with is quaint alleys and antique architecture will be your best bet for a leisurely walk or a casual Georgian wine dinner. Further away, the Dry Bridge flea market is a great place to buy antique souvenirs, especially if you’re curious about communist memorabilia.

Above the Old Town, the ancient Narikala Fortress on top of a steep hill will reveal vistas of the winding Mtkvari River and the ultramodern Peace Bridge crossing it – as well as the huge Holy Trinity Cathedral in traditional Caucasian style. If you’d rather spare the short but vertical walk to the fortress, you can always take the chairlift from the other side of the Peace Bridge. You’ll be rewarded with a short but exhilarating ride above the entire city!

2. Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Drive just a few hours north of Tbilisi along the legendary Georgian Military Road and you’ll end up in the heartland of the Central Caucasus, surrounded by peaks more than 4,000 metres high. Above the quaint medieval church of Tsminda Sameba and even further above the mountain town of Stepantsminda you’ll find the 5,047-metre-high Mount Kazbek, the mythical stratovolcano that Prometheus was allegedly chained on.

With its grassy slopes, dramatic glaciers and unmistakable volcanic shape, Mount Kazbek is one of Georgia’s prime hiking destinations. A steep two-hour walk will take you to the Tsminda Sameba Church above the village, which is perhaps the country’s most photographed location.

Add another four hours and you’ll end up at the foot of the massive Gergeti Glacier. And if you’re into some relatively light ice hiking, then you can overnight at the former weather station on the other side of the glacier, a further two hours away. Conditions at the hut are basic to say the least, but at 3,670 metres above sea level, you’ll take anything!

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7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea

7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea

Situated in Bulgaria’s southeast corner, adjacent to the seaside and extending beyond the border into Turkey, the lush Strandzha Mountains have preserved a unique local culture and timber architecture. What’s more, Strandzha’s endless humid old-growth forests resemble those of the Caucasus more than anywhere in Europe!

Sparsely populated and away from the big cities, Strandzha is the perfect getaway for those seeking tranquillity and enriching cultural and natural experiences. From mind-boggling sand spit beaches to quaint villages with antique wooden houses, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea!

1. Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan

Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan

Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan

A historic Bulgarian village in the western part of the region, Brashlyan boasts possibly the best-preserved collection of traditional Strandzha houses. Constructed out of timber with stone foundations and unmistakable thick chimneys, Brashlyan’s houses are an absolute wonder of vernacular architecture!

Rent one of the traditional houses for a weekend to fully immerse yourself in the authentic surroundings and use Brashlyan (Бръшлян) as a base to explore the rest of Strandzha. Or visit the village on a day tour and take a look inside the 17th-century wooden church with a bell tower to learn more about Brashlyan’s turbulent history as a rebel hub.

2. Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail

Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail

Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail

In the eastern part of Strandzha near the Black Sea, the mild and humid local climate has preserved a belt of vegetation more typical of northern Turkey and the coast of Georgia than of Europe. Strandzha’s thick forests of oriental beech trees hide an understory of Caucasian evergreen shrubs, including Pontic rhododendrons.

And with all this natural beauty, it’s no coincidence that Strandzha Nature Park is by far the largest in Bulgaria! Walk the “In the Realm of the Rhododendron” eco-trail starting in the village of Kondolovo (Кондолово) in May and June, when the rhododendrons bloom in violet-purple, and you’ll feel like you’ve uncovered a humid Asian tropical forest hidden inside the Balkans!

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9 extraordinary bridges in the Balkans

9 extraordinary bridges in the Balkans

For centuries, bridges have connected the cities and nations of the Balkans over rivers, gulfs and valleys… and in rare cases, over no obstacle whatsoever. Some Balkan bridges have become symbols of unity, while others have been a cause for division – after all, World War I practically started on a small bridge in Sarajevo!

Whatever their story or peculiarity, it is without doubt that these bridges have left a mark on the region. From the place where the love padlock tradition started to the world’s tallest railway viaduct, kashkaval tourist presents 9 extraordinary bridges in the Balkans.

1. Nobel Prize winner: Bridge on the Drina in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Nobel Prize winner: Bridge on the Drina in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Nobel Prize winner: Bridge on the Drina in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo credit: Branislav Andrić, Wikipedia.

If the Bridge on the Drina sounds somehow familiar to you, it must be because of Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić’s eponymous masterpiece. In the novel, Andrić manages to capture a microcosm of the Balkans by telling the story of the bridge from early Ottoman times till World War I.

Actually named the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, this 16th-century stone structure is a work of art on its own. Designed by famous Ottoman architect Sinan, the bridge has 11 gentle arches and spans a total of 180 metres over the waters of the Drina in Višegrad, eastern Bosnia.

2. Bridge with shops inside: Covered Bridge in Lovech, Bulgaria

Bridge with shops inside: Covered Bridge in Lovech, Bulgaria

Bridge with shops inside: Covered Bridge in Lovech, Bulgaria. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis, Flickr.

Hanging over the Osam River in north central Bulgaria, Lovech’s Covered Bridge is a remarkable engineering oddity. Today’s pedestrian bridge was constructed in 1982 as an accurate replica of legendary architect Kolyu Ficheto’s creation from 1876. And while the original featured 64 tiny workshops used by the craftsmen of Lovech, the modern version boasts the variety of three workshops, nine souvenir shops and two cafés serving traditional confectioneries.

The Covered Bridge in Lovech is one of the few commercial covered bridges in the world. It has become an emblem for the quaint Bulgarian town much like its Swiss counterpart, the Kapellbrücke in Lucerne.

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7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets

7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets

Eastern Orthodox monasteries are among Bulgaria’s most valuable cultural heritage. Some like the fortress-like Rila Monastery are rightfully UNESCO World Heritage Sites, others like the Bachkovo Monastery in the verdant Rhodopes attract crowds with their unique and aesthetically-pleasing Byzantine architecture.

However, many of the most interesting Bulgarian monasteries remain relatively off the beaten track. As a result, they have retained their antique appeal and authentic appearance. Put on your cassock (or not) and head for the holy water, for kashkaval tourist presents 7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets!

1. Nine centuries of stone: Zemen Monastery

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If you somehow end up in the tiny town of Zemen between Pernik and Kyustendil, you’ll be surprised to discover a well-kept piece of medieval Bulgarian history. The fascinating Zemen Monastery (Земенски манастир Zemenski manastir) dates to the 11th century and has preserved a curious cube-shaped church as old as the monastery itself. In the church’s cool stone interior you can see vivid biblical frescoes from the 14th centuries as well as one of the earliest donor’s portraits (of an unnamed Bulgarian aristocrat and his wife Doya).

Curiously, on my visit to the monastery three years ago I also found a not-so-ancient cassette player. Thankfully, it was playing religious hymns rather than tacky Bulgarian pop folk music!

2. Bulgarian Gothic: Lopushna Monastery

Did you know Bulgaria made its own unique contribution to Gothic architecture… albeit some three or four centuries after it went out of fashion in Western Europe? Indeed, a few dozen 19th-century churches in northwestern Bulgaria bear the classic traces of medieval Gothic architecture – including sharp arches, geometric details like rosettes and rich carved stone decoration.

The Lopushna Monastery (Лопушански манастир Lopushanski manastir) near Georgi Damyanovo is perhaps the most majestic examples of this late Bulgarian Gothic style. Established in medieval times, this monastery was reconstructed in its present appearance in the 1850s – and the monastery church stands out with its unique sharp-pointed design and naïve exterior reliefs, including stone (self?) portraits of the moustached architect and his assistant.

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