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!

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7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain

7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain

Whether you’re arriving to Sofia by air, road or rail, the first thing that catches your eye as you enter the Sofia Valley is likely to be Vitosha, Sofia’s unmistakable natural landmark. Rising to 2290 metres above sea level and well over a mile above the valley floor, the dome-shaped Vitosha is Bulgaria’s fourth-highest mountain massif. And due to its proximity to the capital city and the accessible Aleko ski area, the mountain is also the locals’ favourite weekend retreat in all four seasons.

Do thickly forested slopes, subalpine plateaus, unique stone rivers, thundering waterfalls, secluded monasteries or snow-capped summits sound like a day well spent to you? Well then, prepare to discover kashkaval tourist’s 7 scenic hikes in Vitosha, Sofia’s own mountain!

1. Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

Sofia summit galore: Cherni Vrah

Though it might sound like a challenge with its respectable height of 2290 metres and its reputation for strong winds, Vitosha’s highpoint Cherni Vrah is in fact a very accessible summit in any season. Because of its closeness to Sofia and the multitude of transport links and trails, Cherni Vrah is by far the most climbed mountain peak in Bulgaria, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. That the meteorological station’s teahouse on the summit reliably serves warm bean soup and cold beer might also be contributing to its popularity!

Cherni Vrah (Черни връх, “Black Peak”) stands only a few hundred metres above the high-altitude plateaus and the tree line, making the hike from the slightly wonky Dragalevtsi chairlift’s top station (Goli Vrah) a literal walk in the park in good weather. The ascent from the Aleko ski area is only a tad more challenging. However, the low difficulty of the trails doesn’t in any way impact the grandeur of the panoramas, whether you’re looking down towards Sofia or around to the awe-inspiring ridges of Rila, Pirin or the Balkan Mountains.

2. Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

Stone rivers from the Ice Age: the Golden Bridges

Ever heard of stone rivers? Imagine a stream-like accumulation of thousands of massive boulders, extending for kilometres down the mountain slope. Thanks to Vitosha’s extraordinary geological history, these unique landforms from the last Ice Age have become something of a signature for Sofia’s nearby mountain! And though stone rivers can be found in a multitude of locations in the higher parts of Vitosha, the most famous (and largest) of them ought to be the Golden Bridges.

This particular stone river is more than two kilometres long and its poetic name supposedly comes from the yellowish lichen that grows on the boulders. In summer, the Golden Bridges (Златните мостове, Zlatnite mostove) are a beloved location for picnics and sunbathing, with kids having the time of their life hopping from boulder to boulder while the parents are chatting and sipping a beer nearby.

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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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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 highest summit 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.

If it’s your first time trekking in Bulgaria, then why not make your life easier with a certified mountain guide from Hiking Guide Bulgaria?

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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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 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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7 waterfalls in Bulgaria that will take your breath away

As a mountainous country renowned for its water resources, you can bet Bulgaria has some amazing waterfalls! The majestic waterfalls of Bulgaria may not be as well-known as the Niagara Falls or Iguazu Falls, but they are still perfect places to visit as part of an adventurous hike or on a more relaxed picnic trip.

From the highest in Southeastern Europe to some of the most picturesque, here come 7 waterfalls in Bulgaria that will take your breath away!

1. Thunder of the mountains: Skakavitsa in Rila

Thunder of the mountains: Skakavitsa in Rila

Thunder of the mountains: Skakavitsa in Rila

Around 70 metres high, the Skakavitsa Waterfall is among the main tourist attractions in the Rila Mountains. Skakavitsa (Скакавица) flows dramatically down from the eastern slope of Kabul Peak, at an elevation of 1750 metres above sea level. Due to its high-mountain location, the Skakavitsa Waterfall freezes every winter and is at its peak in spring. Then, the melting snows feed it with huge amounts of water and turn it into a thundering cataract.

As the Seven Rila Lakes are a two-hour hike away, it’s a great idea to combine Skakavitsa with a visit to Bulgaria’s most famous lake group.

  • How to get there: Skakavitsa Waterfall is less than half an hour away from Skakavitsa Hut in Rila National Park. Travel by bus or train to Dupnitsa and catch a local bus to Sapareva Banya, then make your way to Skakavitsa on a four-hour hike from the town via Pionerska Hut.

2. Balkan record holder: Raysko Praskalo

Raysko Praskalo (Райско пръскало) literally means “a heavenly spray” in Bulgarian, and this waterfall does indeed look like one. Situated deep in the Central Balkan National Park, Raysko Praskalo may not be big in volume… but at 124.5 metres, it’s the highest permanently-flowing waterfall in the Balkans!

Here’s a tip – visit Raysko Praskalo during spring or autumn to see it in its proper size. If you go in high summer, you may be disappointed by the small amount of water flowing down from the imposing rocks.

  • How to get there: Raysko Praskalo is located just next to Ray Hut above the town of Kalofer. Get to Kalofer by train or bus from Sofia or Plovdiv and start your challenging four or five-hour trek from the Panitsite area.

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