The Rhodopes in southern Bulgaria are the country’s most extensive mountain range – an unfathomable expanse of coniferous forests, sunny meadows and countless summits around the 2000-metre mark. More often than not, the weather in the Rhodope Mountains is kind and welcoming in winter too. And on such a brilliant and calm sunny day, I set out above the snowline on my second snowshoeing experience with Top Guides Bulgaria. The target was Batashski Snezhnik, a somewhat remote and incredibly panoramic 2082-metre-high peak in the Batak Mountain part of the Western Rhodopes.
Compared to my first ever snowshoeing tour in Rila, the day hike to Batashki Snezhnik was certainly a step up – both in physical demand and in satisfaction at the end of the day. We covered a distance of 15 km and we tackled almost 800 metres of elevation gain, which took us 8.5 hours, including the generous breaks. As expected for Top Guides outings, our group was small, so each of the six members was able to receive individual attention and personal tips on proper snowshoeing technique and winter hiking best practices, whether they were a complete beginner or an experienced snow adventurer.
Winter arrives early in Bulgaria’s highest mountains, turning the alpine landscapes into a wonderland of snow and ice. You might think the end of autumn also signals the conclusion of the hiking season in the Balkans — but that’s far from the truth. Rila, Pirin, the Rhodopes and the Balkan Mountains are especially alluring in their winter coating, and one of the most rewarding ways to experience this is on a guided snowshoeing tour with Top Guides Bulgaria.
I’m a seasoned summer hiker with dozens of treks in Bulgaria and abroad, but I only started venturing to our highest peaks in winter a couple of years ago. I had never tried snowshoeing, so in late December I booked a day trip with Top Guides to add a new skill to my trekking portfolio. I had a delightful day up on the slopes of Rila, battling the wind, basking in the winter sun and practicing my snowshoeing technique.
Durmitor National Park in northwest Montenegro covers this tiny Balkan country’s most eminent mountain massif. As one of the most epic parts of the Dinaric Alps, Durmitor is a hub of mountain tourism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site of outstanding natural beauty. With its surreal cliffs, vertigo-inducing canyons, serene forests and mirror-like glacial lakes, Durmitor is a perfect outdoor destination both for leisurely hikers and hardcore mountaineering enthusiasts alike. And thanks to the legendary Tara River Gorge and Nevidio Canyon, this Montenegrin national park happens to be one of Europe’s top rafting and canyoneering spots as well!
From a pleasant walk on the shores of the captivating Black Lake to an ambitious summit attempt on the mighty Bobotov Kuk, kashkaval tourist presents 7 outdoor activities in Durmitor, Montenegro’s magnificent national park!
1. Marvel at a geological wonder: Prutaš
Although its 2,393 vertical metres might not be enough to make it Durmitor’s highest peak, Prutaš can proudly claim the title of “most attractive”. Not only does its summit boast what might be the most spectacular panorama around (with incredible vistas of the Sedlo Pass, Škrčka Lakes and the champion Bobotov Kuk), but the peak itself impresses with its shape and morphology. The twig-like vertical layers of rock that form it are unlike anything else you’ve seen!
most easily ascended from Dobri Do (a scenic stop on the Sedlo Pass road) in about
2.5 hours of moderate uphill walking. From Škrcka Lakes hut in the interior of
Durmitor, it’s a strenuous, but not particularly technical hike of around 2
hours with a steep gradient practically the entire time. The shortest way up is
1.5 hours via Todorov Do (further on the Sedlo Pass), but this route is also
the most technical, steepest and most exposed. Even if you don’t hike this way
though, Todorov Do is still worth a visit for the most rewarding views of Prutaš’s
2. Gaze into the eyes of the mountain: the Black Lake
The Black Lake counts as Durmitor’s trademark and most recognizable natural sight – and with good reason, as nothing quite prepares you for the spectacular view when the shores of the lake open before you for the first time. In fact, to make the most of the moment, I recommend walking to the Black Lake on one of the marked forest trails from Žabljak rather than on the asphalt street. Whichever way you take, it’s an easy and light walk that would take not much longer than half an hour from central Žabljak.
The Black Lake (Crno jezero) is actually formed by two lakes connected by a strait that dries up in summer. It is surrounded by thick, mostly evergreen woods, with the imposing summits of Međed, Savin Kuk and Crvena Greda towering in the background. You can circle the lake and sample the views by following a delightful forest trail. Or you can just admire its colour from the lakeside restaurant.
If you’re looking tо do some more lake spotting, the hike further on the leisurely Mlinski Potok trail to the small Zminje Lake (Zminje jezero) and marvel at its emerald waters. Barno Lake (Barno jezero) is another of Durmitor’s “mountain eyes” that you can visit in the surroundings – this one makes for an impressive sight from the peak of Savin Kuk.
As part of a recent seaside camping holiday in Sithonia, Chalkidiki’s idyllic middle peninsula in the north of Greece, I spent a day cruising around the small but splendid Diaporos Island. The Aegean island’s dozens of sandy beaches, quiet coves and rocky headlands are surrounded by crystal clear turquoise waters and tiny islets – all yours to explore any way you see fit, you’re the captain for the day. Just bring some basic snorkeling gear to fully appreciate the Mediterranean’s underwater environment… and choose your own adventure!
bang in the middle of Bulgaria, is a historic little town perfect for a long
weekend getaway in every season. Boasting Bulgaria’s best-preserved (and most
instagrammable) town square from the Revival period, a strong woodworking and icon-painting
tradition and delightful natural surroundings, Tryavna is classic Bulgaria
in a nutshell.
The town lies in the valley of the Tryavna River, surrounded by forested ridges of the middle Balkan Mountains just northeast of the heroic Shipka Pass. As a true Bulgarian heartland, Tryavna and the surrounding regions of Gabrovo and Dryanovo are a fitting introduction to the quintessential culture and nature of Bulgaria.
Be it exploring the Balkan outdoors or treating yourself to a tranquil spa holiday, kashkaval tourist presents 6 things to do around Tryavna, an enchanting corner of quintessential Bulgaria.
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.
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.