TRAVEL

PHALLIC TYRNAVOS

In Greece, the preparations for Lent get off to a colourful start. On the last Sunday before Lent everyone takes part in their local town carnival and the next day, Clean Monday, they go out into the countryside and fly kites.

In Tyrnavos, however, Lent starts differently. The inhabitants of this small Thessalian town do not fly kites, but huge penis-shaped balloons.

The balloons are not the only provocation. On the Sunday and on Clean Monday, Tyrnavos resounds to the Phallus Festival.

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THE TIME OF THE KUKERI

A mediaeval fortress known to only a handful of people and a completely unknown museum of mining – Pernik's tourist landmarks wouldn't exactly justify a detour from the main road to Thessaloniki or Skopje. What's more, this town of 80,000 is known for certain quirks more likely to put off rather than attract. The local driving culture has become a generic name for the no-holds-barred, catch-me-if-you-can manner in which Pernik drivers use their old Volkswagens as offensive weapons. The townscape of this mining community is dominated by deserted smelters and slag heaps.

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BULGARIA'S SUNKEN CHURCHES

Fishermen are reluctant to engage in conversation with strangers, as this usually scares off the fish they hope to catch. And "Where is the church?" is not a question one would usually ask near a reservoir that is several kilometres from the nearest village. However, when you're on the southwestern bank of the Koprinka Reservoir, in the Sredna Gora, the question is pertinent – despite the reluctance of the local anglers.

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KARS

The restaurant owner assigns some task to his helper, who disappears into the cold rainy night of Kars. Soon the boy is back in the warm, low-ceilinged room. A chinking sound is heard from within the opaque nylon bag he's holding and the two sneak into the kitchen. After a minute or two, the owner reappears, and with a genial gesture puts on the table the beers the boy has bought from the nearby grocery. They are wrapped in napkins.

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FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE CARS OF COMMUNISM

At the time, those were either the butt of jokes, or valuable possessions: objects of envy to be lavished with care. The cars of Communism provoked wildly diverging feelings while they were still being manufactured. To start off with, the planned economy of the Soviet bloc never succeeded in hitting the right production benchmarks, which means that citizens were unable to just walk into a shop and buy a car. Provided they had saved the money, they had to put their name on a waiting list, sometimes spanning over 10 years.

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A GHOST OF SOFIA'S PAST

The capital gets its steady share of visitors all year round, drawn to the cluster of attractions in the centre with the shiny domes of Alexandr Nevskiy cathedral, the ancient rotunda of St George and the surrounding shopping streets. Those of a more curious disposition venture to Boyana Church and the National History Museum, and maybe wrap up the tour with a cable car ride to Cherni vrah peak.

But if you are prepared to explore off the beaten track, you may discover hidden gems that even the locals know little about – such as the Lozenets Water Tower.

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CITY CLOCKS OF SOFIA

They measure the passage of time and the heartbeat of the city. They are an institution and a mark of civilisation. The city clocks still tick away in their public places around the city, reminding people that the duration of the second is the same as a hundred years ago – it's only what they do with it that has changed.

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PAST IMPERFECT

When you arrived in Sofia, what was the first place your Bulgarian friends took you to? They probably showed you St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral, took you for a stroll along the yellow brick road from the National Assembly to the Stalinist "Largo," or did you go shopping in one of the new "malls," the hit of the Bulgarian economy? Maybe you already tasted rakiya and shopska salad, or been to the chalga, your first experience with Bulgar pop culture?

But no one took you to Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory.

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KOSOVO POLJE

No one seems to know anything about it. The Albanian children playing on the streets of Kosovo Polje – a town which is rather like a suburb of Pristina – never heard. The women are likewise oblivious. When approached, taxi drivers tend to shrug their shoulders. A policeman makes an effort to explain, but his English turns out to be worse than his botched attempt at drawing a simple map of the area. Everyone is polite and forthcoming, but knows nothing.

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SITOVO LETTERS

A Soviet undercover agent tries to decipher an ancient inscription protected by a stone guardian… this could be the beginning of a Dan Brown novel but is, in fact, a true story set not in Rome, Paris or Washington, but near the village of Sitovo, on the northern slopes of the Rhodope.

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