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!

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

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!

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.

7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria

7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria

With over 700 natural mineral and hot water springs, Bulgaria is a spa paradise famous over Europe ever since Ancient Roman times. In spring, the mountain regions where most spas are located are blossoming and blooming, with the mountain tops still covered by a shining blanket of snow. So what better time to discover one of the continent’s best spa destinations than spring and early summer?

From the site of one of Europe’s only real geysers to the sunniest town in the entire country, kashkaval tourist presents 7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria!

1. Hot water geyser spot: Sapareva Banya

Hot water geyser spot: Sapareva Banya

Hot water geyser spot: Sapareva Banya

With one of continental Europe’s very few hot water geysers bang in the middle of Sapareva Banya (Сапарева баня), you just know the mineral springs in this sleepy mountain town are something to talk about. The hot waters spring forth at a temperature of 103°C and they have proven healthy properties.

The town lies at the foothills of the awe-inspiring Rila Mountains, the Balkans’ highest; in fact, it’s a starting point for the hike to the mesmerizing Seven Rila Lakes. Besides the geyser and a cute Byzantine-style medieval church, Sapareva Banya offers a variety of accommodation options and a modern spa centre.

2. Spa like an ancient Roman: Hisarya

Spa like an ancient Roman: Hisarya

Spa like an ancient Roman: Hisarya. Photo credit: Ramón, Flickr.

A modern destination spa town surrounded by unbelievable Ancient Roman ruins? If you want to combine leisure and history in your vacation, think no further than Hisarya (Хисаря)! Just 40 km north of the lovely Plovdiv in the gentle Sredna Gora Mountains, Hisarya was a major Roman metropolis under the name of Diocletianopolis. Several city gates and extensive fortifications still attest to this memorable period of Hisarya’s ancient history.

Hisarya was a spa tourism hub even in Roman times, and with its 16 natural mineral springs, this is hardly a surprise. Today, you can choose from cosy family-run guesthouses to four-star hotels with their own spa centres.

Continue reading

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 Orthodox Easter!

Thought Easter was last week? Think again! Bulgaria’s Eastern Orthodox majority celebrates the resurrection of Christ this weekend, on the night of 11 to 12 April. Due to the complex way the date of Easter is calculated each year, Orthodox Easter may be quite far in time from Western Easter… but it may be on the same date too.

So if you’re celebrating Easter the Bulgarian Orthodox way, enjoy a few days of egg fighting with elaborately painted eggs, feasting on delicious kozunak sweetbread and following many other curious Bulgarian Easter traditions.

Hristos voskrese (Christ is Risen)!

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!