Discover the unprecedented cultural mix of Europe’s busiest historical crossroad | Enjoy the flavors and the magic of countries rich in traditions and legends | Through the scars of the wars from the 90’s, the beauty of the nature and the people of the Balkans tell the story of nations who’s fate was and will be to survive together

“Of everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad.”
― Ivo Andrić

Drina Bridge in Bosnia

Drina Bridge in Bosnia

Dear Traveler,

Sometimes the most amazing discoveries on a journey are in places we think we know well. Is it possible to visit 8 countries on just a two weeks tour in a relatively small region? I am not talking about crossing borders, but really being in 8 different places with their culture and language distinctions. I don’t mean a spot like the Four Corners Monument, where in a second you can step across from Arizona into New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The places I will tell you about are well known from the news for the last 20 years. Yet they are quite unknown not only for Americans or Asians, but for its European neighbors as well.

I will take you in a journey to the Balkan Peninsula and in particular to its west part, most of which was a battleground just a decade ago. The trip starts in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. But we will keep Sofia for a dessert in the end of the journey. Our first goal is the Serbian town of Krushevac and the Studenica Monastery. Studenica is one of the most important Orthodox Christian sites. For Serbs it is not only a cultural monument included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but much more. The immense fortified monastery is a symbol of the foundation of the Serbian state and nation back in 12th century by King Stefan Nemanja.  The Nemanjic dynasty established the kingdom as a key factor on the Balkans during the next turbulent centuries before the Ottoman invasion in Europe.

Vishegrad, Drina Bridge - Bosna

Vishegrad, Drina Bridge – Bosna

You need to dive deep into the complicated history of the region to understand why today’s nations of the West Balkans are so divided and yet so close. Frankly, I hate the term West Balkans. It has neither geographical, nor cultural or historical sense. It was created by the NATO allied forces to explain the destruction of a single multinational and multicultural state in the South East part of Europe for simple geostrategic reasons. Sad, but true.

Today we face the same kaleidoscope of nations, culture, traditions and religions, which defined the Balkans since the times of the Roman Empire. Once again they are making an effort to coexist together in peace. Living on the Balkans is like an anthill. Countless ants are building their complex home. Every time after someone or something destroys the anthill, they start to rebuild their ant home with surrealistic persistence and patience. These are the consequences of choosing to live on history’s busiest crossroad. Today again people are building new and rebuilding old bridges. Bridges are an important symbol here. They literally and metaphorically connect and divide people, heal wounds and serve as battlefields. Our trip is crossing many of them. But the most important of all is the Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic Bridge on the Drina River near Visegrad in Bosnia. This is the site of the iconic novel “The Bridge on the Drina”, for which the author Ivo Andric was awarded with Nobel Prize in 1961. But even if you can’t find the time to reed the novel, today you can follow the steps of its characters in the recently built Andricgrad. This is a tourist attraction built recently by the world famous Bosnian film director Emir Kusturica. Andricgrad or Kamengrad (“Stone Town”) is dedicated to the work of Andric and the story his novel tells. This is the second similar project of the film director from Sarajevo in its native Bosnia.

Sarajevo at night, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo at night, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Going deeper in the mountains you stop at Drvengrad (“Timber Town”) a.k.a. Kustendorf – the first of Kusturica’s projects. Near the Mokra Gora village Kusturica made a tourist attraction out of the abandoned set of one of his films. It is restored into an ethno village, with its authentic wooden houses and magic atmosphere, surrounded by the mighty Zlatibor Mountain. For this development, Kusturica received the “Philippe Rotthier European Architecture Award”. You walk the streets named after persons Kusturica finds to be significant for him, such as Nikola Tesla, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Diego Maradona, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Joe Strummer, Novak Djokovic. And of course, Ivo Andric, after whom the main street is named. Since 2008 Kustendorf is a site of a film and music festival organized by Kusturica.

Old Town of Sarajevo

Old Town of Sarajevo

The last stop in Bosnia is the capital Sarajevo – another town with a destiny defined by its bridges. Like the Vrbanja Bridge over the Miljacka River dividing the town into a Muslim and Christian parts. Or the site of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, igniting World War I – the Latin Bridge. Today you walk the bridges and the streets, not long ago controlled by Serbian and Bosnian snipers.

Yet, if you expect to see a dirty oriental town, marked by the destruction of the war, you will be surprised. You find yourself into a cozy, tourist friendly and charming place. Perhaps Sarajevo, like no other Balkan capital demonstrates the magical mixture of cultures, representing the encounter of the East and the West. The co-existence of Catholic and Orthodox Christians with Muslims and Jews painted the colorful picture of an ancient town with a young soul.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

The next day, on our way to the Croatian gem, Dubrovnik we stop at Mostar. Another town divided and connected in the same time by an ancient bridge. The Old Bridge is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most recognizable landmark. It is one of the best examples of Islamic architecture on the Balkans. Do I need to tell you it was a battleground many times? Destroyed by a Serbian shell, recently the beautiful bridge and the whole old town were restored, resurrecting the spirit of medieval times.

At the end of the fifth day we arrive in the Croatian town of Dubrovnik. After the mountains and the cultural mix, you get into a different time and place. Dubrovnik resembles with its subtropical climate and architecture more to an ancient Italian town, than to any of your ideas of a place on the Balkans. And there is an explanation to this. Dubrovnik is much more connected to the Mediterranean civilization than to the rest of the peninsula. In the Middle Ages it was ruled and built by the Republic of Venice. Later it became one of the first European Republican states, preserving its autonomy almost up until modern times.

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

Going further south along the Dalmatian cost we reach the other Adriatic jewel – the Montenegrin town of Kotor. It is situated in a beautiful, fjord like bay, surrounded by steep mountain slopes. Much like Dubrovnik, Kotor and the region is more related to Italy than to the rest of the Balkans. It has been part of the Republic of Venice, the Italian Kingdom or even Napoleon’s French Empire, before becoming part of Yugoslavia in 1918. Montenegro is a miniature state with remarkable history and breathtaking nature sights. Yet Montenegrins have the ambition and zeal to build a modern state. This is the only non-EU country, which adopted the Euro as official currency.

Going Nord deep into the mountains again, Kosovo is the next stop. After years of conflicts, today the former Serbian county populated with Albanian majority is becoming a new state. Former rebels are the new governors in the capital Pristina. It is weird, especially for an American to walk the boulevards named after Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Centuries ago Kosovo has been an important part of the Serbian kingdom. But even from medieval times the region was populated with Albanians. They brought their religion and culture. And yet, when you see the Visoki Decani Monastery you can understand the bitter feelings of the Serbs. This is the burial site of the Serbian king Stefan Uros III, canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The church of the monastery is covered with one of the best preserved Orthodox frescoes from the 13th century. The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to this it is still under protection of KFOR tanks, since angry Kosovars tried to blow it up several times.

On the way to the Albanian border there is one more Kosovo town to visit. Built along the river of Prizrenska Bistrica, the picturesque town of Prizren is another ancient place preserving the atmosphere of the middle ages. And just like the Bosnian Mostar, the landmark of Prizren is a beautiful bridge, connecting the two parts of the old town.

Prizren, city at the Kosovo - Albanian Border

Prizren, city at the Kosovo – Albanian Border

Albania was the most isolated of all former Soviet satellites. It was to be compared only with the North Korean regime. But in only two decades, the country changed completely its face into a sometime grotesque urge to look modern. This counts for the capital Tirana, but there are still places like the ancient town of Berat. The name Berat derives from Belgrade, “beautiful town” – just like the Serbian capital. It is built on the banks of a deep gouge of the river Osum and its landmark is the ancient Citadel on the slopes of the mountain above the city.

St. Naum Monastery in Ohrid, Macedonia

St. Naum Monastery in Ohrid, Macedonia

One of the most beautiful sites on the Balkans is the Lake Ochrid. When you enter Macedonia from Albania, the first place not to miss is the St. Naum Monastery on the Lake. Naum and Climent, the creators of the Cyrillic alphabet, founded the place. They were scholars of Cyril and Methodius the two brothers, who dedicated their lives to the creation of a Slavic alphabet. After their death the Bulgarian Tsar gave sheltered the disciples of the two brothers. He sent Naum and Climent to Ochrid, where they created an alphabet, which was named after their mentor, Cyril. Ochrid itself is another little town with unique atmosphere, keeping the spirit of old times.

Mostar - Bosna

Mostar – Bosna

The last stop, closing the circle of the tour is Sofia. The Bulgarian capital is the same mixture of Europe and Orient as most of the sites on the tour. It may be bigger or more modern than some of the towns visited. But you somehow have the feeling that you are in the same place wherever you are on the Balkans. People sometimes are divided by their history and their quarrel. Yet they bring the same spirit and the same wisdom of their turbulent history throughout the centuries. After all conflicts and tragedies, it is the wisdom of the time that keeps this colorful mix of nations as one spiritual entity. Yes, Sophia – the wisdom is the best final point for this journey.

10358460_356353361233867_1630806440_n

The Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights is one of the spectacular phenomena that fascinates many minds. A collision between gas and particles of sunlight entering the earth’s atmosphere is undoubtedly both alluring and a bizarre occurrence on the earth. The various shades of emerald dancing with bold streaks of green stretches clear across the whole sky will forever etch into your memory.  However, the beauty of it can only be seen around the magnetic poles on the extreme northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the most astounding track records for aurora sightings is in Abisko, Sweden. Home to Abisko National Park and the “Blue Hole” – a hole in the sky that is without clouds, appointed by NASA to be the best place to view the northern lights. Being part of the Arctic Circle, Abisko is a village situated in the northern region of Sweden. Even when the weather isn’t the most optimal for aurora sightings, Aurora Sky Station in Abisko proves to have good track records of 83% in the evenings for clear and pure aurora sighting, yielding extraordinary numbers of clear nights in comparison to many other Arctic places. The hidden tuck away gem nestled in the mountains of Nuolja frees Abisko from light pollution present an ideal place to capture the beauty of northern lights with the stunning mountainous landscape as your backdrop. Below the village of Abisko is the 70 km long Lake Torneträsk giving you a magnificent view beneath. On top of that, is the most recognisable sighting of Lapporten, a U-shaped valley visible from Abisko making your trip more pronounce.

A perfect picture of Abisko encompassed by Arctic mountain overlooking Lake Torneträsk surrounded by the northern lights above, what more can you ask for? It is utterly and sheer ultimate northern light experience that is unforgettable.

More details about tours to see Northern Lights please check the website below

http://myescapetonature.com/?product=chasing-northern-lights-3

1

Transsiberian Railroad

 

Dear Traveler,
This is the story of the most incredible journey I ever had. Finally at home, I try to put in order all the memories of places and encounters during the almost 8,000 Kilometers across Europe and Asia with the Trans-Siberian Express. The actual Trans-Siberian is exactly 9,289 km from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, being the longest railroad on the planet. You can take this route as well, but I will tell you about the variation more precisely told Trans-Mongolian. It starts in Moscow and ends in Beijing. Crossing Siberia, Mongolia and China is more than just a trip through two continents and seven time zones. At its end one has the feeling that it was a trip through space and time in a larger sense.

Tsar Alexander III started he building of the Trans-Siberian in 1890. His son, the last Russian Tsar Nikolay II finished it in 1916. It was a technological and geostrategic achievement equal to the building of the Panama channel. For just few decades it transformed Russia into the richest industrial power on the verge of the World War I because of the access to the immense natural resources of Siberia. But even more, this was the only land road to Japan and China. I am telling you all these facts to prepare you for the immenseness of this trip. You will see places related to dramatic historical events and even fictional stories like “Doctor Zhivago”.

But let’s start from the day one. Moscow itself is a place where you can spend days discovering the beautiful sites of the Russian capital. Yet the interesting part starts on the Yaroslavsky Train Station. Train is a common way of transportation and the atmosphere is like the one in the first years of the Trans-Siberian. Well, it is perhaps much more comfortable, even if you travel Second class. There are no special cars or compartments for the tourists and you mix with the locals. I find it one of the most charming parts of this journey. The real way to discover a place or a country is through its people.

2

Restaurant in the train

 

In the restaurant of the train or in the corridors you meet the most incredible mix of characters. This is the best way to spend the next three days on the way to Irkutsk. You get off the train for a while when it stops on the big stations like Perm or Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk. You can buy food or drinks next to your train. Still, my advice is to avoid experiments with cooked meals. Few apples or fresh veggies from an old lady will make your day.

3

Old lady with apples

 

If you take the True Trans-Siberian route, you will stop for a day in some of these cities. There are plenty of interesting places to discover. Like the obelisk close to Yekaterinburg, marking the geographical border between Europe and Asia. Or the monastery with five wooden churches built in 2000 near the town at the burial place of the last tsar Nikolay II and his family, killed by bolsheviks there in 1918.

4

Obelisk, Yekaterinburg

 

But my route leads me to Irkutsk. The city lies on the banks of Angara River where river Irkut flows into it some 70 kilometers from Lake Baikal. Just to imagine how huge this 600 kilometers long lake is, you have to figure out that it contains a fifth of our planet’s fresh water. After 5,153 kilometers in the train, traveling most of the time through endless birch forest and the taiga, I arrive in Irkutsk in the evening. I am totally disoriented because of the time difference and need to look at the map to understand exactly how far I am from my starting point.

The next day is dedicated to a city tour and a visit to the picturesque village of Listvyanka. If you are familiar with Russian history or love the works of Pushkin, you would know who the Decembrists are. Irkutsk is the place where these noble rebels to the regime of the Tsar, close friends of the great poet were sent as convicts. The house where they were living, part of the old prison fort is today a museum worth visiting.

5

Restored Wooden House in Irkutsk, Russia

 

I don’t know if I like Listvyanka. It is a lakeside village located on the spot where the river Angara leaves Lake Baikal. Don’t get me wrong, the beauty of the nature, the wooden houses and the charming wooden church are fine. Even the trip from Irkutsk with the ferry is calming and filled with joy of the sites. But the place is overtaken by tourist industry with all the souvenirs on the port market and the noisy crowds. Perhaps, if this was all I saw from Baikal, I would be more generous in my judgment, but my journey didn’t stop there. From Listvyanka our group of travelers took boat to the little village of Bolshie Koty. It is just an hour away from Listvyanka, but what a difference!

6

Bolshie Koty

 

Bolshie Koty for me is the hidden gem of the entire Trans-Siberian journey. First, it is popular mainly to local tourists and access is almost only by boat. There is a tourist track from Listvyanka, but it is a good couple hour hike along the beautiful and sometimes difficult tiny track. There is something magical when you approach the village by boat. It is situated in a little valley divided by a small river. On both sides the valley is squeezed by two steep hills. One of them is the 200 meter high Skripper Cliff. Climbing Skripper worth the effort because of the most wonderful views to the lake and the ancient cave on its top.

7

House In Bolshie Koty

 

But the strange and charming absurdity of Bolshie Koty comes from its inhabitants. The village is home to the Botanic Institute of the Baikal Commission to the Russian Science Academy. This scientists community was created in 1918 and still today, most of the hosts of the private houses where a tourist can stay are working in the Institute. This unusual profile of your hosts makes the experience even more memorable. After a long walk and a Russian “banya” (like the Scandinavian sauna) you can have a talk with your host about the origins of Universe, about poetry or philosophy. This, combined with the encounter of the taiga and the magnificent lake wild beauty, makes it an emotional moment. After the steamy “banya” you can refresh yourself in the lake. The water even in the summer months is not warmer than 7-8 degrees Celsius and you should be prepared for the chill. Finish the long day with a cup of tea with the local magic plant “sahan-dalya”. Like the ginseng, this tiny plant is adding strength to the body and can be added to your tea or coffee. It is a protected plant, but it can be found only in this region and if you use it just for a cup or two, it will not harm the nature.

8

Wonderful summer day, lake Baikal

 

You can visit Lake Baikal in the winter and go through the whole adventure, experience the beauty of Siberian winter. The lake is frozen and its surface becomes a roadmap. You will be then traveling by bus on the ice to another magical place – the island Olkhon. But this is a story I will tell you some other time.

After two days in Bolshie Koty, it is time to catch the train again. Back to Irkutsk, the train takes me along the south end of the lake and through the border to the Mongolian capital – Ulan Bator. It is a different world. You can feel it even on the Russian side, when crossing the federal region of Buryatia you encounter for the first time with Buddhist culture.

9

Monks, Mongolia

 

Discovering Mongolia is another story I must tell you in details some other time, my fellow Traveler. Yet the Trans-Siberian journey wouldn’t be complete without the magnificent two days in Terelj.

10

Nomadic Ger, Mongolia

 

After a night in Ulan Bator, I take the road to the National Park Terelj. It is situated in a valley some 70 kilometers from the capital. You stay and sleep in a traditional Nomad ger. You enter in the world of Mongolian nomadic way of life still most of the population follows. Riding horses, hiking and learning about the culture and traditions of the Nomads is the second surprise I discovered during this journey.

11

Mongolia

 

Crossing the border with China is a moment you will remember. All former Soviet republics and Mongolian trains have broad railway gauge, incompatible with the standard in China and Europe. Hence, entering China there is a technical stop.

12

Gauge Changing, China Border

 

After a day and a half trip from Ulan Bator I arrive at the final point of my trip – Beijing. But this is not the end of the journey. Take few extra days to have enough time not only for the tourist sites, but explore real Beijing with the old town narrow streets and blocks, called “hutongs”.

13

Hutong, Beijing

 

The Great Wall will be there, crowded with tourists for many years to come. Yet this part of the town, bearing the true atmosphere of old Beijing is disappearing little by little.

14

Transsib railroad

Dear Traveler, it is difficult in just few lines to tell you about one of the most spectacular journeys. So, I will share again and again stories and memories of the Trans-Siberian railway adventure.

 

Dear Traveler,

I discovered recently an interesting overlap map, showing the real dimensions of the African continent. Our colonial ancestors modified “a bit” the immensity of the newly conquered and exploited continent. It is an obvious attempt to exaggerate the importance of their European homelands. How pathetic!

True size of Africa

But even this illustration is incorrect. Because the fourth biggest island on the planet, Madagascar (587,713 km2) is more than twice bigger than the eighth – Great Britain (209,331 km2). How little we know and how absolutely wrong is our perception of this beautiful island, which looks like a little spot under Africa on our maps!

There are so many amazing facts about Madagascar. But I will not take your time here with statistics. What you should know in advance yet is that Madagascar is not an ordinary island. It has been separated from the rest of the prehistoric mega-continent Gondwana 160 million years ago. The fact that the first Austronesians reached the island around 250 AD makes Madagascar one of the last places in the world invaded by human race. When I say, “invaded”, that is quite literal. The most ruthless predator on this planet – the human, exterminated large part of the unique endemic creatures of the island. Since his arrival, man destroyed up to 80% of the island’s forests to gain land for rice production. Yet here we have one of the best-preserved rain forests, and most of the plants and the animals are endemic. This is the land of the lemurs. Because of the lack of monkeys, more than 100 species of lemurs live in peace as the country’s landmark. Well, they were much more, but humans exterminated the biggest species and subspecies. It was the faith of all large animals like the elephant birds and giant fossa (a mongoose like mammal).

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

Madagascar is the homeland of another two iconic species – the chameleon and the baobab tree. Two thirds of all chameleons on the planet live only here and six out of all eight types of baobabs exist only on this island. A unique paradisiacal land, so big and so different from anything else, that some call it the eighth continent.

Parson's Chameleon

Parson’s Chameleon

The first Austronesians from Borneo mixed with Bantu newcomers from Mozambique in an amazing cultural mix of people with rare beauty.

But let me tell you about our trip. It consists of two parts after arriving in the capital Antananarivo (locals use as well the French short name Tana).

A big baobab near Isalo National Park

A big baobab near Isalo National Park

The first part was dedicated to some of the main National Parks, where we enjoyed observing the rare species of animals and plants. The second part was a relaxed stay on the coast of the Indian Ocean with its long, white-sanded beaches.

Our first destination is the Perinét National Park. All along the journey, except at Tana and Antsirabe, we stayed at eco-lodges and bungalows. Most were not too luxurious, but quite comfy and charming. Don’t forget to put a torchlight in your luggage. In these places people use generators to provide electricity, which is switched off after 10 pm. A torch is also what you’ll need for the night walk in the forest the first day at Perinét.

Lac Anosy in Antananarivo

Lac Anosy in Antananarivo

Here and in the small private reserve Peryera we saw the first lemurs. Being so close and touching these amazing creatures is the most sensational experience I had in Madagascar. Perinét is the home of the largest lemur – the mighty Indri. You can hear their love cries similar to the sounds of the whales.

Eulophiella Lodge

Eulophiella Lodge

Perinét (or Analamazaotra Special Reserve) has one of the best-preserved forests on 155 km2. Speaking about rain forest, don’t forget to bring a raincoat, long trousers and light hiking shoes. Annually, there are over 200 rainy days in these forests, making them home of all kinds of insects and leeches. So, no shorts and sandals!

Indri in Perinét – it looks like a messed up panda

Indri in Perinét – it looks like a messed up panda

We had a short stop at Antsirabe, a town created by Norwegian missionaries for its fresh temperatures at 1,500 m of altitude and the thermal springs.

Dimo in the rainforest of Perinét

Dimo in the rainforest of Perinét

Next main goal is the Ranomafana National Park – one of the most important reserved areas on the island, named UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Antsirabe is famous with its pulled rickshaws or 'pousse-pousses' (in French)

Antsirabe is famous with its pulled rickshaws or “pousse-pousses” (in French)

Lined Leaf-tail Gecko in Ranomafana

Lined Leaf-tail Gecko in Ranomafana

Chameleon in Ranomafana

Chameleon in Ranomafana

Golden Bamboo Lemur

Golden Bamboo Lemur

Apart from the lemurs, this is the first time we saw the unique fossa or Malagasy civet. I can only imagine how the exterminated giant fossa must looked like.

Malagasy civet or fossa

Malagasy civet or fossa

The Golden Mantela is a tiny but venomous 3-centimeter long frog, similar to the South American poison dart frogs. It is the most endangered of all Madagascar species. Like the Tomato frog, the venom their skin produce when they feel attacked can’t kill you, but it may cause allergic reaction. Once again – long sleeves, long trousers and good shoes in the rain forest!

Golden Mantela

Golden Mantela

Tomato frog

Tomato frog

Our hotel, Chez Gaspard with its modest looking bungalows happened to be quite nice. And there was Wi-Fi, something not so common in Madagascar. There is a mineral water pool in the nearby village of Ranomafana, so we took our swimming suits out of the luggage for the first time.

Chez Gaspard, our hotel in Ranomafana

Chez Gaspard, our hotel in Ranomafana

The Isalo National Park is the last big reserved area (815 km2) we visited on our trip. We were already in the grassy plains of the western part of the island. If you are a francophone, you will find it easy to communicate with people in Madagascar since French is a second official language. But there is a “dark” legacy left by over 60 years of French colonial rule – crappy hotel breakfast. If you are familiar with the hotels in France, you know what I mean – just a simple croissant with your coffee. We had only a couple exceptions of this rule on our trip. And hotel Relais de la Reine, near Isalo was one of them. It was the nicest place we stayed on the island.

Relais de la Reine Hotel

Relais de la Reine Hotel

The hotel organize a visit to the nearby open sapphire mine in the nearby town of Ilakaka. It is a spectacular experience. You should know that Madagascar produces half of all sapphires on the planet.

Ilakaka Sapphire mine

Ilakaka Sapphire mine

The Isalo National Park covers a large sandstone massif that has eroded over time by the 17 rivers running through it to form picturesque canyons, plateaus and valleys. It is a heaven for hikers.

Elephant's Foot Plant (Pachypodium rosulatum), Isalo NP

Elephant’s Foot Plant (Pachypodium rosulatum), Isalo NP

It is required to hire a local guide to enter the park and you can follow different trekking routes from few hours to a week. The landscapes in Isalo are otherworldly. From rocky canyons to palm lined oases with waterfalls and natural pools.

Piscine Naturelle, Isalo NP

Piscine Naturelle, Isalo NP

Canyon des Makis, Isalo NP

Canyon des Makis, Isalo NP

On the 10th day of the trip we headed to the harbor town Tulear (or Toliara) on the West coast of Madagascar. On the way we saw some of the biggest baobab trees in the region.

The biggest baobab on the road to Tulear

The biggest baobab on the road to Tulear

We didn’t go north to the famous Allée des baobabs, but the trees we saw were massive. Baobabs stand in the fields like giant lone warriors. Once deciduous forests surrounded them. But the forests were burned and slashed to open space for rice paddies. Because baobabs are not a good construction material and don’t burn well, they were left. Today they stay as a reminder of human ignorance and self-destructive greed.

Baobab near Isalo NP

Baobab near Isalo NP

The next day we crossed the bay south of Tulear with a boat to the Anakao peninsula and the small fishing village Vezzo.

Vezzo fishermen

Vezzo fishermen

Our hotel, The Prince Anakao is far from royal luxury, consisting of simple bungalows full with a selection of local insects. But, hey, who cares about comfort when you sleep on the white sandy beach just steps away from the ocean and eat fresh fish in the village!

Fishing boats in Anakao

Fishing boats in Anakao

There’s a tiny stripe of sand just across the beach, called Nosy Ve Island. On the second day we took a boat to Nosy Ve and spent some time picnicking and bird watching.

Bungalows at The Prince Anakao

Bungalows at The Prince Anakao

At The Prince you can hire a pirogue, windsurf or snorkeling equipment. My advice is to bring your own mask and snorkel, since you never get the right size. Or you can visit the Anakao PADI club – Atlantis (http://www.atlantismadagascar.com). We wanted to go for diving and this was quite an experience! After all wildlife in the parks, we enjoyed exploring the wonderful underwater world of corals, anemones, clown fish and all kinds of flora and fauna. That was a great last day experience.

Nose Ve Beach

Nose Ve Beach

Diving-in-Anakao

Diving in Anakao

Leaving Madagascar I was both excited and sad. Having the chance to see the unique creatures and plants transported me in Conan Doyle’s “Lost World”. One can’t imagine how different the wildlife on this huge island is from everything we have ever seen. Yet I was sad. I saw the results of long years of human stupidity devastating this island, rich in resources. For decades, because of the corrupted postcolonial governance of the country, Malagasy are one of the poorest nations in the world. As a matter of fact, the National Parks we visited are like islands of eco-balance. They are surrounded by land, exhausted by centuries of slash-and-burn agriculture and rice production. Today on the deforested lands apart of rice people plant huge fields of sisal. It happens to be the best and cheapest plant for the production of biodegradable eco-packaging. How ironic! Instead of helping Madagascar in the restoration of the original forests, we once again exploit the island for our fashionable “green” hypocrisy.

But I’ll try to remember Madagascar for its beauty. And the fact that the poorest nation is one of the happiest, declaring their island as a land of “mora-mora”, a Malagasy phrase meaning to take life slow.

 

Discover winter mountain of Bulgaria
Discover Pirin Mountains during winter
The incredible views of Pirin Mountains

Photo Winter in the Bulgarian Mountains

Story and images by Emil Danailov

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

Spending the night on Mount Polezhan, even during the winter, is not a big challenge. Some do it at 6, 7 and even 8,000 meters altitude in far harsher meteorological conditions. With its 2.851 m above sea level, Polezhan is minuscule according the Himalayan standards, being although one of the highest peaks in Bulgaria. Yet from the snowcap of its graceful pyramid a dream view reveals!

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

If through the day the mountain leaps to the eyes with its wedding dress, by sunset Pirin undergoes the most fascinating metamorphosis nature can offer. The severe monochromatic dress code is abandoned and white following its playful foppery, tries on all colors of the rainbow in a hurry. From perky yellow to burning red, and from tender blue to deep purple in the obscure shadows. But when sun vanishes, the mountain slowly downcasts, like changing its outfit again – this time to an evening dress.

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

The night is time of ruthless revelations. The sky becomes fathomless and under its cold light the well-known cozy world turns into a lifeless wilderness.  This is a moment when one realizes not only how small a human is in the cosmic scale of universe, but how vulnerable and helpless he is amidst the hostile eternity, deprived from the reassuring corrective of our views for good and evil. Life indeed is a miracle!

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

Sunrise is far for now, but darkness anticipates it’s unpreventable end and gently settles down into the mountain folds. Skylights up and Pirin becomes taw again. But it is sleepy still. Yet sun did not splashed into its eyes. This is the perfect time for taking photographs. Contrast is low, halftones are rich and fine nuances softly shade over the mountain slopes and peaks in the short moments between the kingdoms of black and white.

Here it is! Finally! After a long and freezing night its beams disperse so quickly all disconsolate thoughts. Fanfares of light reverberate. And their shiny sounds start flickering around the mountain like a spectacular, sweeping Ode to Joy.

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

This is the day-to-day resurrection. Life keeps going on. Yet difficult is to forget the night, in which one felt like ephemeral spark into the icy maw of eternity.

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

Mozambique – a discovery of an African treasure

A Dhow on the Sand Bank, Mozambique
A Dhow on the Sand Bank, Mozambique

Dear Traveler,
There is a country in the South-East of Africa you know by name, but probably don’t have a clear idea what stands behind that name. Often people associate Mozambique as a neighbor of the Republic of South Africa. Those of us born in the 60’s still keep the image of a country thorn apart by a civil war and devastated by a weird Marxist experiment. Our journey revealed a land of immense beauty, a jewel every dedicated adventurous traveler should discover.

The country blessed by nature with many resources through its history has been invaded and exploited by Arabs, Portuguese, Brits, French, its own little dictators and corrupted tribal leaders. Yet, the beauty of its nature and the unique cultural mix lay in the ground of Mozambique, turning it into one of the most interesting destinations to be discovered today.

You need to have the right mindset arriving at the Maputo airport. The visa procedure (if you haven’t get it back home) can take some time. The relaxed attitude of the authorities may catch your nerves. But time here runs at different speed and as soon as you accept it, you’ll have your senses opened to more important things. Like diving into the chaotic but charming life of the capital, with its old and new houses, the messy streets, the beautiful botanical garden, the buildings created by Gustave Eiffel, the marketplace or the Nucleo d’Arte cultural centre with its exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and carpets.

Mozambique Fisherman

Mozambique Fisherman

Yet our main goal is far away from the city life of Maputo. We head North. Most tourists take the road to the Gorongosa National Park in the centre of the country and then to the Bazarouto Archipelago with its beaches. Don’t get me wrong – these are beautiful places. But we are travelers, not tourists. We want to discover the history and culture of Mozambique, the spirit of the land. There’s no better place for this than the Island of Mozambique. It’s a small stripe of land a couple of kilometers long and one kilometer wide. The only connection to the continent is a 3.8 kilometers-long narrow bridge.

The Island of Mozambique is the first capital of the country. Established by the Arabs, it was taken by the Portuguese in the 16th century, after Vasco da Gama discovered the South route to the Indies. The Portuguese have built fortresses, cathedrals and beautiful houses. This has been the centre of the slave trade until almost the end of the 19th century. Today the Island is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a large restoration project has been initiated. They started with the old fort, but the remarkable houses in faded colors are still in poor condition. One can see and feel how splendid the place was in the times of its glory. Our guide was excited by the fact that there were 23 tourists in total on the island that day. You can imagine how far we were from mass tourism sites. We were staying at the beautiful mansion Terraco das Quitandas next to the former Governor’s Palace.

British NEMA foundation, Mozambique

British NEMA foundation, Mozambique

We rented a dhow, a local type of boat, to visit Caroushka – a magnificent large beach. There were quite a lot of people, but the site is so immense, that we had the feeling of being alone. Here, on the East coast of the Indian Ocean everything follows the tidal rhythm. So, we had to pay attention when to get into the water and how far we can walk, before the tide returns. I still wonder where this huge amount of water is going, where it disappears for several hours, only to come back and cover everything again and again.

Walking around the island was interesting. There are two towns – one Muslim, and one Christian. They are so different, but there’s no tension between people. Almost no one speaks English, but they are very friendly. When you ask them about the direction, they just take you by the hand and walk you to the place you are looking for.

After the Island of Mozambique, we moved to Pemba – quite a big city with an airport. The next day we were supposed to fly to the Quirimbas Archipelago. The hotel in Pemba was luxurious, which was good, because our flight was postponed 6 times. We finally reached Ibo – one of the 30 islands of the archipelago. Quirimbas stretches up to the border with Tanzania. Looking down from the sky at the emerald waters of the ocean, the white beaches and the trees is a breathtaking experience.

Our hotel, the Ibo Island Lodge consisted of three villas – the governor’s house, an office building and a house – heritage of the Portuguese colonial past. The new owner is a South African and most of the staff is Zimbabweans. The hotel is decorated with hand made furniture from Goa.

Ibo is described in Forbes as “a lost world on the edge of nothing”. Yet the island has a 600-year-old history with the Arab invasion, followed of course by the Portuguese. When walking along the streets, after visiting the three forts, we came upon Senhor João Baptista. He is the living history of the island. The toothless old man was bringing books out of his home, pointing on his name or picture in every story in the books. He was so funny and didn’t care at all that I was not getting a clue of his Portuguese speech.

I love sunsets in Africa, but nothing compares with the views in Mozambique. Sitting on the terrace of the old palace with a glass of wine I was enjoying with every sip the ever-changing pictures. The special program of the evening was star glazing. Our guide was carrying a pointer stick. While I wondered how he’s going use it to show us the stars, the lights were turned off and our terrace was transformed into a planetarium. I know little about the stars in Southern hemisphere and the lesson proved to be useful and interesting.

Ibo Island Lodge Sunset

Ibo Island Lodge Sunset

While on the Ibo Island we organized a picnic to the so-called Sand Bank. This is a stripe of sand in the middle of nowhere. Literally. We went there by our beloved dhow. It was quite windy, but our guides installed a Bedouin tent. We swam, had a snack and collected shells. Local fishermen arrived, threw their nets and then started collecting the modest catch. While taking pictures and admiring the beach, we realized that we had to leave Sand Bank almost in a hurry, before it disappears in just few minutes under the ocean’s tidal water. As I said, in Mozambique everything follows the tide and its inexorable rhythm.

Our last stop was Guludo – a small village on the continent. You can’t compare the Guludo Beach Lodge with any of the hotels and places we visited. The eco-lodge consists of a simple, but stylish and comfortable Adobe Bandas. There is a king size beds under the mosquito nets, a spacious veranda with a hammock and sun loungers, as well as an outdoor shower and basins. There’s no electricity or conventional running water. Guests looking for luxury should be prepared. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the bandas is their “loo with a view”. Toilets are built on a small platform alongside the banda and you have a great view of the beach.

The hotel is associated with the British NEMA foundation. Most of its profit goes to secure food for the children and clean water for the region, as well as scholarships. Kids are the biggest attraction here. They are so friendly and playful. You can find yourself taking part of a football game with local boys. Or be surrounded by a crowd of curious kids who want to play with your camera taking pictures.

Star Glazing at Ibo Island Lodge

Star Glazing at Ibo Island Lodge

The lodge is built along one of world’s top 20 beaches, part of the Quirimbas National Park and offers lots of activities. Ladies can ask local women to introduce them to the traditional “muciro” facemask of thick white paste. Usually only virgins were painted, but now even grandmothers wear the mask. We took a short sail to the stunning little nearby island of Rolas. There you can snorkel off the beach and view humpback whales cruising past from July through October. We noticed there few kite-surfers. The wind is perfect for them.

I couldn’t stop collecting shells. They remind me the white sands and the amazing emerald water of these virgin beaches. In the Lodge even the jam and butter during breakfast were served on shells. It is forbidden to collect corals, but in the end of my trip I had more than two kilograms of shells on top of my luggage. I brought them home as presents to my friends to whom I wish to take the same journey to Mozambique and discover its beauty.