Day 1: Join trip in Sofia
Our trip begins in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. The city 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.
For those arriving on time our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 6pm for the welcome meeting and for those that wish, there is the chance to go out for dinner. There are no other activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Sofia at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Sofia Airport (SOF), which is about 30 minutes' drive from the city centre. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up.
We have packed in as many highlights of Sofia as we can, but there is very little free time in the city, so if you wish to spend some time discovering more on your own then we would recommend extending your stay for a night or two. Depending on your flight times or if you're extending your stay 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. Alternatively, there is the Museum of Socialist Art where you'll find many of the items removed from around the country when the Soviet era ended, 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 are a small section of eight streets, an early Christian church and a bathhouse from this old Roman city.
This evening you'll have your first chance to sample Bulgarian cuisine. Food in Bulgaria tends to be 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 and the aniseed spirit mastika.
Day 2: Explore Sofia on foot; visit the Rila Monastery and Museum
This morning we take the metro to visit the Monument to the Soviet Army, which is a tribute to the Russian soldiers who died supporting Bulgarian efforts during World War II and is surrounded by a large park. In recent years, its sculpted bronze statues have frequently been vandalised with them painted in a pop art style. The authorities keep removing the paint and then a new design will appear a short time later. The statues have been bright pink, painted in the style of comic book heroes and villains, in the colours of the Bulgarian flag, and more, so who knows what the statues will look like when we visit them.
Our Leader will take us on walking tour of Sofia and to visit the Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which was built to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria's independence. Inside Saint Nedelya Church we view the colourful murals and intricately carved wooden iconostasis, which is the wall separating the nave from the sanctuary of church, that's decorated with religious scenes and icons. There's been a church on this spot since medieval times and it's viewed as being the very centre of the city with the ancient crossroads of Serdica sitting beneath it.
We drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rila Monastery, set in a strikingly beautiful mountain valley; it is a hugely 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 Ottoman 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.
In the early evening, we will arrive in Bansko, which sits at 927 metres above sea level in the foothills of the Pirin Mountains. It has a pretty old town centre with winding cobbled streets and stone clad buildings with red terracotta tiled roofs. There are a variety of restaurants, bars and shops here.
Day 3: Discover Dobarsko mountain village and take a train journey in the mountains
We start today by driving the short distance to the mountain village of Dobarsko. We'll walk to the UNESCO-Listed Church of Saint Theodore Tyron and Theodore Stratelates to admire the incredible frescoes and icons. In the old churchyard we meet the 'grannies of Dobar' who will show us their traditional customs such as the round dance 'horo' and sing us folk songs. We'll have the chance to taste banitsa cheese pastry as well as homemade cheese.
This afternoon we head back to Bansko to board our train on the Rhodope Narrow Gauge Railway. Our journey takes us through the mountains, the highest valley in the country and the Chepinska River Gorge. After spending a couple of hours on board viewing the striking mountain vistas we get off at Avramovo Railway Station, which at 1,267 metres above sea level is the highest in the Balkans. From here we re-board our bus and go to Plovdiv where we spend the next two nights. Plovdiv is an ancient city built on seven hills, and it is in fact Europe's oldest continuously inhabited city. Its old town's winding cobbled lanes are crammed with colourful mansion houses that are now museums, galleries, shops and restaurants. Plovdiv is Europe's Capital of Culture in 2019.
Day 4: Plovdiv walking tour; free afternoon in the city
Our Leader will take us on a tour of the highlights of Plovdiv. The most famous of which is probably the well-preserved Roman Amphitheatre of Philipoppol, which is still used for concerts and theatrical performances. In the old town we'll visit the Ethnographic Museum housed in an 1847 merchant's house and stroll among the National Revival-era colourful houses, as well as going into the Church of Saint Constantine and Helena.
This afternoon is free to explore the city at your own pace.
Day 5: Visit a rose oil distillery and the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk
The flower laden fragrant fields (normally in bloom in May) of the Rose Valley sit between the Middle Forest Mountain and the Balkan Mountains, and the rosa damascene variety has been cultivated here for centuries. The rose blossoms are used in the production of rose oil and nearly a ton is made here every year, which is around 70% of the world's overall production. Rose oil is used in many different ways from antiseptics to aphrodisiacs and laxatives to beauty products. We'll visit a rose oil distillery to learn more about this process.
We visit the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk, which is a replica of the tomb discovered here in 1944 that dates back to the Hellenistic period. This ancient burial ground is UNESCO-Listed due to the impressive murals, which show images of the ritual funeral feast, traditional dress and fanciful horses. In keeping with Thracian culture, the burial site consists of three rooms: the main round burial chamber; an antechamber where their chariot, horses and slaves that were kept for use in the afterlife; and a storage area for other items needed in the spirit world.
We drive deep into the mountains to Shipka Memorial Church. Its tall bell tower, golden domes and intricately decorated red and white exterior stand out somewhat from the remote surrounding tree covered hills. The church is dedicated to the Russian soldiers who gave their lives in the Battles of Shipka Pass during the Russo-Turkish War from 1877-78 in a bid to free Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. The names of the fallen soldiers are inscribed on walls of the church's crypt and its bells are cast from battlefield cartridges and are extremely heavy, weighing up to 12 tons.
Following on our visit, we leave the mountains behind and set off for the Black Sea coast, to Nessebar, where we arrive this evening.
Day 6: Free time in UNESCO-Listed Nessebar; arrive in Varna
This morning is free for you to explore the ancient city of Nessebar. Situated on a rocky peninsula it was originally a Thracian settlement before becoming a Greek colony. Most of the remains are from the Hellenistic period including the Temple of Apollo, acropolis and section of the old city walls. There are also the ruins of a Byzantine fortress and colourful 19th century wooden houses. You might like to spend your time exploring the old town, relaxing at the beach or visiting the Archaeological Museum.
This afternoon we depart for the seaside town of Varna. We'll visit the Park-Monument Dedicated to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. Built once again on a hilltop this large v-wing shaped concrete statue is an imposing sight. To reach the statue we need to climb the 300 plus steps of the Staircase of Victory and from the top the Brutalist style giant soldiers loom over us menacingly.
We arrive at our hotel in Varna in the early evening.
Day 7: See Brutalist architecture in Shumen and ornate church frescoes in Arbanasi
We have a little free time before leaving Varna this morning, so perhaps you'd like to take a stroll through the largest landscaped park in the Balkans, where there are a variety of sculptures along with an immaculate and wonderfully colourful selection of flowers.
We leave the Black Sea behind us and stop at the Monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgaria in Shumen. This massive concrete structure sits on a hilltop and is visible from around 30 kilometres away. The Cubist style figures show kings and heroes from Bulgaria's past in such a way that won't seem out of place in a 'Lord of the Rings' novel.
Next we stop in Arbanasi Village where we will visit the Nativity Church. In five chambers of this old church there are impressive frescoes dating between 1632 and 1649. There are scenes from both the old and new testaments that show the wheel of life and images of the damned and lost souls in hell being rescued by Jesus.
We arrive in one of Bulgaria's oldest towns, Veliko Tarnovo later this afternoon and check-in to our hotel.
Day 8: Discover medieval Veliko Tarnovo; arrive back in Sofia
Veliko Tarnovo exudes medieval history with its fortified walls, cobbled ramshackle lanes and the mighty Tsarevets Fortress, which was formerly the city citadel. We will walk up to this fort, which was once home to the tsars, to some of the ruins of over 400 houses, more than a dozen churches and the royal palace. We will also visit the handicraft market, Samovodska Charshiya, which has changed little over the past two centuries.
After free time for lunch, we will drive back to Sofia, which takes around four hours. In the early evening, we will arrive and check-in to our hotel for the final night.
Day 9: Trip ends in Sofia
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Sofia.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Sofia at any time.
If your flight is departing later in the day luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Sofia Airport (SOF).
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