The incredibly scenic small town of Koprivshtitsa might be the perfect place to experience the authentic Bulgarian spirit of yore. Tucked into the deep valley of the Topolnitsa River, among the forested hills of the Sredna Gora mountains between Sofia and Plovdiv, Koprivshtitsa is a true museum town and an architectural reserve. Just imagine the sight: hundreds of brightly-coloured Bulgarian Revival houses (danger: cuteness overload!) line the winding cobblestone alleys connected by little arched bridges.
Koprivshtitsa, once a prosperous town of well-educated merchants, is remembered all over Bulgaria as the birthplace of dozens of eminent writers and revolutionaries, including some of the leading figures of the Bulgarian Revival. In 1876, it was also the focal point of the epic and tragic April Uprising against Ottoman rule, a historic moment leading up to hard-fought Bulgarian independence.
With its dazzling mix of splendid traditional architecture, dramatic history and crispy fresh mountain air, Koprivshtitsa is one of the Balkans’ most beautiful towns and an incredible journey back in time. So stay a few days, enjoy the hearty food and the strong rakia, delve into the local lore and explore the surroundings. But before you go, read on to get acquainted with Koprivshtitsa, the jewel of the Bulgarian Revival!
Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s oldest and most colourful city and in 2019, it’s hotter than ever. Not because of global warming or the infamous heat of Thrace – now that it’s been crowned the 2019 European Capital of Culture, its bohemian chic is deservedly making rounds all over the world. To make the most of your time in the “ancient and eternal” Plovdiv, enhance your visit with Plovdiv City Card! You’ll get free admissions to many of the must-see sights as well as dozens of discounts in some of the coolest places around town!
“People and streets, a town like any other”, starts a famous Bulgarian popular song from the 1970s. But of course, not quite. Urban spaces define the vibe of a city, and the animated Bulgarian capital Sofia is no exception. In Antiquity reportedly cherished by Roman emperor Constantine as “my Rome”, then described as a “little Vienna” at the turn of the 20th century, and finally hailed as “my little London” by the legendary singer Todor Kolev, modern Sofia is its very own living and breathing Balkan metropolis. Admittedly, its effortless and at times somewhat rough charm has been often misunderstood and neglected – but there is no better way to rediscover it than to get to know its iconic streets!
The foundations of Sofia’s street network date to Ancient Roman times – and the contemporary city centre is still exactly where Roman Serdica used to stand. The city’s urban plan was then shaped by the medieval Bulgarians, before the Ottoman conquest gave Sofia a decidedly oriental character. As it became the capital of an independent Bulgaria in the late 19th century, the sleepy Ottoman provincial town was transformed into a dignified European capital with an Austro-Hungarian twist. Finally, the socialist period brought the world’s “favourite” Soviet-style panel apartment buildings, and the last couple of decades have seen a hit-and-miss influx of modern architecture.
Be it the Bulgarian Broadway, Sofia’s own Little Beirut, the capital’s up and coming arts and crafts district or its aristocratic thoroughfares, kashkaval tourist presents 8 signature Sofia streets revealing the Bulgarian capital’s charm.
1. Little Beirut in the former Jewish
district: Tsar Simeon Street
Stretching for four kilometres through the northern part of the city centre, Tsar Simeon is by some definitions Sofia’s longest street (and not a boulevard, that is). And though for most of its length it’s just a neighbourhood thoroughfare with a notable number of car parts shops, its middle section between the Hristo Botev and Maria Luiza Boulevards is incredibly lively and like no other street in Sofia.
Simeon carries a scent of Middle Eastern
spices and moves to the
beat of oriental music as it crosses the famous Women’s Market (and no, women
aren’t literally sold there). It’s the
main street of Sofia’s Little Beirut, an unfavoured but incredibly curious
area, a harbour for refugees, Middle Eastern migrants and local Roma. In this
part of Simeon, you’ll find dozens of little spice shops, hookah stores, oriental
bakeries, halal butchers and especially barbershops, where the old craft of
shaving with a straight razor is still masterfully practiced.
This Little Beirut, now populated by many Arabs, was once curiously the Bulgarian capital’s Jewish ghetto. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Bulgarian Jewish community survived World War II, only to move en masse to Israel in the 1940s, leaving this part of the city deserted. Nowadays, the influx of Middle Easterners has breathed new life into the Tsar Simeon area and the beautiful turn-of-the-century townhouses are beginning to regain their grandeur. And fittingly, the synagogue and the mosque are just a block away from Simeon, almost facing each other, with the Market Hall in between.
Ever wondered what life was like for an average Bulgarian family during communism? In The Red Flat, an interactive and immersive exhibition in an authentic socialist-era apartment in central Sofia, you can do just that.
The Red Flat’s front door might just as well be a time portal to the 1980s. As you enter the apartment, you’re instantly teleported to the private world of the Petrovi family for an audio-guided, true-to-life journey back in time.
Yogurt, cheese and milk are an integral part of Bulgarian cuisine – and in a sense, Bulgaria is the original homeland of yogurt! Dairy products are part of almost every meal in the country and a Bulgarian would find it hard to imagine classic local dishes like banitsa, musaka, shopska salad or tarator without cheese or yogurt.
Cow milk is the most popular source of dairy products in
Bulgaria, though sheep’s milk products are well-appreciated and quite ubiquitous
too. Perhaps not as commonly consumed, goat cheeses are also traditional and considered
a bit of a specialty because of their tart flavour. Native buffalo dairy products
are increasingly fashionable too – buffalo yogurt from the Balkan Mountains is
a real treat, especially served as a dessert with fresh blueberries!
From the legendary Bulgarian yogurt (big in Japan and China!) to the secrets of the gourmet green cheese of Cherni Vit (that the Moon is made of), kashkaval tourist presents 6 delectable Bulgarian dairy products.
1. Omnipresent Balkan crumbliness: sirene (white brined cheese) 🐄
In Bulgaria, white brined cheese (or sirene) is so universally beloved that it has come to own the word for cheese itself. Unless you specify something else, any Bulgarian would assume you’re referring to this classic Balkan cheese when you say “sirene”.
Sirene can be made of cow, sheep’s, goat’s or buffalo milk,
or a mix thereof. What sets it apart from other cheeses is the maturing in a brine
solution, which is responsible for its white colour and its trademark
saltiness. Bulgarian white brined cheese shares many similarities with its
Greek cousin feta and other regional cheeses like the Turkish beyaz peynir and Romanian telemea. Compared to feta, sirene (сирене) is somewhat softer and crumblier.
A variant of sirene is Dunavia, which is even softer, with less fat content and
a milder flavor.
Sirene is often enjoyed as a table cheese (sprinkled with some red pepper) and it’s a vital ingredient in characteristic Bulgarian dishes like shopska salad, banitsa with cheese, French fries with cheese, sirene po shopski (Shop-style sirene) and yaytsa po panagyurski (Panagyurishte-style eggs).
2. Fermented longevity food: Bulgarian yogurt 🔬
Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp.bulgaricus. Sounds fancy, right? We owe the very existence of yogurt to these benevolent bacteria, naturally found in Bulgaria and discovered by Bulgarian doctor Stamen Grigorov in 1905. If you’re feeling geeky, you could learn more about it in the world’s only Yogurt Museum in Grigorov’s home village of Studen Izvor. 🤓
Bulgaria is regarded as the “birthplace of yogurt”, and as you can imagine, this fermented milk product is a huge part of the local culinary tradition. Known as kiselo mlyako (кисело мляко, „sour milk“), yogurt is a yummy Bulgarian breakfast staple, and it’s also used in appetizers, desserts, beverages and even soups (think tarator).
The research of Nobel Prize winner Élie Metchnikoff attributed the longevity of Bulgarian villagers to their regular consumption of yogurt, turning this dairy product into an international health fad. Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt has been a hit in Japan since 1973, spreading the fame of Bulgarian yogurt all over East Asia. And in China, the yogurt drink Momchilovtsi draws inspiration from the Rhodope village of the same name. Seeing a Rhodope-branded product in faraway China would be surreal to any Bulgarian, but it’s a testament to Bulgarian yogurt’s well-deserved worldwide popularity. 😏
Reasonably priced, ready-to-eat and with an unmistakable local flavour, street food is ubiquitous around Bulgaria and the Balkans. In fact, snacks might be the perfect introduction to the glories of Balkan food and Bulgarian cuisine in particular! Street food is available just about everywhere around the region, and of course particularly so in the cities and in major tourist destinations. So no need to worry while you’re exploring this enchanting corner of south-eastern Europe: you’re guaranteed a vast choice of delicious oriental finger food in-between meals!
Classic Balkan and Bulgarian street food has been heavily influenced by the centuries of Ottoman rule, so its taste will often remind you of Turkey and its rich culinary tradition – but always with a local twist depending on the country and region, the local climate and customs. And like almost everywhere, you’re likely to find local versions of Western street foods like pizza, hamburgers, doughnuts and sandwiches in the Balkans too – but you’d be surprised how different those can be from the originals sometimes!
From the world’s favourite late-night wrap to seeds as addictive as hard drugs, kashkaval tourist presentsstreet food in Bulgaria and the Balkans: 8 regional snacks you must try!
1. World-famous meat cone: döner and gyros
World-famous meat cone: döner and gyros
Whether you call it döner, gyros or shawarma, this is perhaps the most recognized street food to come out of this part of the world. 🥙 Originating in 19th-century Ottoman Anatolia, döner kebab is now omnipresent in all Balkan countries – and it has expanded throughout Europe and beyond, conquering basically the entire world! This heavenly combo of seasoned meat (chicken, beef or lamb), slow-roasted as a humongous cone on a rotating vertical spit and then wrapped in bread with some salad and sauce, is an entire meal in itself.
In Bulgaria, dyuner (дюнер) is often sold by Turkish or Arabic immigrants, though it features some typically local quirks too. A Bulgarian dyuner will often be stuffed with French fries, which is a rarity in other places, and it will always be served wrapped in soft, thin flatbread, never as a sandwich. Chicken is by far the most popular variety and beef is to be found in the more respected döner joints, though lamb is a true rarity. The Greek version gyros is also quite beloved: it’s notable for its thicker bread and particularly for offering pork as an option.
Standard price in Bulgaria: 3-5 BGN (1.5-2.5 €)
2. Breakfast besties: börek, burek and banitsa
Breakfast besties: börek, burek and banitsa
Known as börek in Turkey, burek throughout former Yugoslavia and banitsa in Bulgaria, this flaky filled pastry is an absolute hit throughout the Balkans, be it as a breakfast staple or as a late-night snack. Prepared of multiple sheets of super thin filo dough, this piece of baked deliciousness 😌 is usually filled with various ingredients. In Bulgaria, the quintessential street banitsa includes sirene (white cheese) and/or curd. In former Yugoslavia, burek is more commonly filled with ground meat.
As a fast food, banitsa is sold by small bakeries that you can find on almost every busy street corner. In addition to this layered Balkan specialty, these bakeries also sell other local pastries and some Western-inspired varieties like strudel (which, in Bulgaria, is often basically a sweet banitsa with an apple flavour). In eastern Bulgaria and the Turkish-populated regions, bakeries also offer gözleme, a related filled pastry, which unlike börek is unleavened and cooked on a griddle.
On the map of Europe, Slovenia fits neatly between Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary – and indeed, this delightful little country is a fascinating mix of cultural influences against the backdrop of diverse natural landscapes. In Slovenia, the sophistication of Central Europe meets the raw charm of the Balkans. Slavic, Germanic, Latin and Hungarian legacies shake hands along the banks of the Sava River. And the dazzling Julian Alps rise to 2,864 metres, not too far from the country’s tiny but scenic Adriatic shoreline. In short, Slovenia is a cultural heaven as well as a natural paradise!
Starting in the European green capital, passing through an endless cave system, washing up at the Mediterranean coast and ending high above the clouds in one of the Alps’ top national parks, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in lovely little Slovenia.
1. A capital to fall in love with: go for a leisurely walk in historic Ljubljana
A capital to fall in love with: go for a leisurely walk in historic Ljubljana
With its 280,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana is one of Europe’s smallest capital cities – and that’s no bad thing! The city is compact, walkable, bikeable, surrounded by parks and low mountains. A stroll in Ljubljana’s car-free city centre feels like a journey back to Austro-Hungarian times. And a short walk up to the medieval Ljubljana Castle will reward you with the best city panoramas as well as views of the Kamnik–Savinja Alps in the distance.
When you’re done with checking off the main sights like the curious Dragon Bridge, the baffling Triple Bridge next to Prešeren Square and the classical Town Hall with the Robba Fountain, you can enjoy a glass of local wine on the banks of the pristine Ljubljanica River. A bike tour through the scenic Tivoli Park might well end up with… a beer tasting at the Union Brewery pub. And for nightlife enthusiasts, the semi-legal bars and clubs in the Metelkova autonomous cultural centre (or “squat” for short!) provide a refreshing Berlin vibe.
A canal cruise on the pristine Ljubljanica is a great way to enjoy the city
2. Slovenia’s postcard: chill by the shores of Lake Bled
Slovenia’s postcard: chill by the shores of Lake Bled
Situated at the foot of the Alps in the country’s northwest, the elegant resort town of Bled lies by the shores of a gorgeous mountain lake. Surrounded by jagged Alpine peaks, thick forests and classy hotels, Lake Bled and its blue-green waters might be Slovenia’s prime tourist destination. Traditional pletna boats take visitors to the quaint little island in the middle of the lake for a pilgrimage to the Church of the Assumption of Mary. And on the other, northeastern side of the lake, the thousand-year-old Bled Castle adorns the cliffs above the town.
For the top vistas of Lake Bled including the castle and the island with the church, your best bet is a brief hike to the Osojnica hill west of the lake. And if you’re too lazy for that or think you’ve deserved a culinary reward for completing the hike, you can always end your day with a slice of Bled’s legendary cremeschnitte cake. The classic place for this is the splendid Park Café, where it has been served (with cappuccino and calming lake views on the side) since 1953.
Don’t miss out on the cremeschnitte cake, Bled’s famous pastry!
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
With their unique language form, their Central European customs and their Catholic faith, the Banat Bulgarians might be the most outstanding and curious Bulgarian ethnographic group of all. Having lived in the Austrian and later Hungarian lands beyond the Danube (nowadays in Romania and Serbia) for centuries, some of them returned in 1887 and founded the village of Bardarski Geran in northwestern Bulgaria.
The Banat Bulgarians brought back their remarkable rural architecture and their distinctive folk costumes with them… as well as some of their ethnic German neighbours. Together, the two communities turned Bardarski Geran into a fascinating representation of their former homeland in the Austro-Hungarian Banat – and a true Banat Bulgarian cultural capital!
From the village’s quaint appearance to the unmistakable food and drink and the wild carnival celebrations, kashkaval tourist gives you 5 reasons to visit Bardarski Geran!
1. Keeping the faith: marvel at the two impressive Roman Catholic churches
Keeping the faith: marvel at the two impressive Roman Catholic churches
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bulgarian village with two Orthodox churches, what’s left for two cathedral-sized Roman Catholic churches! Because the Banat Bulgarians and the ethnic German Banat Swabian colonists didn’t quite feel like mixing and formed two separate communities, they also built two separate church buildings in Bardarski Geran.
The Church of Saint Joseph, the spiritual home of the Banat Bulgarian parish, truly impresses with its size and its sparse but monumental interior decoration. And the Gothic spire of the German Church of the Virgin Mary, unfortunately abandoned after the Swabians left in the 1940s, is quite the sight for a village in the remote Bulgarian Northwest. Peek through the church’s arched gate and spot the mural portraits of the Slavic apostles Cyril and Methodius with their names written in German!
2. Hungarian-style sausages and wine: taste the unique local food and drink
Hungarian-style sausages and wine: taste the unique local food and drink
Sure, classic Bulgarian cuisine is a treat in itself. But if you venture to Bardarski Geran, you’ll encounter dishes that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Bulgaria. The old recipes from the Banat region show a strong Hungarian influence, and you can get a rare taste of homemade pork paprikash or kalbasa (kolbász) sausages in Bardarski Geran. In fact, after a kalbasa recipe from another Banat Bulgarian village won a nationwide Lidl recipe contest in 2017, the kalbasa sausages have become something of a hit, and will even be offered in Bulgarian Lidl stores.
And what goes with some award-winning Banat sausages better than local red wine from the Danube Plain? As it happens, the Bardarski Geran museum has its own vineyards and red wine they bottle happens to be the perfect pairing to the village’s unique meat specialties!