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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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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8 amazing hikes in Rila, the highest mountains of Bulgaria and the Balkans

8 amazing hikes in Rila, the highest mountains of Bulgaria and the Balkans

The massive Rila Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria are not only the highest between the Alps and the Caucasus, but also a prime destination for hiking in Bulgaria. Covered in part by the Rila National Park, Rila is a magnificent collection of jagged peaks, maiden forests and endless pastures topped by Musala, the 2,925-metre-high top of the Balkans.

With an ancient Thracian name that likely means “well-watered mountain”, it can’t be a coincidence that water is one of the wonders of Rila. The mountains are abundant in glacial lakes, waterfalls and hot mineral springs and the depths of Rila give birth to some of the Balkans’ longest rivers.

From the iconic cirque of the Seven Rila Lakes to the Alpine ridges of Malyovitsa, kashkaval tourist presents 8 amazing hikes in Rila, the highest mountains of Bulgaria and the Balkans. And if it’s your first time trekking in Bulgaria, then why not make your life easier with a certified mountain guide?

1. The Magnificent Seven: the Seven Rila Lakes

The Magnificent Seven: the Seven Rila Lakes

The Magnificent Seven: the Seven Rila Lakes

When you’ve seen the Seven Rila Lakes, you’ll have no doubts as to why they’re perhaps the most famous natural site in Bulgaria. They’re a group of seven glacial lakes above the treeline, each with a characteristic shape and an unforgettable name like The Kidney, The Tear or the Eye. When viewed all together from the Lake Peak above them, the Seven Rila Lakes (Седемте рилски езера, Sedemte rilski ezera) make up one of the Balkans’ iconic panoramas.

In late summer, the followers of esoteric spiritual teacher Peter Deunov gather on the shores of the lakes. They’re all dressed in white and form huge dancing circles, quite the sight to behold. On a regular summer weekend, though, you’re more likely to encounter lots and lots of casual tourists, so better go during the week or off-season if you’re prepared.

You can get to the Seven Rila Lakes from Sapareva Banya near Dupnitsa, where a paved road to the trail and the chairlift starts. Accommodation and food are available at both the new (“Rila Lakes”) and the old (“Seven Lakes”) hut. A full tour of the Seven Rila Lakes is likely to take you some three or four hours there and back. A daytrip from Sofia is possible if you schedule your time well.

2. Top of the Balkans: Musala

Top of the Balkans: Musala

Top of the Balkans: Musala

At 2,925 metres, Mount Musala is Rila’s highest summit, which makes it the highest point of Bulgaria, the Balkans and all of Europe between the Alps and the Caucasus. It’s also Europe’s 7th most prominent peak and the coldest place in the Balkans, covered by snow for more than half of the year.

For such a high and extreme location, Musala (Мусала) can actually be a less challenging hike than other Bulgarian summits. It stands above one of Bulgaria’s most popular ski resorts, Borovets, so the cabin lift to Yastrebets can comfortably take you to 2,369 m, where you can start your hike. You can get to the top in only three hours, passing by Musala Hut and the Icy Lake Shelter. Both of these are good places for a short break and some refreshments.

Sure, the final hour of climbing Mount Musala is somewhat demanding and possibly vertigo-inducing, but it’s worth it because of the gorgeous views towards the lakes below. And when you get to the summit of the Balkans, you can kindly ask the meteorologists in the weather station for a cup of steaming tea!

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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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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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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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Centenary ice: Europe’s tiny southernmost glaciers are in Bulgaria

The Banski Suhodol Glacieret under Koncheto

The Banski Suhodol Glacieret under Koncheto

Did you have any idea you can see Europe’s most southern glacial formations in the alpine environment of Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains?

True, they may pale in comparison to mighty ice bodies like the Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps or the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentine Patagonia, but they’re still the southernmost glacial masses you can find in Europe, at the latitude of Rome, Corsica and Barcelona!

Lying at altitudes above 2,600 and 2,400 metres respectively, the two small glaciers (scientifically called glacierets) are the Banski Suhodol Glacier and the Snezhnika Glacier. They’re located in Pirin’s highest reaches, in the Big Cauldron (Големия казан, Golemia kazan) cirque under the mountain’s tallest peak Vihren and at the foot of the breath-taking vertical Koncheto ridge.

The Snezhnika Glacieret and its surroundings are a favoured habitat for mountain goats

The Snezhnika Glacieret and its surroundings are a favoured habitat of mountain goats

Now, these two Bulgarian glaciers are not some random patches of snow that have happened to stay intact over a summer or two. Fed by avalanche snow, indications are that they’ve been in existence ever since the Little Ice Age! This means that they’re 500 years old, at least. And the hundred-year firn ice of Snezhnika has been measured to be at least 11 metres thick!

While access to the larger Banski Suhodol Glacieret may be quite hard, with its position under the inaccessible marble slopes of Koncheto, the Snezhnika ice formation can easily be visited via the main hiking trail from Banderitsa Hut up towards Vihren Peak (at 2914 metres). And you can very often see mountain goats scaling the centenary ice of Snezhnika and the nearby rocks, making for an unforgettable sight of Bulgaria’s mountain fauna!

8 magical cultural attractions in the Rhodopes

8 magical cultural attractions in the Rhodopes

The Rhodopes (Родопи, Rodopi), a forested mountain chain in Bulgaria’s southern reaches, are a land that has preserved its age-old traditions to this day. A serene place of legendary natural beauty, the Rhodope Mountains were reportedly the home of Orpheus in Ancient Greek myth. Today, these verdant and extensive mountains remain a magnetic destination where visitors find peace and tranquility.

Thracian sanctuaries, scenic villages, medieval castles and enigmatic bridges: read on to find out more about 8 magical cultural attractions in the Rhodopes. And the Rhodopes’ natural attractions – its stunning gorges, caves and rock arches – undoubtedly deserve a whole future article of their own!

1. Arched wonder of architecture: Devil’s Bridge

Spanning the Arda River not far from Ardino and linking the Aegean coast of Greece with the Upper Thracian Lowland of Bulgaria, the Devil’s Bridge (Дяволски мост, Dyavolski most) has fascinated tourists and researchers for many years. This picturesque arched stone bridge was constructed in the early 16th century by the Ottomans and numerous legends attempt to explain its curious name.

According to one of the most popular tales, the violent currents of the river long prevented the locals from building a bridge at the place. Only when a young master builder made a deal with the devil (involving cryptically depicting the face of Satan on the bridge) under the danger of losing his and his wife’s lives was the bridge able to survive at the cursed location. And so it has continued to stand, for 500 years.

  • How to get there: There are daily buses from Sofia’s Central station to Kardzhali, where you can catch a local bus to Ardino. A couple of the afternoon buses from Sofia go directly to Ardino too.

2. 8000 year-old sanctuary: Perperikon

Archaeologists were looking for the lost Thracian sanctuary of Perperikon for decades until they discovered it in 2000. Nested on a rocky ridge above the village of Gorna Krepost in the Eastern Rhodopes, this ancient compound is regarded as the largest megalith complex in Southeastern Europe.

Reportedly, Perperikon was the site of a famous Temple of Dionysus, the god of wine, whose oracle rivaled the one at Delphi. Modified and expanded in Roman times with fortress walls and an imposing palace, Perperikon survived until the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, when it was destroyed… and forgotten.

  • How to get there: Perperikon is not far from Kardzhali, which is connected to Sofia and Plovdiv by bus. It may be possible to arrange a taxi from Kardzhali to Gorna Krepost, the site of Perperikon.

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