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

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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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Bulgarian folklore across the ocean: support kaba gaida to Chicago and beyond!

Do you love Bulgarian music and would you like to help five young bagpipe players represent the unique Bulgarian folklore at festivals in Chicago and Richmond this autumn? The team of KabaGaida.com, who offer free online tutorials for Bulgarian kaba gaida bagpipe enthusiasts, have been invited to the World Music Festival Chicago and the Richmond Folk Festival.

To be able to cover their significant airfares and visa fees and be able to perform Bulgarian bagpipe music at these festivals, the KabaGaida.com team and the Kaynak Pipers Band have started a fundraiser at Indiegogo. Help them raise awareness about Bulgarian folklore and make their American dream come true by donating!

Bulgaria celebrates Lazarus Saturday (Lazaritsa) and Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa)!

Bulgaria celebrates Lazarus Saturday (Lazaritsa) and Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa)!

Bulgaria celebrates Lazarus Saturday (Lazaritsa) and Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa)!

The weekend before Orthodox Easter is a special time in Bulgaria. Associated with the height of spring and all the positivity, hope and love that come with it, Lazarus Saturday (Лазарица, Lazaritsaand Palm Sunday (Цветница, Tsvetnitsa) are a lot more than religious holidays!

Lazaritsa, the Saturday, is the time for a curious love and marriage custom performed by unmarried girls. The girls, called lazarki, tour each house in the village. Wearing their traditional folk dresses, they sing a unique set of songs not performed on any other day. The girls also pick flowers and make colourful wreaths. On the following day, the lazarki simultaneously throw the wreaths into a river in a sort of “catch the wedding bouquet” contest. Whoever’s wreath ends up first will be the first to marry!

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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!

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 130 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. 130 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!