Where the Iron Gates meet the Timok Valley: 7 sensational sites in eastern Serbia

Where the Iron Gates meet the Timok Valley: 7 sensational sites in eastern Serbia

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

Sentinel of the Iron Gates: Golubac Fortress

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

Stone villages of wine: Rajac & Rogljevo wine cellars

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!

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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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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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7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria's Mediterranean Southeast

7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria’s Mediterranean Southeast

Situated where the meandering Arda River carves through the last spurs of the Eastern Rhodopes, the Ivaylovgrad region boasts a mild southern climate, a Mediterranean natural environment and a remarkable variety of cultural attractions.

Though Ivaylovgrad is by all means off the beaten track, its direct proximity to Greece and Turkey and the new Maritsa highway makes it quite accessible. And with its quaint adobe villages, Byzantine castles and stunning Roman mosaics, the region is absolutely worth exploring!

From the best place to observe rare birds of prey to a church built in seven days, kashkaval tourist presents 7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria’s Mediterranean Southeast.

1. Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa

Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa

Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa

Mandritsa might be a tranquil village just west of the Greek border, but it impresses with its unique Albanian history and rarely-seen adobe architecture. Founded in the 17th century by three Albanian brothers, nowadays Mandritsa (Мандрица) is famous as the only Albanian village in Bulgaria – indeed, some of the locals have still preserved their peculiar Tosk Albanian dialect.

While only a handful of imposing three-storey houses remind of the village’s former prosperity as a silk farming centre, the cozy little hotel Bukor Shtepi attracts visitors to this serene location once again. What’s more, the hotel’s restaurant serves truly sensational interpretations of Albanian and Mediterranean cuisine which go perfectly with the homemade rakia!

2. Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo

Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo

Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo

A former mining town separated from Ivaylovgrad by the picturesque Ivaylovgrad Reservoir, Madzharovo has reimagined itself as the top place to see vultures in Bulgaria. Situated among the sharp rocks of an ancient volcanic crater, the bends of the Arda River near Madzharovo (Маджарово) host three vulture species and many other rare birds of prey.

The Eastern Rhodopes vulture conservation centre in town provides insights into the local flora and fauna as well as guided tours and rental kayaks. And if you’re thinking of spending the night under the stars, the camping site by the river is just about the perfect location to pitch a tent and prepare a bonfire!

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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 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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The insane Easter rocket war of Chios

The Easter rocket war of Chios

The Easter rocket war of Chios. Photo credit: Adam Rifkin, Flickr.

The Greek island of Chios hosts the most explosive Easter celebration ever! Each year on the eve of Easter, the congregations of two rival Orthodox churches in the town of Vrontados engage in a full-scale fireworks war against each other.

From two hilltops about 400 metres from each other, participants aim for a direct hit on the rival church’s bell tower. Whoever scores more direct hits is the winner… though the rivalry always remains unsettles at least until the next year!

The fiery tradition, known in Greek as Rouketopolemos (Рουκετοπόλεμος), has been practiced for hundreds of years. Reportedly, real cannons were used in the beginning, until the ruling Ottomans prevented the locals of Chios from blowing each other to pieces and suggested fireworks instead.

Happy Baba Marta!

Happy Baba Marta!

Happy Baba Marta!

On 1 March every year, Bulgarians celebrate the traditional beginning of spring with the arrival of the mythical Baba Marta (“Granny March”). The unpredictable sister of January and Fabruary, Baba Marta is honoured by the wearing of martenitsa (мартеница), an adornment of red and white wool threads.

On the first day of March, all Bulgarians gift their friends and relatives a martenitsa to wish each other health and prosperity. Baba Marta is an ancient pre-Christian tradition that goes back thousands of years and is perhaps linked to early Balkan farming rituals.

Typically, a martenitsa is worn until one sees a blossoming tree or a migratory bird coming back from the south for the first time. Then, it is lain under a stone or more often hanged on a tree, which makes for an unforgettable sight in parks and forests all over Bulgaria!

Kashkaval tourist wishes a happy Baba Marta to everyone!

7 reasons to live in Bulgaria

7 reasons to live in Bulgaria

Historically, Bulgaria has been a country of emigration more than immigration, and this is a trend that mostly continues today. Each year, thousands of Bulgarians seek their fortune in Western Europe and North America, mostly due to economic dissatisfaction.

However, after living abroad for two years, first in Chilean Patagonia and then in north Germany, I’m moving back to Bulgaria in about a month and I intend to live there for the foreseeable future. So what reasons might there be for people to make Bulgaria their new home?

From the delicious local cuisine to the lowest income tax in the European Union, kashkaval tourist presents 7 reasons to live in Bulgaria!

1. Mountains and beaches: Bulgaria’s nature is diverse and attractive

Mountains and beaches: Bulgaria’s nature is diverse and attractive

Mountains and beaches: Bulgaria’s nature is diverse and attractive

Switzerland is world-famous for its breathtaking mountains and Portugal is undeniably a great beach destination. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent beach in Switzerland and Portugal isn’t exactly a top hiking place either.

Bulgaria is one of very few countries in Europe (and indeed the world) which offer awe-inspiring mountain sceneries next to a sunny and sandy seaside in a very compact area. You can be leaving the lush Alpine forests of Borovets after lunch and still make it in time for a late afternoon Black Sea swim in historic Sozopol on the very same day!

2. Local gourmet: Bulgaria’s cuisine is fresh and delicious

Local gourmet: Bulgaria’s cuisine is fresh and delicious

Local gourmet: Bulgaria’s cuisine is fresh and delicious

With outstanding regional vegetables, fragrant spices and quality barbecued meats, Bulgarian cuisine is an absolute Balkan jewel. Add a glass of aromatic rakia (or why not some well-aged Bulgarian wine?) and you’re in for a memorable Bulgarian meal.

Now imagine having this variety of tasty local food and drink available to you every day. Freshly baked pastries and the world’s best yoghurt for breakfast, a rich salad with white cheese for lunch and a nicely seasoned Bulgarian mixed grill for dinner. Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

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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

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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