LIPA CAVE: AN AUTHENTIC CAVE EXPERIENCE

lipa cave1On July 13, 2015, Lipa Cave (Lipska pećina) near Cetinje was finally opened to the public. Guided by website www.lipa-cave.me, we decided to visit this speleological pearl as soon as possible (photo 1). We had already tried to enter the cave several times in the past few years, but in vain. Many things changed since then. It was a surprise to find new buildings, a ticket office, a souvenir shop, a pub with open terrace, a huge parking lot and, above all, a small tourist train for the visitors.

lipa cave2aBy the way, we have visited caves all over the Balkans: from Postojna in Slovenia to the Magura Cave in Bulgaria, from Vjetrenica in Bosnia & Herzegovina to the Stopića Cave in Serbia. They were all impressive, and each cave offered something special. What would be our impression of the Lipa Cave?

Let me tell you something about the cave’s history: First of all, Lipa Cave is one of the largest caves in Montenegro, with 2.5 km of passages and halls. It starts in the village of Lipa and ends in the mountains directly over the Adriatic Sea. The cave was mentioned for the first time by the Englishman Lejard in 1839. Even prince-bishop and poet Petar II Petrović Njegoš mentioned the Lipa Cave in his famous work “Mountain Wreath”. Can you imagine that the Austrians valorized the cave in 1918 and opened it for tourists? As it was opened for the second time after World War II, this is the third opening of the cave, which was enabled by a public-private partnership with the Slovenian company “Lipska pećina”.

Lipa cave3aStrange enough, the cave was “discovered” by a dog that fell through a large opening in the karst rocks (photo 2). The dog succeeded in getting out through a small gap in the rocks and that was the sign for local inhabitants to explore the beautiful underground world.

There are three possibilities to experience Lipa Cave: the family tour (7 €), adventure tour (20 €) and “treasure hunt” adventure tour (50 €). Our choice was the “Adventure Tour”, which is about 1.5 hour long and covers around one kilometer of cave halls and galleries.

Lipa cave4aWe were transported by train to the entrance and the friendly English-speaking guide gave us rubber boots, a helmet and a head lamp. A coat was also available, as the temperature in the cave is between 8 and 12°C (but of course, you can also take your own jacket)!

Through an icy and windy corridor, we walked 400 m along a comfortable trail to Njegoš Hall with its impressive stalactites and stalagmites. At the backside of the hall was another gate – the entrance for real cave adventurers! Exploring this authentic part of the cave is a fantastic experience that is not offered by any cave we have visited so far.

Lipa cave5aAnd why is it so impressive? Walking through mud and water, climbing the slippery underground “hills” and passing through low and narrow corridors, you get the feeling as if you are a real speleologist (photo 3). There is no lighting, there are no trails. We admired the so-called Gusle (a typical Montenegrin instrument – photo 4), with a spring where we could refresh ourselves and drink the pure water. Stalagmites and stalactites in different sizes and forms threw huge shadows on the walls (photo 5). The guide was equipped with strong lamps and showed us many strange formations: at the end, we even saw the black heart of the cave. From there, a narrow trail led farther into the deep underground. This was the place where the “Treasure Hunt Adventure Tour” will be organized in the future – an ultimate cave adventure for “professional” speleologists and explorers, combining adventure and fun.

Lipa cave6aApart from stalagmites and stalactites in all forms and colors, we passed through water currents, galleries and huge chambers, we saw lakes and springs, we walked through wide passages and narrow dark corridors (photo 6). Some old graffiti dating from 1905 showed that an early cave explorer in the Austro-Hungarian army already achieved a depth of 850 m from the entrance.

Visiting Lipa Cave “as an adventurer” was very special, in particular as in this stage you still have the possibility to see an authentic cave, without illumination, without hand rails and concrete trails. The Adventure Tour is organized for small groups (up to 10 persons), which is a good precondition for such a unique experience.

Lipa cave8aNo wonder I wanted to show my grandchildren (age 6, 8 and 10) this beautiful attraction! And so we booked a family tour last Saturday. And we were not the only ones! Many locals, but also foreign tourists were waiting for the next tour. The children were excited to take the tourist train to the entrance of the cave. What a pity we had to wait at the entrance for almost 20 minutes until the second part of the group appeared, as the train has a very limited capacity. Of course, this made the visit shorter (around 30 minutes instead of 45). Fortunately, the children really enjoyed the cave (photo 7) and the guide was very helpful and friendly.

As the cave has become a top attraction within a very short time, I think that the organization scheme should undergo some changes. More guides? A longer train? Two trains? Another time schedule? I am sure the manager will find a satisfactory solution, as Lipa Cave will certainly become one of the top attractions of Montenegro in the future. Don’t forget: it is situated at 35 km from Podgorica and 33 km from the sea coast. A good chance for many tourists to make a day trip to this extraordinary karst cave (photo 8)!

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SNORKELING IN THE ADRIATIC SEA: FUN & RELAXATION

snorkeling1snorkeling2a slano baySnorkeling in Croatia and Montenegro is quite popular among tourists: it is fun, easy and inexpensive. Of course, the Adriatic Sea is not filled with colorful fish and coral reefs. That’s why snorkeling in these waters is not really spectacular, if compared to the Caribbean Sea or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

So, why snorkeling in the Adriatic Sea (photo 1)? There are several reasons: the waters are clear and the visibility is great, as the coast is mostly rocky (photo 2). Snorkelers can discover an interesting undersea world: fish, anemones, crabs, sea urchins, snails… And it is still possible to find lonely and quiet places, where you can explore the sea bottom without being disturbed by boats, ski jets or other “pirats”!

snorkeling2 Slano baySpending our summer holidays in Slano, we often go out with our dinghy in search of lonely beaches and coves. In a hidden corner of the Bay of Slano, we have found a small inlet surrounded by rocks that cannot be reached by land (photo 3). This is an ideal place for snorkeling. The water is calm and we can always spot lots of small fish (photo 4) swimming along the rocky shores. The bottom is covered by algae, sea cucumbers, shells and snails… There are fields of grasses, but also sandy and rocky areas.

But when you snorkel in shallow waters, you should certainly watch out for sea urchins. Be careful not to step on them or touch them: their spines are poisonous and can cause a lot of problems when they are not removed immediately.

snorkeling4The algae, anemones and other plants on the sea bottom are amazing. I am not an expert; I can only say that some of them look like flowers  and other ones have strange colors and forms (photo 5).

Snorkeling is exercising and relaxing at the same time. When I put on my mask and submerse my body in the water, I am connected with nature in an amazing way. I have the feeling as if I am in another world. Time stands still. There is no sound except for the sound of my breathing and the rhythm of the waves. Believe me, I can spend hours snorkeling and the time passes almost unnoticeably.

snorkeling5I have discovered that it is a great experience to let my body just floating. The longer I float on the spot, the more small fish start coming out of their hiding places under the rocks and the grass (photo 6). The sense of peace and calm makes snorkeling almost a spiritual experience. Sounds great, don’t you think? Give it a try!

 

 

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SKADAR LAKE – PARADISE LOST?

Skadar Lake1Skadar lake2 Kom monasteryMontenegro has a lot of amazing places, showing untouched and wild natural beauties, authentic traditions and cultural treasures… No, I am not talking about the Montenegrin Coast. It is understandable that most coastal towns have become crowded tourist destinations, responsible for a large part of Montenegro’s economic development. I want to point at those areas in the country that are not affected yet by sky-scrapers, souvenir shops, nightclubs and luxury resorts. Such an area is Skadar Lake (photo 1), one of Montenegro’s five national parks with small-scale tourism possibilities: bird-watching, fishing, boat rides with traditional fishing boats, hiking and biking, kayaking and swimming, gastronomic specialties and numerous medieval monasteries (photo 2). All this makes Skadar Lake a frequent target of our day trips from Podgorica, all year round.

Skadar lake3 winterWhy am I fascinated by Skadar Lake? First of all, because of its diversity. Where else can you find a destination with so many different interesting attractions?

During the winter period, we often explore the surroundings by car, enjoying the silence of the quiet fisherman’s villages (photo 3). In spring – for us the most beautiful season to discover the beauties of Skadar Lake – , we make wonderful boat rides with our friends from Skadar Lake Boat Milica, visiting isolated monasteries and spotting pelicans (photo 4). Summer is great for swimming and kayaking (photo 5) and the warm colors of autumn invite us to make long hiking tours around the Lake (photo 6). You will find many postings in my blog montenegro-for.me testifying my love for Skadar Lake and its surroundings.

Skadar lake4 pelicanIn my opinion, Skadar Lake is a perfect destination for nature and culture lovers, people who are in search for something special, far away from the crowds, close to nature and also far away from commercial tourist resorts.

Maybe that is the reason why I was quite embarrassed when I read these days that a building permit was granted for the construction of Porto Skadar Lake, according to “Pobjeda” newspaper “the most beautiful eco-resort in Europe” (what does “eco-resort” mean in this case?), “nestled in the heart of the wilderness”, i.e. on Prevlaka near Rijeka Crnojevića. The resort will have 52 hotel units, a spa center area of 1,700 square meters, two restaurants, a commercial center, marina and 32 private villas. The investor knew very well that the permit would be granted, as the villas were already for sale a few months ago.

Skadar lake5 kayakingAllegedly, the resort would be finished in May 2017. Value of the investment: € 90 million (as was published a few months ago) or € 75 million (as was published these days) …?? Can somebody just explain me how such an investment can ever be profitable? Who will be those “rich” guests and villa owners? What will be the consequences for the national park and bird reserve, when not only sailing boats but also yachts and motor boats (see picture of the marina taken from the public website of Porto Skadar Lake – photo 7) start to cross the lake in all directions?

Skadar lake6 panoramaYes, I know, building another luxury tourist resort with a foreign investor should be another form of “progress”, with job creation (allegedly 200 new jobs), tax payment, promotion of Montenegro, etc. But will the profit also stay in Montenegro?? And why is the resort built in the middle of a national park that was founded to preserve the remainder of Skadar Lake’s wilderness? Why in a bird reserve where the number of rare Dalmatian pelicans is now finally growing?

Skadar lake6 Porto Skadar lakeWould not it be a better idea to restore and revitalize some old abandoned fishermen’s villages on the lake shore old traditional style, like for instance Raduš (photo 8)? Of is that just a utopia?

I hope I am wrong. Maybe we will all be happy to celebrate the opening of Porto Skadar Lake in 2017 and see the positive effects on Montenegrin tourism and economy. What do you think about it?

Skadar lake8 Radus

BULGARIA BY CAMPER: MELNIK AND THE ROZHEN MONASTERY

Melnik1 rocksMelnik2a villageTraveling by camper is always an adventure, especially in the Balkans. During our round trip in Bulgaria we encountered many surprises: high expectations resulted in a disappointment, unexpected experiences left us speechless.

A good example was our visit of Melnik. According to the travel books, this is one of the three top tourist destinations in western Bulgaria. The unique architecture in this place – with 300 inhabitants the smallest town in Bulgaria -, the medieval Rozhen Monastery and the picturesque sand pyramids in the surroundings (photo 1) were the main reasons for listing it on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage List.

Melnik3 campsite RozhenBut … Melnik itself turned out to be two dusty cobbled streets on both sides of a dried-up canal. It‘s true, the old reconstructed houses were beautiful, but they were all transformed into hotels and restaurants with wine-cellars (photo 2). Wines and other home-made products were sold in street stalls along the street. Yes, interesting to see, but very, very commercial.

We did not spend much time here and continued our trip for another 6 km to the village of Rozhen, where we wanted to visit the Rozhen Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God.

Melnik4 rock formationsWe knew that there was no official campground, but we were informed that we could spend the night on the parking lot of a motel nearby. And yes, indeed, Hotel Restaurant Dinchova Kashta opened its gates for us. We got a nice place (photo 3) for our camper and the caravan of our friends, electricity and the key of a hotel room, where we could use the (perfectly clean) bathroom. The price for one night? 10 € per couple!

In the late afternoon we walked to the Rozhen Monastery, one kilometer away. The road passed through the picturesque village of Rozhen and continued by a steep footpath to a large plateau, from where we had a great view of the surrounding sand pyramids and eroded rocks, chiseled by millennia-long erosion (photo 4). The evening sun was illuminating the bright sandy cliffs against the dark mountains and the cloudy sky. They looked like ancient towers, giant mushrooms and obelisks in a fairy tale.

Melnik5 Rozhen monastery churchPassing by a lonely church (photo 5) and the burial site of the Bulgarian revolutionary leader Yane Sandanski, we saw the monastery complex that looked like a fortress. No wonder when you know its history: it was built in at least 890!

The monastery is one of the few medieval monasteries well preserved until today. Although it was destroyed by fire in the early 17th century, it was rebuilt in the beginning of the 18th century. Several old monastery buildings, made of stone and dark wood, surrounded the spacious courtyard of the monastery that was almost empty. The old dining room of the monks, dating back to the 17th century, was quite impressive with its long and narrow wooden table. Although it was not allowed to take photographs in the church itself, the exterior frescoes clearly showed the artistic skills of the fresco painters (photo 6).

Melnik6 frescoes Rozhen monasteryWalking slowly back to the village, we had another occasion to admire the sand cliffs with their fantastic shapes, flooded with sunlight.

Back in Dinchova Kashta, we had a wonderful traditional Bulgarian dinner (photo 7). The friendly waiters showed a heart-warming hospitality, showing us around in the winery, where we bought a few bottles of the famous Melnik wine. By the way, this was reportedly a favorite wine of Sir Winston Churchill: he bought 500 liters annually!

All this made our stay in Rozhen one of the highlights of our trip – beyond our expectations!

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SUMMER HOLIDAYS IN CAMP ROGAČ – SLANO

beachSlano2 camp Rogac

Summer 2015 will obviously be long and hot. Podgorica is suffering under extremely high temperatures and that was a good reason to travel to Croatia, where we spend our summer holidays in Camp Rogač in the village of Grgurići near Slano. It has already become a tradition to put our campervan on a spacious pitch, in the shade of a big carob tree (in Croatian: “rogač”), with sea view of course, from where we just need to pass 20 m to get to the quiet sandy beach and the transparent blue water of the bay (photo 1). Our friend Marijana, the campsite owner, cordially welcomed us and our Dutch friends.

Slano3 carob treeWhy do we spend our summer holidays here? Because it is a peaceful and relaxing village, an ideal place to “slow down”. Close to unspoiled nature, no noisy tourists, no loud music… Camp Rogač is a paradise indeed! Each morning we wake up by the sound of crickets and the humming of fishing boats returning to the Slano port, where they unload their vessels full of sardines and mackerels.

Before our first swim, we have breakfast in front of our camper (photo 2). The pods of the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) are ripening (photo 3) and, after drying, they will be ground to carob powder, which is used to replace cocoa powder. But carob is also used for the production of syrup (widely exported from Cyprus under the name “Black Gold”) and liquor (in Croatia produced by “Zvečevo”).

Slano4 fishing boatsBy the way, did you know that carob trees are typical for the Mediterranean region only? Honestly speaking, I have never seen them in Montenegro. It is interesting to know that they are also called St. John‘s-bread, as the Bible mentions that John the Baptist subsisted on “locusts and wild honey”, while he was in the desert.

We often take a walk to Slano in the morning, just to see the port activities. Fishing boats from all over Croatia unload their catch into the waiting trucks (photo 4). A lot of ice is used to keep the fish cool. Everything goes in a hurry – the temperatures are high and the fishermen work hard and show good team work (photo 5). I feel a bit nostalgic – what happened with the fishing boats I used to see in Montenegro a long time ago?

Slano4a fishermenWe eat, swim, walk and read all day long and when we want to be alone, we take our dinghy and make a trip to a quiet place out of the bay (photo 7). Swimming, snorkeling – the sea bottom has so much to show (photo 8)…

But from time to time it is also nice to spend a day in a more active way. Slano is a well-known hiking and biking area; more than 20 km of trails are marked in a clear manner.

Slano5 dingyAnd when it is too hot for hiking or biking, we take the car and make a tour through the beautiful hinterland. Or pass the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina and visit the Vjetrenica Cave. Or book a day trip by boat to the Elaphite Islands.

Believe me: one month in Camp Rogač gives us energy for a whole year!

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EXPLORING BULGARIA BY CAMPER

Bulgaria1 Ecocamping BatakBulgaria2 narrow roadsTraveling by camper is a perfect way to experience a country and its inhabitants. It gives you the possibility to talk to local people, to visit tourist attractions and discover poor abandoned areas, to be close to nature and find secret places in the form of unknown medieval monasteries and old authentic villages.

For us, exploring Bulgaria by camper was a special challenge, as we knew that there would be only a few „real“ campsites in the country. In spite of the fact that camping is very popular in Western Europe – there are almost 100,000 registered campervans in the Netherlands only! -, this type of tourism is still quite unknown in the Balkan countries (except for Croatia).

Bulgaria3 road obstaclesIn Bulgaria, many campsites are located on the grounds of former communist workers’ “rest and recreation settlements”, with neglected wooden cottages and dirty outdated sanitary equipment. Some of these settlements have been transformed into festivity centers for weddings and other celebrations, providing camping facilities at the same time. However, since Bulgaria has become a memberstate of the European Union (in 2007), quite a lot of foreigners have settled in this beautiful country and British citizens have established several comfortable campsites, in particular in the continental part of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria4 lunch at bus stopI have great memories of our stay on Lake Batak at Christopher’s Eco Camping Batak (photo 1) – a fantastic place where we could enjoy a superb sunset! Another special experience was the Trinity Rock camping farm near Veliko Tarnovo, on the bank of the Yantra River.

Why camping in Bulgaria, where appropriate facilities are so difficult to find? There are a lot of good reasons indeed: traveling by campervan gave us the possibility to explore the whole country. We were free to take the roads less traveled: sometimes very narrow indeed (photo 2), sometimes full of potholes and other obstacles (photo 3). We took a break in a weird empty village where we had lunch in the shade of an abandoned bus stop (photo 4). We socialized with strawberry pickers who were happy to embrace us (photo 5), offering us a full basket of strawberries.We wanted to pay – but no chance, that would be an insult!

Bulgaria5 strawberry pickersIn a period of almost six weeks, we have crossed Bulgaria from north to south, from east to west. Together with our Dutch friends, who traveled with car and caravan, we have visited beautiful old towns and villages, remaining silent in hidden medieval churches and monasteries. We have admired spectacular rock formations and other natural phenomena. We have talked to different people, learning that many of them are not happy with the changes that resulted from EU membership. The food was delicious, almost everywhere. And cheap! A good meal did not cost more than 5-7 €, including a glass of beer or wine.

Bulgaria6 Plakovo monasteryHighlights? No, neither the famous Rila monastery – which is certainly very impressive and amazing -, nor the Thracian tombs; neither the UNESCO-protected town of Nessebar nor the Black Sea Coast with its – often ugly – resorts. I was touched by the less known Plakovo Monastery, populated by one monk only and hidden in the forests (photo 6). I was surprised when I walked through the authentic village of Dolen, without souvenir shops and tourists – just old houses and cobbled streets as they used to be (photo 7). Traveling along the narrow-gauge railway from Bansko to Velingrad with the highest train station of the Balkans (Avramovo, 1267 m above sea level) was a real adventure; and hiking among the rocks of Belogradchik and Melnik was a surrealistic experience. And of course, let’s not forget the beauties of Plovdiv and the Rose Festival of Kazanlak. But honestly speaking, my best memories of Bulgaria will refer to its friendly and open people, its marvellous monasteries and old villages, its beautiful mountains…

Bulgaria7 DolenCan you understand why I don’t like to travel by bus or by plane? Why I don’t like to stay in hotels? Why I don’t like organized tours? Because it is so nice to eat chicken skewers and shopska salad in a village tavern with a plastic table cloth and a waiter who doesn’t speak a single word of a foreign language. Because it is so good to buy tomatoes and cherries along the road and to discover storks and their nests on electricity poles (photo 8). Because it is so beautiful to see vast fields of sunflowers and high mountains covered with snow even in June… while you are driving your campervan!

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BULGARIA: THE ROSE FESTIVAL OF KAZANLAK

Kazanlak1Kazanlak2Bulgaria is also called “Country of Roses”, as it is one of the biggest producers of rose oil in the world. That is why one of the most important international events is the Rose Festival of Kazanlak that takes place each year in the first weekend of June. Traveling through Bulgaria, we had thus planned our stay in this region – the picturesque Rose Valley – exactly in these days, especially as we were informed that the Rose Festival was going to be proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage.

But let me give you some information about the Bulgarian roses (photo 1). They are inheritors of the so-called Rosa Damascena that was brought to Bulgarian lands by the Turks in the 17th century. Nowadays, the rose fields between Karlovo and Kazanlak cover an area of around 3,300 square kilometers. The flowers are picked between the end of May and the middle of June, before sunset. Can you imagine that 3500 kg of rose petals is needed for 1kg of rose oil, which has a value of around € 6,000.-?

Kazanlak3The Rose Festival was held for the first time in 1903. Today, the program includes the traditional rose-picking ritual and distillation of roses, an international folklore festival, a carnival procession and, of course, the coronation of Queen Rose.

Knowing that around 40,000 tourists from all over the world were expected to visit this Festival, we had to find a way how to avoid the crowds. That is why we decided to participate in the Rose Picking Ritual in the village of Rozovo, 10 km south of Kazanlak – on Saturday, one day before the climax of the festivities in the center of Kazanlak. We supposed that this ritual would be more authentic and yes, it turned out to be a perfect choice!

Kazanlak4We arrived in Rozovo early in the morning, when the villagers were already in the fields, picking roses. They were all dressed in their beautiful and colorful national costumes. Some men were busy with a small rose distillery on wood (photos 2 and 3); the barrel was full of rose petals (photo 3) and their fragrance saturated the air.

Women and girls of all ages accompanied us through the plantation and showed us how to pick the flowers (photo 4). Other villagers sang, danced and played their national instruments. Home-made bread was served with „šarena sol“ (a Bulgarian spice) and rose honey. The atmosphere was cheerful and authentic, also due to the fact that there were not many tourists who had discovered this possibility to take part in rose picking. It was a wonderful experience!

Kazank6In the afternoon we walked through the vibrant city of Kazanlak. This town in Central Bulgaria is not only famous for its roses, but also for its archeological sites of great interest: there are several Thracian tombs situated in the nearby “Valley of the Thracian Kings”. Another Thracian tomb can be visited in the town itself – unfortunately, the original tomb is closed for visits and tourists are only allowed to see a copy.

The pedestrian zone looked like one big market: people were selling souvenirs and all kinds of rose oil products. Many tourists (among which a lot of Japanese groups) were sitting on the open terraces, enjoying the sunny day.

kazanlak7The International Folklore Festival started on the central square. Folklore … a long time ago I used to enjoy folklore performances in Tito’s Yugoslavia and it was a surprise to see that many people are still interested in this kind of recreation. The municipality of Kazanlak has four of five folklore associations with several hundreds of members. And the festival itself, with participation of groups from Greece, Russia, Macedonia and Romania – was a pleasure for our eyes and ears (photo 5). Honestly speaking, it made me quite nostalgic…

Kazanlak8The closing ceremony of the Rose Festival was planned on Sunday, in Kazanlak. It was, most of all, the final street procession we wanted to see. We were early enough to take a good position along the boulevard. And believe me, the procession was a real spectacle. It started with the Rose Queen in an antique carriage (photo 6), followed by the representatives of numerous schools, associations, cheerleaders and folklore groups. Girls with baskets full of rose petals (photo 7) passed by and after a while the street was covered with pink petals. The procession ended with a group of people dressed in traditional costumes with “horrible” masks and big bells around their waist (photo 8).

I know, Bulgaria is member-state of the European Union, but it is also a country where you can still feel the real Balkans. And you know, I adore the Balkans!

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BULGARIA: AMAZING PLOVDIV

plovdiv1plovdiv2Have you ever heard about Plovdiv? In 2014, this city was awarded the prestigious title: European Capital of Culture 2019. And Lonely Planet determined Plovdiv as the sixth of the ten cities in the world that necessarily have to be visited in 2015. That is what we knew about this town, the second largest in Bulgaria, when we arrived a few days ago. After visiting vibrant Sofia and exploring the northwestern part of the country – where we were impressed by the beauties of nature, but also by poverty, bad roads and abandoned villages – Plovdiv was an unexpected surprise.

plovdiv3It was not only the relaxed and cozy atmorphere that struck us, but also the large number of cultural and historical sites and religious temples. As a matter of fact, the whole Old Town is one big monument. From the Ancient Theatre (photo 1) to the Hippocrates Pharmacy Museum and from the Lamartin House to the Dzhumaya Mosque, it offers a fantastic collection of traditional architecture and archeological sites.

Starting our walk from the parking lot in front of the Ramada Hotel, we passed through the main pedestrian street (photo 2) and admired the beautiful buildings in all colors and styles. The northern part of the Roman Stadium of Philippopolis – located under the main street – was reconstructed and could be visited. In Roman times, this stadium was about 240 meters long and used to gather 30,000 spectators.

plovdiv4At that place we entered the Old Town with its timber-framed 19th-century painted houses with overhanging windows. Although the cobbled streets are not car-free, it was quiet and we really had the feeling as if we got back in time.

Plovdiv has so many museums, monuments and churches that we had to make a choice. First of all, we visited the Sveta Bogoroditsa Church, built in 1844. This cathedral preserves exceptional paintings – icons, frescoes (photo 3) and a carved iconostasis.

plovdiv5Climbing uphill, we saw many picturesque and colorful houses (photo 4). One of them was home to the Icon Museum. Here we could see some of the best examples of icons from the region of Plovdiv from the period between the 15th and 19th century (photo 5). A great collection, exhibited in a very professional and attractive way!

The Church of Sveti Konstantin and Elena is famous for its baroque iconostasis (photo 6). The two rows of icons were painted by the famous Zahari Zograf, one of the greatest artists in the Revival Period.

One of the most beautiful museums in Plovdiv is the baroque Kuyumdzhiev House, now home to the Ethnographic Museum (photo 7). It offered us an excellent impression of life in 19th-century Bulgaria by a variety of exhibits: Bulgarian costumes, ancient weapons, musical instruments, furniture, etc.

plovdiv6Finally, we explored the well-preserved Ancient Theatre, built in the 1st century under Emperor Trayan. We had coffee on the terrace above the theatre and there we enjoyed the breathtaking view of the city and the Rhodope mountain range.

What a pity that we could not stay longer! The only campsite near Plovdiv (Kilometer 4 Complex) was so neglected and incredibly dirty that we decided to continue our trip. I am sure that many camping fans from Western Europe would like to come and visit this beautiful city, but they will certainly “escape” after such an experience. So, maybe the future European City of Culture should take measures to arrange for a decent campsite?!

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SKADAR LAKE: A BOAT CRUISE TO KOSMAČ MONASTERY

 

Kosmac monastery1 KaratunaKosmac monastery2 water lilyIt was a pleasant surprise to be invited by our friends from Skadar Lake – Boat Milica (phone: 068 702376; email: skadarlakeboatmilica@gmail.com) to join the Dabanović family and their guests – accompanied by Emma Heywood from Undiscovered Montenegro (phone: 069 402364; email: enquiries@undiscoveredmontenegro.com) – on a pioneer boat ride to the Kosmač Monastery. This would be a boat cruise to the northern part of Skadar Lake that had not been organized for tourists yet and we were very curious to spend a day in an area that was still unknown to us. And I can assure you: it was a great experience!

Kosmac monastery3 goat islandWe left from Virpazar in the morning with two traditional wooden boats; apart from „Milica“, recently another boat of the same size and model – called „čun“ – had been manufactured (photo 1). The sharp prow of such boats – called „špirun“ – is suitable for penetrating water lilies and reed fields.

The weather was perfect, everybody was in a good mood and it promised to become a varied and adventurous day trip.

Kosmac monastery4 Karatuna yellow irisesPassing under the Vranjina bridge, we could see the ruins of the old Lesendro Fortress from the water side (see my blog post: Skadar Lake: a boat cruise to the Kom Monastery). The island of Vranjina, now connected with the mainland by a road and railroad, used to be a place where Montenegrin families could hide from blood feuds in the old times.

Slowly finding our way through the fields of white and yellow water lilies that were already flowering (photo 2) on the Lake, we could hear the sounds of numerous water birds: cormorants, herons, sea gulls, grebes, coots and terns. Some huge trees seemed to be black; hundreds of cormorants were resting on the branches, drying their wings.

Kosmac monastery5 squacco heronThe skipper led us through vast reed beds and along rocky islands, so-called “gorice”. What a surprise to see a flock of goats high above us, on the top of the rocks (photo 3)! They are usually transported to the island by wooden fishing boats and they can live here in the wild.

The trip continued through the Karatuna River created by a big spring in the area of Dodoši. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful parts of Skadar Lake National Park. Once the natural border between Montenegro and Turkey, it is now a real “jungle”. Fields of yellow irises could be spotted among the willows on the banks of the river (photo 4). No houses, no people, just the clean and transparent water of the river and the wilderness. Countless sounds from nature. Different green colors of trees and plants. Fish swimming under the transparent water surface. Birds flying among the trees. A natural wonder!

kosmac monastery6 Zabljak CrnojevicaThis area is the home of the yellow squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides), a bird that lives in marshy wetlands in warm countries only (photo 5).

Finally, the traditional fishing village of Dodoši appeared before our eyes. We passed under the low wooden bridge and continued to a totally unknown part of Skadar Lake National Park, Malo Blato (in translation: Little Mud). This is a small lake, quiet and clean, and it is fed by the source Bolje Sestre. The view of the Žabljak Crnojevića Fortress, dominating the entrance of Malo Blato, was spectacular (photo 6). It was built at the end of the 14th century by the Crnojević dynasty, but the Turks conquered it in 1478 and the fortress-town remained under their rule for the next 400 years.

kosmac monastery7Passing Malo Blato, we arrived at the Kosmač Monastery, one of the hidden treasures of Skadar Lake. It is situated on the Kosmač Island and dedicated to St. George the Martyr. The only inhabitant of this monastery is Father Serafim. He welcomed us cordially (photo 7) and showed us the complex and the church that was recently reconstructed (photo 8). Originally, the monastery dates back to the 14th century. It was destroyed several times by the Turks. The beautiful frescoes were painted by a Serbian painter in 2010, but due to flooding they lost their bright colors, so that they seem to be much older.

Kosmac monastery8Wild laurel trees grow abundantly around the monastery. It is interesting to know that wedding garlands for royal weddings in medieval times were made of laurel. After the reconstruction of the monastery, the old folk customs were restored and couples get married again in the Kosmač Monastery, with wreaths of laurel picked on St. George Day. Also baptisms are carried out in the water of the Lake in front of the church.

After a break among the laurel trees, it was time to go back. Although the lake water was still rather cold, some of the guests were eager to swim in the Karatuna River (photo 9) and enjoyed jumping from the bridge in Dodoši.

Kosmac monastery9 swimming in KaratunaThe ride back to Virpazar was relaxing. Once more we could enjoy the fantastic landscape and listen to the sounds of nature.

And I can confirm: a boat cruise to the Kosmač Monastery is one of the most COMPLETE and VARIED boat excursions you can make on Skadar Lake. It is an opportunity to enjoy nature in all its aspects, to see an important cultural monument, to watch birds and – last but not least – to swim in the transparent Karatuna River!

Kosmac monastery10 cun Dodosi

 

BLUE HOUR IN DUBROVNIK

Dubrovnik1Dubrovnik2Dubrovnik has been a famous tourist attraction for many decades. But nowadays, the old town becomes crushed by its own popularity. More than one million cruise ship passengers arrived in the port of Dubrovnik last year. Each day, 300 buses were circling around the city center. For all the crush of the crowds, it is impossible to see the historic buildings any longer.

Usually, the cruise ship passengers make a city tour through the old town. They also walk the city walls and ride the cable car up to Mount Srdj. Sometimes, the main street, Stradun, is so overcrowded that it is impossible to find your way through people and pigeons and enjoy the beautiful architecture or have a cup of coffee on one of the romantic squares.When you see the hordes of tourists following their guides, you have the feeling as if you were in Japan or Scandinavia!

Dubrovnik3That was the very reason why we decided to visit Dubrovnik in the evening last week. And we were really lucky – we entered the old town in a very special moment: the Blue Hour. This is a magic „hour“ (typically this period lasts about 40 minutes), especially treasured by lovers of photography. It happens when the sun is a significant distance below the horizon and the residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue hue. Of course, the blue hour does not only depend on the time of the day (morning or evening), but also on the weather conditions, pollution, particles in the air, etc.

Dubrovnik4When we entered the Pile City Gate, the medieval ramparts and the Minčeta fort were illuminated. The sky was clearly visible and some stars could already be seen. This was a good moment to take photographs. And what a surprise! The sky on the pictures had such an intense blue color that I could not believe my eyes. We admired the Onofrio Fountain – the favorite meeting place of the city youth – and the Fransiscan Monastery. The first street lights on Stradun appeared in the scene and transformed the city into a fairy tale.

Roaming through the narrow streets, we soaked up the authentic atmosphere. On a romantic small square, we had dinner in the open air. The „blue hour“ disappeared … but it was a memorable evening in this beautiful city, rightly called „The Pearl of the Adriatic“.

Dubrovnik5