Megalithic borderlands: 6 reasons to visit Sredets

Megalithic borderlands: 6 reasons to visit Sredets

Sredets municipality is situated between the Burgas Lakes region of coastal wetlands and the northern parts of Strandzha, the vast area of hilly woodlands extending on either side of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. With its Roman heritage, dozens of prehistoric megaliths, sunny climate and unspoiled Balkan nature, this wild corner of southeastern Bulgaria is waiting to be explored!

From “dragon houses” and sacred boulders dating back to prehistory to 20th-century Cold War memories, kashkaval tourist presents 6 reasons to visit Sredets municipality and its megalithic borderlands!

1. Ave Caesar: explore the Roman colony of Deultum

Ave Caesar: explore the Roman colony of Deultum

Ave Caesar: explore the Roman colony of Deultum

Founded by Emperor Vespasian in the 1st century AD as Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium, today Deultum is an extensive archaeological site with a museum. As a Roman colony with Black Sea access via the once-navigable Lake Mandra, ancient Deultum prospered for centuries. It traded precious local Strandzha oak timber for other goods from the Mediterranean world, minted its own coinage, welcomed Roman emperors and honoured imperial customs. In the Middle Ages, Deultum marked the border between the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empire as the Burgas Lakes region often changed hands between the two.

Along with other Thracian, Roman, Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian artefacts, the Museum of Deultum features a rare bronze head of Emperor Septimius Severus. Outside, near the village of Debelt (Дебелт), the ruins of the ancient colony are in part still being excavated and researched, so you can get a first-hand impression of the archaeological team’s work!

2. Dragon houses: step into ancient dolmens on a jeep safari

Dragon houses: step into ancient dolmens on a jeep safari

Dragon houses: step into ancient dolmens on a jeep safari

You have to delve deep into the forested foothills of Strandzha to uncover Sredets municipality’s best-kept secret: the prehistoric dolmens, or megalithic portal tombs. Rather poetically, Bulgarian folklore interprets these Iron Age tombs as “dragon houses”. Supposedly, they’re the homes of shapeshifting dragons who, transformed into handsome young men, would lure local maidens to their dens.

There are dozens of dolmens in western Strandzha, though most of them are extremely remote and barely accessible. Some of the best preserved “dragon houses” can be found near the border villages of Belevren, Granichar, Kirоvo and Dolno Yabalkovo. The dolmen in the Korubata area between Belevren and Kirovo is one of the most remarkable and easiest to access (it’s just off the asphalted village road). However, a sturdy four-wheel drive, a local guide and an adventurous spirit are well recommended in any case.

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8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine

8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine

The specific assortment of spices and the way they are used plays a huge part in shaping the general flavour of a national style of cooking. In Bulgarian cuisine, which is a trademark representative of Balkan cooking, spices serve the important task of bringing out flavours and hold the key to making a dish taste quintessentially Bulgarian.

Needless to say, preparing authentic Bulgarian food would be unthinkable without the local variety of seasonings. After all, Bulgarian cuisine is not just what we eat or drink, it’s also how we flavour it!

From the nation’s all-time favourite spice mix to the most appropriate spices to use for Bulgarian-style beans, meat or fish, kashkaval tourist will introduce you to the world of 8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine.

1. Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Sharena sol (шарена сол), meaning “colourful salt”, is without a doubt the most popular spice mix in Bulgaria and a feature in practically every Bulgarian spice rack. Ingredients and proportions tend to vary a bit, depending on the preferences of whoever prepared it. Sharena sol just can’t go without the holy trinity of salt, dried summer savoury (chubritsa) and sweet paprika, but fenugreek is a popular fourth ingredient, and thyme or roasted maize are common additions too.

Sharena sol tastes great on freshly baked bread or any other kind of savoury pastry, but it can also be applied to eggs, soups and almost every other dish, as long as you want an unmistakably Bulgarian flavour.

2. Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Legumes like beans and lentils are the basis of many Bulgarian soups and main courses, particularly in the mountainous regions where they are most often grown. And the seasoning Bulgarians most often use in bean recipes has to be the aromatic spearmint (Mentha spicata), locally called dzhodzhen (джоджен) or less often gyozum (гьозум).

The leaves of this Mediterranean perennial plant can be used fresh or dried. In any case spearmint brings a strong fresh aroma to the table that is a perfect match for those delicious Smilyan beans from the Rhodopes. In Bulgarian cuisine, spearmint is also used in lamb and rice dishes. It tends to be a very dominant taste, so it should be carefully paired with other spices, which it can easily overpower.

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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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6 things to do in the captivating Rhodope Mountains

6 things to do in the captivating Rhodope Mountains

The Rhodopes, a vast chain of forested mountains, scenic towns and mystical villages, dominate Bulgaria’s south near the border with Greece. With its mix of pristine coniferous forests, high-quality ski resorts and unique local culture, this secluded region attracts Bulgarians and foreigners alike.

From working online out of a geodesic dome igloo to trying out the Rhodopes’ unusual local cuisine, kashkaval tourist presents 6 things to do in the captivating Rhodope Mountains.

1. Ski down the slopes from the TV tower in Pamporovo

Ski down the slopes from the TV tower in Pamporovo

Ski down the slopes from the TV tower in Pamporovo

Surrounded on all sides by endless hills covered by coniferous forests, the vast Pamporovo ski area is one of Bulgaria’s top winter resorts. Pamporovo’s location not far from Greece makes it one of Europe’s southernmost ski resorts, and as a result it boasts reliable snowfall as well as an unusually large number of sunny days in winter.

Almost all ski runs in Pamporovo descend from the unmistakeable Snezhanka TV Tower, which stands at an elevation of over 1900 metres. So as you can probably imagine, the tower’s panoramic café is the perfect place for a lunch with a view before another action-packed afternoon of skiing or snowboarding!

2. Escape to an office in the woods in Chepelare

Escape to an office in the woods in Chepelare

Escape to an office in the woods in Chepelare

Chepelare is a charming mountain town just 15 minutes away from the ski runs at Pamporovo. And believe it or not, the local factory, which manufactures ski equipment for Atomic and Salomon, is the world’s largest ski producer! Chepelare’s scenic location and ties to business are probably why it hosts Bulgaria’s first Office in the Woods, a community for co-working and co-living.

Office in the Woods is a great way to escape from your urban office environment to a space where you can work comfortably as well as enjoy the natural environment of the central Rhodopes. A stunning view from your office window is guaranteed, and the list of outdoor activities in all seasons is practically endless. You can also pick out different accommodation and office options, from camping to luxury and from a traditional office space to a wood-and-glass geodesic dome igloo!

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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 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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8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast

Dramatic sea cliffs, secluded beaches and a subtropical steppe landscape home to ancient fortresses, cave dwellings and wind turbines: the region of Kavarna on Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast is a dream for outdoor enthusiasts!

Still relatively unexplored compared to Bulgaria’s bustling southern coastline, the North remains a hidden gem on the Black Sea coast. And in particular, the region around Kavarna offers so much to do for those looking for something more active than lying on the beach all day.

From breathtaking kayaking tours to refreshing early morning bike rides to catch the sunrise over the sea, kashkaval tourist presents 8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

1. Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

How does having the sea to yourself, battling the waves and enjoying the epic cliffs north of Kavarna from a different perspective sound to you? If that’s your idea of a day well spent, then Trip Kavarna’s amazing kayaking tours are sure to be the highlight of your holiday.

Whether it’s a half-day tour from the mesmerizing crescent-shaped Bolata cove around the legendary Cape Kaliakra or a full-day adventure along the scenic coastline, this kayaking experience is guaranteed enjoyment for paddling novices and experienced sea wolves alike!

2. Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

With a variety of enjoyable routes to choose from and little traffic on the roads, the Kavarna region is perfect for cycling fans! Hire a bike from Levana Guest House, who also offer accommodation in authentic Dobrudzha village houses in beautiful Balgarevo, and tour the coastline at your own pace.

Distances in the area are no greater than 30 kilometres, the roads are fit for cycling and the diverse landscapes where the Black Sea meets the Dobrudzha steppe are made to be explored on a bike. So take the camera with you and off you go!

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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!

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

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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