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

8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus

Nestled 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!

Continue reading

7 unique Bulgarian wine varieties you must taste

7 unique Bulgarian wine varieties you must taste

Did you know that Bulgaria was the second largest producer of wine in the world in the 1980s? Today, the country may not be producing wine on such a massive scale, but its thousand-year-old winemaking traditions continue to deliver high-quality and affordable Bulgarian wine.

Indeed, vine growing and winemaking have been part of Bulgarian culture since time immemorial. Thousands of years ago in what is today Bulgaria, the ancient Thracians were consuming wine from elaborate gold vessels in the shape of animals and mythical creatures. And who wouldn’t grow wine in Bulgaria – its sunlit hills, fertile soils and geographic latitude (equivalent to central Italy or southern France to the west) provide the perfect vine growing conditions practically all over the country.

Wine is among the most popular drinks in Bulgaria, along with rakia and beer. The country is divided into five separate winemaking regions, each of those offering specific local wines. From the spicy Mavrud of the central south to the fresh Gamza of the northwest, I present you 7 unique Bulgarian wine varieties you totally must taste!

1. The dark horse: Mavrud

Mavrud’s name comes from the Greek word for black and you can definitely see why in this wine’s deep colour. Used to make a dark ruby-coloured and soft-tasting wine, Mavrud (Мавруд) grapes are almost exclusively grown in a small area just north of the charming Rhodope Mountains. More specifically, this sturdy variety is associated with the town of Asenovgrad and to a lesser extent with Perushtitsa.

Mavrud grapes are typically small in size, low on yield and ripen late – the harvest is in late October. All these factors result in a spicy and fruity varietal with high tannins, appreciated for its high quality, remarkable maturing potential and local character.

2. Flavour of the Mediterranean: Broad-Leaved Melnik

The scenic region of Melnik produces well-aging reds

The scenic region of Melnik produces well-aging reds. Photo credit: Dupnitsa.net, Wikipedia.

Planted in the southwestern-most and warmest corner of Bulgaria, in the distinct Mediterranean valley of the Struma River, the Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine (Широка мелнишка лоза, Shiroka melnishka loza) bears all the signs of an age-worthy southern red grape variety. Varietals are often named just Melnik, referring to the picturesque smallest town in Bulgaria famous for its winemaking tradition.

According to a very popular story, Melnik wine was Winston Churchill’s favourite – it is even claimed that Churchill had 500 litres of this wine delivered to him annually! Whether this is true or not, it is certain that wine from the late-ripening Broad-Leaved Melnik grapes has a captivating taste much like that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape of southeastern France, often with tobacco and leather hints.

Continue reading