Preliminary Day By Day Itinerary
October 14 Arrive Sofia
Welcome to Bulgaria! Plan to arrive at Sofia Airport just after noon. A group transfer to the hotel from the airport will be provided (private transfers can be arranged). Accommodation at the Hotel Crystal Palace. Time for a short rest then we’ll meet late afternoon in the hotel lobby for our welcome get-together. Early this evening we will have an orientation walk in the center of Sofia followed by dinner. (D)
**** Hotel Crystal Palace
October 15 Sofia - Plovdiv - Sofia
After breakfast visit Boyana Church. This church is included in the UNESCO List and is the largest art value to Sofia. Frescoes date back to 1259 presenting realistic art in Europe from the mid-13th century.
Later this morning depart for Plovdiv (2 hours). Plovdiv is the second biggest city in Bulgaria, and known as the cultural capital of Bulgaria, due to many cultural activities that happen there. When we arrive in Plovdiv, we will stop very close to the Old Town where our walking tour will begin. Visit the Roman theater (2nd century AD), built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Enjoy lunch in Old Town. Visit the church of St. Constantine and Helena (19th century), where some of the most prominent Bulgarian artists and icon-painters worked. We will also visit one of the 19th century house-museums of rich merchants, where we can explore the mixture of Western and oriental influences.
Then continue our walk to see the exterior of Djumaya Mosque (14th century), built in the first years of the Ottoman invasion and the ruins of the Roman stadium (2nd century AD). See the main pedestrian street with its beautiful houses from the late 19-20th century. This evening drive back to Sofia (2 hours). (B-L)
**** Hotel Crystal Palace
October 16 Sofia - Rila Monastery
Tuesday Rozhen - Melnik
Early morning we depart for Rila Monastery (2 hour drive through the Rhodope Mountains). Rila Monastery (UNESCO List) is one of the largest monasteries in the Balkan Peninsula. It was founded as a monastic society in 10th century by the hermit, St. Ivan Rilski. Nowadays the main church and residential buildings are from the 19th century, and the defensive tower in the yard is from the 14th century. Visit the ecclesiastical museum, main church, monk’s cell, ethnographic exhibition, and guest rooms.
Lunch independently in the area of the monastery followed by a drive to Melnik (2 hours). Scenically located at the foothills of sandstone pyramids, this small town in Bulgaria is famous for its 18th century Ottoman architecture and red wine. On a walking sightseeing tour, we visit the House of Kordopulov (18th century) – one of the largest of its kind, built by a rich merchant family.
Continue to the nearby village of Rozhen famous for the very beautiful Rozhen Monastery. Frescoes dating back to 16-17th century are an incredible presentation of post Byzantine sophisticated art. Admire the beautiful views over the sandstone hills. Founded in the Medieval times, nowadays church and buildings are built in the 16th century after a big fire ruined the monastery. One interesting part of the monastery is the stained glass, similar to the that used in houses of the rich merchants in nearby Melnik. After dinner in a BB Pension, we depart for the nearby town of Sandanski for an overnight. (B-D)
****SPA Interhotel Sandanski
October 17 Sandanski
Wednesday Strumitsa, Macedonia
Stobi - Skopje
Rise early for a chance to swim in the Thermal Waters Pool before breakfast. Today we drive to the Macedonian border (1 hour). Formalities at the border usually take around one hour as well. Welcome to Macedonia! After a short drive we visit the monastery in Vodocha (near Strumitsa). The monastery of Vodocha is dedicated to St. Leontie, one of the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This is the only church of this kind in the Balkan region. The building and fresco from the 9th to 12th century are witnesses of the intensive church and art activities. The oldest painting, although not very preserved, represents a link in the Byzantine art virtues of the 11th century. Today this is a convent with a famous icon painting school.
Our lunch will be packaged to eat on the road. En route to Skopje we will make a short stop to the ancient ruins of Stobi. Stobi is one of the biggest archaeological sites of Macedonia, first mentioned in the beginning of 2nd century BC as a capital of the Peoniae tribe. Later Stobi became a center of the Roman province of Macedonia Salutaris. The site is impressive with its remains of public buildings and basilicas, as some of them have splendid mosaics. Continue our drive to Skopje (2 hours). We’ll check in to our accommodation in Skopje and have dinner on our own. Tonight we’ll have the opportunity to participate in local cultural activities. (B-L)
****Hotel Stone Bridge or similar
October 18 Skopje
Thursday Prishtinë, Kosovo
After breakfast we will have a sightseeing tour of Skopje. The city tour includes a visit to the old Turkish bazaar, Ethnological Museum, the Stone bridge and Macedonia’s square. This is a newly reconstructed main square of Skopje with pretty, amazing sculptures. We have free time for lunch on your own.
Continue our journey to the border of Kosovo (1 hour). Welcome to Kosovo! When we enter the newest state in Europe we will have around a 2-hour drive to Prishtinë. Drive through the center of the city for a sightseeing tour and a stop at the Bill Clinton monument for a photo op. Continue to Pejë.
Arrive in Pejë and check in to our Hotel Dukadjini. Dinner at the hotel restaurant this evening. (B-D)
October 19 Pejë - Dechani
Friday Prizren - Pejë
After breakfast depart for Prizren (2 hours). On the way have a detour to see the Monastery of St. Stefan in Dechani, which is on the UNESCO list. By 1:00 PM we arrive and have lunch on our own at Prizren tavern. After lunch have a walk along Old Prizren to see some of the highlights of the town. First we see the Church of Mary of Levisha, also on the UNESCO list. The Serbian King Stefan Urosh founded it in the early 14th century. Many images of saints are represented here. The church was badly damaged in 2004 during the war in Kosovo. Today only a small part of the altar remains. Next, the Sinan Pasha Mosque, which was built in early 17th century. It is believed that the construction material was taken from the nearby Monastery of Holy Archangels. Finally, if restoration is complete we’ll see the old Turkish baths in the center of Prizren – Gazi Mehmet Pasha Hammam.
This evening we head back to Pejë. On the way we stop for wine tasting and dinner. (B-D)
October 20 Pejë
Saturday Budva, Montenegro
After breakfast we will drive through the area of a natural gorge situated above Pejë and stop for a cup of coffee at one of the restaurants in the gorge.
Upon returning to Pejë, we can visit the UNESCO heritage site of the Monastery of Pejë. This is where Serbian Patriarchs stayed for centuries. The churches have been decorated by the most famous artists of the time. Frescoes date back to the 12th, 14th and later centuries of Ottoman rule. We have a very special appointment to visit the monastery, as it is an area protected by UN guards.
Late morning we depart to Budva, Montenegro (7-8 hours drive) with lunch and stops en route. Welcome to Montenegro! Relax as we cross mountains, gorges, spectacular canyons, mountain rivers and small autumn-colored valleys.
By 7:30 PM arrive in Budva where we have accommodations in a hotel in Old Town. Dinner on your own this evening. (B-L)
****Hotel Astoria, Budva
October 21 Budva - Kotor - Budva
Drive to Kotor (1 hour) for a sightseeing tour. One of the Pearls of the Adriatic coastline, Kotor was founded in the 2nd century BC as a Roman town. Nowadays the city is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its old town is one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in the Adriatic. Plenty can be seen there – such as the Cathedral of St. Tryphon (12th century), long parts of defensive walls (from late Byzantine until Venetians), and much more. After lunch in Kotor, drive around Boca Kotor – the most southern situated European fjord.
In the evening we return to Budva for dinner on your own or an evening stroll. (B-L)
****Hotel Astoria, Budva
October 22 Budva - Sveti Stefan
Monday Shkoder, Albania - Tirana
Today we have the opportunity to see Sveti Stefan – the marvelous island of Montenegro. Dating back to 15th century the island was inhabited by fishermen. Then it was decided that the whole island to be turned into a luxurious place for an escape for the rich and famous people of Yugoslavia. Its glory reached its zenith in the 1970s. The views are like those taken from fairytales with their terracotta rooftops contrasting the blue sky and sea. The island is closed from tourists unless one is willing to pay thousands for an overnight there.
Continue our drive south to Albania where our first visit will be at Shkoder (around 3 hour drive).
Welcome to Albania! We will see the castle of Rozafa over the lake of Shkodra - perched at more than 4,000 feet above sea level. It is believed to have been used since ancient times by the Illyrians until it was captured by the Romans in 2nd century BC. Nowadays remains are predominantly of a Venetian origin. We can enter the castle for an opportunity to see the valley from the top (weather permitting) and a photo op!
After lunch on our own, we will continue to Tirana (around 3 hours) arriving by about 6:00 PM. Our accommodation is at the four-star hotel Boutique Hotel Kotoni and by 7:30 PM, dinner is in a selected restaurant in walking distance nearby. (B-D)
**** Boutique Hotel Kotoni or similar
October 23 Tirana - Durres
Walk to the Skanderbeg Square, the main landmark of the city, named after an Albanian hero. We can walk along pedestrian street; this is the best way to explore Tirana architecture and everyday life. During our walk visit the famous painted Et’hem Bey Mosque. It dates back to the 18th century in the style of Ottoman “rococo”, which is amazing for its colors and lines presenting flowers and leaves in one unique wall decoration combination. Pilgrims from far and wide reach the Et’hem Bey Mosque to offer prayers. The Clock Tower, National History Museum - north of Skanderbeg Square, The Palace of Culture, the Ruins of Justinian Castle, The monument to Mother Albania and The National Gallery are the significant spots that catch the attention of one and all who make a visit to the city.
After lunch near the museum in Tirana, we will drive to nearby Durres (1.5 hour drive). Start with a brief sightseeing walking tour of Durres. It was the ancient Greco-Roman port city of Dyrrachium. Also, formerly Durrazzo, it is one of the oldest towns in Albania. The legend says that it was founded by Epidamnos, the Illyrian King of the area, who called it by his own name and named the port area after his grandson - Dyrrah. We can see the Byzantine city walls, Roman amphitheater and the narrow streets around old town. We will visit the ruins of the Roman Amphitheater. Built in the early 2nd century AD, over 15,000 visitors were able to enjoy gladiator games there. The amphitheater was abandoned from the late 4th century up to the 10th century, when Byzantines turned one part of its galleries into a Christian church decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Today visitors can see very little of the decoration of the church, but still the place is special.
Return to Tirana this early evening. We will have an opportunity for a cultural event such as a concert, an opera or another performance, depending on schedules that day. (B-L)
**** Boutique hotel Kotoni or similar
October 24 Tirana
Wednesday Ohrid, Macedonia
Depart for Macedonia to the UNESCO museum town of Ohrid (3.5 hours, depending on traffic at border). On the way we may stop at Tirana village market, which is a famous landmark of the capital (pending restoration completion).
We expect to arrive at the border to Macedonia near monastery of St. Naum by 2:00 PM. Lunch is in a selected restaurant near the Springs of Lake Ohrid with delicious food. The lake is included in the UNESCO Nature Heritage List. After lunch we can take a little row boat to see the Springs of Lake Ohrid followed by a visit to the monastery of St. Naum (around 15 min walk). The monastery operated from the end of 10th to the beginning of 11th century and was established by St. Naum, one of the disciples of St. Cyril and Methodius, the inventors of the Glagolic alphabet. Towards the end of his life St. Naum of Ohrid built the monastery St. Archangel where he was buried in 910 AD. The architecture of the monastery church is typical Byzantine. Different constructive layers can very clearly be recognized dating back from 10th to 14th century. The frescoes date back to the beginning of the 19th century.
Late afternoon we depart for our hotel in Ohrid where we can have dinner on our own in a selected restaurant in walking distance to the hotel. (B-L)
*** Hotel Royal View
October 25 Full Day in Ohrid
After breakfast we will have a sightseeing tour in the Old City of Ohrid. The town and the Lake are protected by UNESCO as rare architectural and natural phenomena. It is said that Ohrid had 365 churches, one for each day of the year. Its basilicas with luxurious mosaics, valuable archaeological sites and an antique theater confirm that Ohrid was an important religious and cultural center of the ancient era. Plenty of frescoes, wood-carvings and icons can be seen in the churches. They are from the Medieval and Ottoman periods. Our city sightseeing tour of Ohrid will include the following localities: Churches of St. Nikola and Virgin Mary Bolnichna, Ohrid Ethnology (Ethnographic) Museum, the churches of St. Sofia, St. Mary Perivleptos and icon gallery (the aspect of visiting these churches are the world famous frescoes and icons, the best presentation of Byzantine and Post Byzantine art), the Samuel fortress, Plaoshnic (the first Slavic university), the ancient Roman theater, the church of St. Jovan Kaneo and more.
There will be free time for lunch on your own and individual activities in the Old Town. Have a boat trip if weather conditions are good for navigation. Tonight enjoy a Macedonian farewell dinner. (B-D)
*** Hotel Royal View
October 26 Ohrid - Tetovo
Friday Staro Nagorichane
After breakfast we check out and depart for Bulgaria. This will be a long drive of about 8-9 hours total. On the way to Sofia we will have a couple of stops for rest and to visit a few interesting cultural sites of the Balkans. We will take the road to Skopje with a detour to Tetovo, where we can visit the famous painted wooden mosque there. This mosque was built in the 15th century as a donation of two women, buried in a nearby turbe (tomb). This Islamic temple deserves a look because of its colorful decorations and frescoes on the walls with rich geometrical and floral elements.
You’ll have the opportunity for lunch on your own en route or in Tetovo. Continue our way to Bulgaria with a short detour to the church of St. George at Staro Nagorichane. The Church of St. George was constructed in the 14th century on the remains of an earlier church, founded probably by the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenus (1068-1071). The plan and the spatial structure of the Church of St. George result from the architectural innovations of the Late Byzantine architecture, when a new representative type of church appeared at the beginning of the 14th century. Paintings present the interesting art of Paleologian Renaissance.
Proceed to the border point with Bulgaria and on to Sofia. Arrival in Sofia where we check-in to the Hotel Crystal Palace. Enjoy a farewell dinner at a selected nearby restaurant. (B-D)
**** Hotel Crystal Palace
October 27 Depart Sofia
After breakfast bid farewell to your new friends. Transfers from the hotel to the airport will be organized today. (B)