Vazov’s Hiking Trail & Skaklya | The Bulgarian “Rocky Mountains”

It’s December 31st. The final chapter in a year full of great moments and great mishaps. We are headed to Zasele: a small village at the top of a series of pictureque road turns along the Iskar Gorge.

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I am looking out the car window and taking in the view: mountains, curvy road turns, pine trees, rows of houses up on the hills… Cough. Cough. Cough. It’s not me. The car is choking and when I look back there is blanket of thick white-to-gray-to-coal-black smoke coming out of it. Luckily we are just a few kilometers away from the village, so we park in the nearest pile of snow and leave the Cherokee behind for the rest of the road. 2016 reminds us it is still not over so I am keeping my fingers crossed for the remaining 10 hours of it.

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Our guest house is 5 minutes away from the Vazov Hiking Trail which connects Gara Bov and the village where we are staying (Skaklya) so instead of spending time indoors we head to see the trail and the waterfall it leads to.

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Love note to Sofia

Dear Sofia,

You are special: today and during the rest of your all-year-round kaleidoscope of urban memories and concrete life stories.

You are a perpetual scene for the surprises of life: from love stories and newly shaped friendships, to the daily carousel of work life, the excitement of success, as well as the black hole of unsolved social and cultural issues. But somehow you still make me love you.

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You know how many people love something only because it is beautiful/popular/expensive Or because others desire it. Or because it makes them feel good. Well that isn’t my kind of love.

I love you the way you are: with all your imperfections and charming little quirks.

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The Belogradchik Rocks can really rock your world

 

Travel Breakfast

Before we set off on a road trip to the Belogradchik Rocks, I quickly fix a healthy breakfast: banana pancakes (prepared without flour or milk, just a 1:2 ratio of bananas and eggs) covered with yoghurt, cinnamon, flax seed, mint leaves and a sprinkle of rum baking essence. It’s filling and delicious and it gives Stef all the energy he needs to deal with what’s ahead: driving a car full of girls for several hours. Poor him 🙂

Assembling the task force

We pick up the ladies and we are ready to go: the distance from Sofia to Belogradchik is not so big but the road is in a terrible condition and there are many steep turns in the woods (with people driving like crazy in the opposite lane) so we take our time.

Horror movies, photography, how our grandparents met and fell in love (respective grandparents, not mutual grandparents): the topics flow carefree as the rock music on the radio.

The Fortress

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Continue reading “The Belogradchik Rocks can really rock your world”

The Devetashka Cave | From the Paleolithic period to Hollywood action movies

Saturday trips are my favourte! Sometimes we plan them way ahead of time but most of the time we like to improvise: we brainstorm the type of locations we feel like visiting and then choose one pretty much at the last minute. It takes more planning when you travel on a motorbike, but car trips provide a lot of freedom. So here we are: sleepy and chillaxed on  a Saturday morning: making our way to the Lovech province.

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Our main goal for the day is the Devetashka Cave: one of the biggest and most beautiful caves in Bulgaria. If you are somewhere in the area- definitely don’t miss it. It is impressive to be there and the place is full of intriguing history going back to the Middle Paleolithic period.

Some interesting facts about the cave

Continue reading “The Devetashka Cave | From the Paleolithic period to Hollywood action movies”

Kakrina | Photo Essay on a tragic episode in Bulgarian History

It is a cold December evening in 1872.

A young blue-eyed man walks inside the small inn in Kakrina. He greets politely and looks around, his eyes almost hidden underneath the thick winter yağmurluk cape.

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A stranger cannot go unnoticed in such a tiny place and the inn keeper Hristo “The Latin” Tsonev  (who is one of the most active supporters of the Lovech Revolutionary Committee) quickly lets him inside the back room.

 

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He is not just a stranger wandering into the night. His name is Vasil Ivanov Kunchev, better known as “Levski” (“the one who made the Lion’s jump”): one of the most well respected and cherished Bulgarian revolutionaries of all time. He has already encountered an ottoman military patrol on his way to the inn and has failed to convince them he is just a local minding his own business in the area.

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A patrol with reinforcements soon enters the inn and Levski recognizes the voice of the solder who had questioned him on the road. He sees he is outnumbered and tries to escape by making his way into the back rooms and the stables. The soldiers eventually capture him by the wooden fence at the back…

Historians argue whether the capture is due to a traitor inside the revolutionary organization or a series of events leaving clues to the authorities about his whereabouts. Regardless of the true reasons, his capture and subsequent death in the outskirts of the future capital Sofia leave a tragic mark in Bulgarian history.

Nowadays, in the village of Kakrina (Lovech Province) you can visit a renovated replica of the historical inn, turned into a museum. The real building was burnt down in a fire during the 19th century. The renovated inn is quite small but it is still bigger than the miniscule set of rooms which welcomed guests at the time.

Inside you can see a replica of the typical inn layout: a small one-room porterhouse, storeroom with provisions (potatoes, beans, bread), hearth for preparing meals, typical small tables with tiny chairs raising just 15-20cm from the ground, beds for sleeping and a stable (all inside the inn).

It is interesting to note that Levski and his companion Nikola Tsvyatkov kept a stack of important lists and revolutionary committee papers, which were hidden inside a secret compartment in a horse saddle. Later on Tsvyatkov managed to buy out the horse from the authorities and preserve the committee secrets and this secret is currently represented by a saddle hanging on the wall of the museum.

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A storm almost destroyed the centenarian elm in 1997 and a metal framework has been put to keep it standing

The century old elm in the yard is the last living witness of the tragic events at the inn.

How to get there

This article is part of a Series on Mobile Travel Photography which aims to test how well do mobile shots can capture the visual essence of a place

Travel Photography | Does the device really matter?

 My fascination with portraits, landscapes and imagery in general was initially fueled by my unrelenting love for fine art (and growing up with a grandfather who used to paint and adorn the house with all kinds of beautiful images whenever he had the chance).

But it wasn’t until I started to travel actively that I discovered the passion I had for photography.

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Back in the days when I used to be (quite) blond: my uncle has taken this photo of me as I try to capture a seagull near the Oslo Opera house

The travel mind(re)set

My lovely mother took me on my first trips during my teenage years and without exaggeration: I haven’t been the same since then. Seeing new things, exploring new cultures, meeting completely different people opens your mind and breaks the boxes inside of it.

You become more open and more curious about people who have nothing in common with you. And let’s face it: people create stereotypes quite easily when they stay inside the comfort zone of communicating with others who are as similar to them as possible. Travelling challenges this and helps you discover unknown sides in your own self and become more self-reflexive, more aware, more flexible and less willing to see things in a clear-cut, simplified way. 

What does this have to do with photography?

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I took this photo some years ago with my entry level Olympus E420. The guys on the photo are all professional photographers who enjoyed my enthusiasm, but cracked many jokes about my tiny camera. I didn’t mind: I shoot for fun and not for living, but it struck me that there are definitely a lot of stereotypes about the kind of equipment you need to have to take good photos.

I have witnessed (and participated) in many discussions about what “real” photography is. Some people claim that nothing shot on a digital device is real photography: you have to go analogue, develop your shots in the dark room and that’s when you can call it a “photograph”. Others go to the other extreme and say: any image you take, no matter how technically imperfect, has the seed of creativity in it and deserves to be considered a form of art.

I stand in the middle and more importantly: I firmly stand on the content side of the debate. Digital or analogue, amateur or professional gear: these are just the technical means, the carriers of information. The real photograph for me is the content: the moment you are trying to capture, the story behind it, the sincerity, atmosphere, essence of what is being shot. After all the word “photography” itself means to “draw with light”. So if you have the right lighting conditions and the right “drawing” in your mind that should be enough to capture a great moment.

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Taken with Panasonic Lumix

Of course: if you have an intriguing subject AND the technical means to accentuate it  in the best possible way: the photo will be even more compelling, even more visually captivating. But the opposite is true as well: even if you have photographic gear for thousands and thousands of euro, if you shoot cliched and highly staged images: they can be less impressive than a photo taken by a mobile device camera.

And what does it have to do with travel photography?

Well: everything. Travelling around the world inevitably presents you with amazing opportunities to take compelling images. From the portrait of a particularly interesting local person to a landscape shot of an amazing natural phenomenon: travel is a fascinating visual experience.

However, it can also be quite limiting: some trips just don’t allow you to carry a lot of heavy luggage with you so you have to replace your DSLR gear with light version mirrorless cameras. And sometimes your camera battery dies, or you have to be so quick (and discreet) so taking out a huge lens simply isn’t an option. In such cases you have to use your mobile phone: out of convenience or necessity.

Mirrorless cameras

The black and white photos above are taken with the first camera I bought with my own money. It is a mirrorless Panasonic Lumix which is far from professional gear but it is a perfect camera to take with you on the road: relatively light, with quality Leica optics and zooming capabilities (when it is impossible to get close enough): my Ancient Lakes hike was shot on it as well as a later trip to Oslo which was became the travel story of the month on the Bulgarian Nat Geo website.

I’ve been so happy with the brand that I later had another Lumix camera (the old one was bought in 2007 and it had served its time) with monster zoom options: the FZ45. It has the flat image issue of mirrorless zooming but nevertheless: when shooting in good light conditions it has produced some delightful results as the photos in The longest hike and this craaazy closeup of the moon (see below) which would never be possible without the 45x zoom. Of course the image is grainy and doesn’t have top resolution but hey: how often can you see the moon in such details without a telescope?

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Shot on Panasonic Lumix FZ45

DSLRs

I am quite tired by the whole Canon/Nikon debate. This is simply a marketing war in which many photographers fall victim to brand loyalty and not to cold technical objectivity. Any thorough technical comparison shows both brands are a close tie on many features and in general: to become such rivals, both are extremely good and you just have to pick the one which suits your own needs (without being obnoxious about it).

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 I have shot with both but I personally prefer Nikon and I love my D5300: I got it for a fantastic price for a camera with this range, it is light, I can get great lenses for it, I am absolutely delighted with the quality and it also has perks like WiFi connection over which I can send and backup my photos on a tablet or computer when I am on the road. It offers remote trigger via an app on my phone which gives me a lot of freedom for shots where I would like to be in.

Mobile Photography

Sometimes you have to work with what you are given. I love street photography but it requires you to react extremely quickly to what happens around you. Sometimes until you reach out for your bag, take the DSLR out and shoot – the moment is long gone. So some of my travel photos are taken on my phone and frankly: it is getting harder and harder to make a difference between mirrorless cameras and mobile shots: if they are done properly and in good lighting conditions.

 

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Shot from the front car seat on iPhone4s: I have only boosted the saturation to accentuate the sky

I have been a long term fan of Leica for years (all Lumix cameras I’ve used (my father had 2 and I have 2) had Leica optics so I trust the brand a lot. That’s why I was very intrigued by the new Huawei P9. To be more precise, it turned out that the optics are not made by Leica: they are manufactured by Sunny Optical Technology (CN) and the module was certified by Leica but the phone’s dual lens technology peaked my interest nevertheless.

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I will be testing the phone camera for the next two weeks in an experiment how good can your travel photos be if you rely only on your smartphone gear. Stick around to see the results and share your thoughts on the quality of the images. I’d be happy to hear your feedback.

Best,

K.

 

 

Hidden Gems | Austrian Architecture in Bankya

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The old bathhouse  in my hometown is truly one of its kind in the region.

The Bankya Central Bathhouse is just a short car drive away from downtown Sofia.  Designed by Munich based architect Arthur Hocheder:the unique Neo Baroque building lies amidst a town which once was one of the most prominent destinations with mineral springs in the country.

However, the post-communist transition to modern democracy has taken its toll on many such buildings across Bulgaria. The sudden loss of central control, mixed with poorly functioning local institutions has left hundreds of architectural landmarks to the whims of fate.

While I was taking these photos I was filled with fury and sadness alike. Buildings like these are destined to fall apart: local power games leave them rotting, because dimwit people with power think they would profit more if the land is cleared for new, fancy hotels or cafes. They don’t even grasp how much profit (in the cultural, touristic, historical and financial sense of the word) they can get from restoring precious gems like this piece of architectural beauty.

If it is not too late, I would really like to do something to change this.

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