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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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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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 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!

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!

Fresh lamb feast and army holiday: happy St George’s Day!

Fresh lamb feast and army holiday: happy St George's Day!

Fresh lamb feast and army holiday: happy St George’s Day!

On 6 May each year, Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians celebrate St George’s Day (Гергьовден, Gergyovden). Because a whole lot of people are called Georgi or Gergana or some variation thereof, this is one of the most widespread name days in the country. And not only that, but it’s a national holiday — it’s been the official Bulgarian Army Day since 1880. The Bulgarian armed forces parade their best units and military equipment in central Sofia.

As St George is also the patron day of shepherds, it’s an old Bulgarian tradition that lamb must be eaten on St George’s Day, a custom which may stem from ancient pagan sacrificial rituals. Many Bulgarian families purchase a whole lamb before 6 May and have a huge feast with delicious lamb meals and a fresh green salad on the side on that day.