Day 1: Join trip in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria
Join the trip in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, and check-in to our hotel. Sofia has a long history which can be seen by the onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques, Roman ruins and old Soviet monuments. However, it is largely modern and youthful with a wealth of museums, art galleries, cafes and restaurants.
Depending on your flight times or if you're extending your stay by a night then you may like to visit the Archaeological Museum where there are Thracian, Roman and Medieval artefacts on display in a former mosque dating from 1496. Or perhaps the Museum of Socialist Art where you'll find many of the items removed from around the country when the Soviet era came to an end such as unwanted statues of Lenin, the red star from Sofia's Party House and footage from old propaganda films. There are also the ancient ruins of Serdica, which were discovered during the building of a new metro station. Now partially excavated you can see a small section of eight streets, an early Christian church and a bathhouse from this old Roman city. A short distance from Sofia is the beautiful Vitosha Nature Park with a number of hiking routes up Vitosha Mountain and it is also home to the working Dragalevtsi Monastery, which is probably the oldest of its kind in the country. It contains colourful murals and is renowned as being one of the hiding places of the anti-Turkish rebel leader Vasil Levski.
This evening you'll have your first chance to sample the local cuisine. Food in Bulgaria tends to be hearty and made from fresh local produce and dinner usually starts with a salad such as 'shopska salata' consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and white cheese. Other specialities include 'kebapche' small and spicy minced meat rolls and 'surmi' stuffed cabbage or vine leafs. Both red and white wines are popular, as is the local brandy 'rakia' or the aniseed spirit 'mastika'.
Day 2: Sofia city tour; stay overnight in a Macedonian monastery
We start our day with a guided walking tour of Sofia where we visit the neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Cathedral, which was built to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria's independence. Along the way we will also see the synagogue, Presidential Palace and Saint Sofia's Church.
After our walk we have free time for lunch before we leave the city and drive to the border with Macedonia and on to the Saint Joakim Osogovski Monastery. This well preserved historic monastery is nestled amongst the picturesque hillside forests and this is where we spend the night. The drive today will take us around three hours in total. Founded in the 12th century the monastery became a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, situated as it was on the main route to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). We will see the brightly coloured 18th century frescoes before settling in to our unique accommodation.
Day 3: Explore Kratovo and Skopje including Kale Fortress
This morning we drive to the charming historical Roman mining town of Kratovo, located in the crater of an extinct volcano. A local guide will take us down the winding cobbled narrow streets and show us the main sights of this small town, known for its Ottoman towers and high stone bridges which cross the deep ravine which divides the town in two. We will also have the opportunity to sample a homemade lunch, which will often be accompanied by traditional music played on a sheepskin bagpipe, before we drive on to Skopje, Macedonia's capital.
This afternoon we will go on a guided walking tour of Skopje including Fortress Kale, the Church of Saint Spas and the old Turkish bazaar, which is the largest and most well preserved in south-east Europe. In 1963 a huge earthquake rocked the city and destroyed an estimated 75%, but it is still rich in historic culture and Ottoman heritage. Skopje has been used a pawn in many wars, including World War II and many empires have ruled over the city, all having influenced the architecture, religion and traditions. Despite the turbulent and sometimes violent history, Skopje is now a peaceful city where residents are free to practice all religions, the main faiths being Macedonian Orthodox and Islam. The city boasts many beautiful churches and mosques, although you'll notice mostly minarets on the skyline due to a historic law that was enforced by the Turks stating Christian buildings could not be taller than mosques.
This evening you are free to have dinner. A popular Macedonian dish is 'turlitava', a meat and vegetable stew baked in a terracotta pot. 'Ravanija' is a traditional dessert which originates from when the country was under Turkish rule; it's a type of cake with a sherbet top. Macedonian wine is a popular choice with red being the more dominate option; usually made using the Vranec grape or sometimes Stanusina Crna, which is indigenous to the country.
Day 4: Excursion to the dramatic Matka Gorge with the chance for a boat trip
A half-day excursion this morning takes us to Matka Gorge, on the outskirts of the city, where we visit the spectacular karst formations and the manmade Matka Lake, created by the damming of the Treska River. Fluctuating temperatures and the impact of the mountain rivers has resulted in a landscape of valleys, crevices and caves that carve their way through the 50 square kilometre canyon. Of the 1000 or so species of plants in the gorge some 20% are endemic, including the Kosanini Violet and the dainty lavender coloured Nataly's Ramonda. There are also 119 varieties of butterfly in the canyon. There is the option to take a boat ride out onto the lake above the dam and appreciate the canyon views and visit one of its numerous caves. Or you may prefer to take a walk along the gorge and visit an old church that is tucked in beside the water.
Returning to Skopje this afternoon the rest of the day is free for you to explore and perhaps to visit some of the museums, mosques and galleries dotted around the city, or maybe pay another visit to the bustling bazaar. Skopje is an excellent city in which to wander, given that much of the centre is pedestrianised.
Day 5: Scenic drive to Lake Ohrid via Mavrovo National Park
Today we drive a scenic route, largely through the Black Drim River Valley, to reach the shores of Lake Ohrid. En route we make a stop to visit one of Macedonia's finest monasteries - Saint Jovan Bigorski - dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It is famous for its remarkable iconostasis, which is among the most beautiful in Macedonia, constructed by intricate wood carving between 1829 and 1835. We will also stop at the foot of Mount Jablanica in the typical Macedonian village of Vevchani. Here we have time for lunch and to see the pretty meandering streets and babbling waterfalls.
On arrival in Ohrid town late this afternoon we have time to settle into our hotel before heading into the centre for free time for dinner this evening. Alternatively, you may like to stretch your legs with a walk along the lakeshore.
Day 6: Guided walking tour of Ohrid; afternoon relaxing by the lake
Our setting for the next few days is simply sublime, with a dramatic mountain backdrop almost encircling the tranquil waters of Lake Ohrid. Founded over 2400 years ago, Ohrid has a wealth of heritage and is today an important cultural and spiritual centre. To help its protection both the town and lake were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world and allegedly there are some 365 churches, monasteries and other religious sites around the lake.
We start today with a walking tour of Ohrid including a visit to Tsar Samuel's Fortress, Saint Sophia's Church and the Roman amphitheatre for sensational panoramic views. When we reach Saint Clement's Church and the Plaosnik archaeological site we will walk down the steps to the Church of Saint John at Kaneo with its fantastic views out over the lake. From here we board a boat for the short ride back to the centre of Ohrid.
This afternoon is free for you to relax and further explore. You might like to stroll around the cobbled lanes of the Old Town or boats run frequent trips across the lake. The lakeshore also has a good array of beaches should you wish to take it easy. There's a good choice of restaurants and old Turkish shops in the lower town area. Each year, between mid-July and mid-August, the Ohrid Summer Festival takes place, with concerts and plays held in outdoor venues around town.
Day 7: Free day in Ohrid with the chance to visit Albania
Today is free for you to continuing discovering Lake Ohrid or you might like to join a full day excursion further afield to neighbouring Albania. Lake Ohrid straddles the border line and this morning our drive will take us through Struga at the northern tip of the lake and across the Albanian border. Our first stop is in the small fishing village of Lin, where we will hopefully have the opportunity to see mosaics dating from the Ottoman period (due to local conditions access to the mosaics might not always be possible). From here we continue to the town of Podgradec where we have four hours free time to relax in the town, enjoy the Ohrid springs or visit the summer villa of the former dictator Enver Hoxha. We will also have time for lunch and the opportunity to try the local specialty of Ohrid trout. We return to Ohrid crossing back over the border at the southern end of the lake near Saint Naum having driven the whole way around the lake.
Day 8: Visit to Saint Naum Monastery en route to Pelister National Park
Located close to Ohrid is Galicica National Park, part of the Sara-Pind mountain range. With its exceptional natural beauty and wealth of endemic flora and fauna the park was created in 1958, covering an area between the Ohrid and Prespa. Large, deep valleys and a long mountain ridge typify the relief of the massif, with peaks reaching over 2000 metres. With the crest falling between the two lakes it ensures dramatic views over both on a clear day. Today we set out to explore this region by bus, a short walk and by rowing boat.
Firstly we drive along the lakeshore to the photogenic Saint Naum Monastery, located on a bluff stretching out into the lake and close to the Albanian border. Inside the monastery we can admire the 19th century frescoes and iconostasis dating from 1711. Next we enjoy a short trip by rowing boat to the bubbling springs that feed Lake Ohrid. Then we continue across Galicica National Park and over the Livada Pass (at 1568 metres), before heading down to Lake Prespa where we'll stop for photos. We drive on to Podmochani village to visit the privately owned Ethno Museum. A local farmer has amassed an impressive collection of jewellery, weaponry, coins and over 140 national costumes, some of which date back over 300 years. Lastly we drive on to the nearby Pelister National Park where we will spend the night. This evening there is the opportunity to join a cooking class in our hotel to make the Macedonian speciality Zelnik.
Day 9: Admire ancient Heraclea; guided tour of Thessaloniki (Greece)
This morning we visit the ancient site of Heraclea with a local guide. Founded in the 4th century BC by Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, Heraclea grew to be an important trading town under the Romans, before being raided by the northern tribes and eventually falling into decay after an earthquake in AD518.
After our visit we leave Macedonia behind and drive to Thessaloniki, Greece's second city. Filled with the reminders of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule, Thessaloniki is a vibrant city situated on the Thermaic Gulf. This afternoon on a guided tour we will discover the steep narrow streets and walk among the whitewashed houses with overhanging balconies leading to magnificent views down to the gulf and across the city. Along the way we'll see the Roman Rotunda, the White Tower, Acropolis and impressive Saint Demetrius Church. After our tour you will have the opportunity for a short visit to either the Archaeological Museum or Byzantine Museum.
This evening you're free to have dinner and sample your first taste of traditional Greek cuisine, such as scrumptious aubergines, tomatoes and cheese washed down with ouzo or raki or perhaps you'd prefer to sample some of the fresh local seafood. The city tavernas here are known for their delicious grilled meats and the slow-cooked pork shank is especially worth trying.
Day 10: Visit the birthplace of Alexander the Great and UNESCO listed Vergina
This morning we drive to Pella to take a guided tour of the ancient site and visit the museum. Lying on the Macedonia Plain, Pella is most famous as the birthplace of Alexander the Great, who was born here in 356BC. Nowadays the main draw is the mosaics depicting mythological scenes in coloured stone.
Next we head for Vergina, which in ancient times was known as the city of Aigai and was the capital of the Macedonian kings. The ruins of Aigai were only rediscovered in 1977. With our local guide we will visit the spectacular royal tombs of King Phillip II and the young prince Alexander IV among others sights during out visit. After free time for lunch we will head back to Thessaloniki where you are free for the rest of the afternoon.
Day 11: Drive to Kavala via Halkidiki Peninsula; boat trip to Mount Athos
Leaving Thessaloniki early this morning we head across the Halkidiki Peninsula to Kavala, set in the foothills of Mount Symvolon on the Gulf of Kavala. Travelling along scenic roads we pass through Arnea to the Athos Peninsula, the easternmost of the three-pronged Halkidiki. We continue to Ouranopoli at the northern end, from where we take a boat along the coast of Mount Athos. Known as 'The Holy Mountain', it is a semi-autonomous region of monastic orders originally settled in the 4th century and it's still forbidden for women to step foot on the island. At its peak there were said to be 40 monasteries, but today the number has declined by half. After viewing the monasteries from our boat we have free time back on the mainland for lunch and to relax on the beach before continuing our journey to Kavala, a very attractive city formed around a harbour with an old quarter dominated by a Byzantine fortress.
Day 12: Excursion to Thassos Island to explore or relax on the beach
We begin today by driving to Keramoti to catch the ferry to Thassos Island (the crossing takes around 30 minutes). We have free time to explore the island on foot or local bus from the capital of Limenas, or relax on one of its superb beaches. Around Limenas there are a number of archaeological sites, including an ancient Roman theatre and a medieval fortress that offers stunning views of the surrounding area. Later in the afternoon we return by ferry to the mainland and to Kavala.
Day 13: Explore historical Philippi; drive to Bansko (Bulgaria)
This morning we leave Greece and head back to Bulgaria. We drive to Bansko via the ancient site of Philippi for a guided tour. Philippi's claim to fame is twofold: it was the first European city to accept Christianity in the 5th century, but prior to that it was the scene of a decisive battle between two Roman armies in the 1st century AD. On one side was the army of imperial Rome, led by Mark Anthony and Octavian, and on the other representatives of republican Rome, led by Cassius and Brutus. The outcome of the battle was a victory for the imperialist and the death of the republic (not to mention Cassius and Brutus). We will also visit the Baptistery of Lydia, time permitting.
In winter Bansko is a popular ski resort, sitting at 927 metres above sea level in the foothills of the Pirin Mountains. It has a pretty old town centre with its winding cobbled streets and stone clad buildings with red terracotta tiled roofs. There are a variety of restaurants, bars and shops here.
Day 14: Discover the beautiful Rila Monastery; free afternoon in Sofia
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Rila Monastery is an important religious and cultural centre for the Bulgarian people. Remaining in wonderful condition it has the most stunning brightly coloured frescoes and distinctive striped brickwork. Originally founded in the 10th century the monastery served to preserve Bulgarian culture during the 400 years of Turkish rule and was a hiding place for the Bulgarian revolutionaries. Today the magnificent church and its museum house a priceless collection of frescoes, gilded iconostasis and religious art and artefacts. This morning we will have time to explore the monastery complex.
This afternoon we complete our journey through ancient Macedonia when we return to Sofia for our final evening. On arrival there should be time to explore a little more of this charming city and maybe do some last minute shopping.
Day 15: Trip ends in Sofia
The trip ends at our hotel in Sofia.
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