Bulgaria 2011:

Day 1:

Arrive at Sofia Airport. Meet your local guide and transfer to your hotel in Sofia (4* category), located in downtown area. Settle in at the hotel and time to refresh and take some rest after the long journey. Orientation for the entire tour and, if time allows, we’ll take a brief walking sightseeing tour in the area. Overnight in Sofia.

Day 2:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

All day in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.

Founded more than 7 000 years ago, it has long been an important crossroads between Asia Minor and Europe. Situated in the foot of Mt Vitosha by curing mineral springs, the city is one of the oldest in Europe. Called Serdica in the age of the Thracians, Triaditsa under the Byzantines and Sredets under the Slavs, Sofia attracted ancient and later civilizations.

“Serdica is my Rome!” By the early 4th century, chroniclers already described the settlement of the Thracian tribe Serdi as ‘a splendid and noble city’. This was in the days of Emperor Constantine the Great. Strongly attached to Serdica, the Emperor often called the city his Rome and even intended to proclaim it capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Ultimately, he did not – but he nevertheless built magnificent edifices for the grand ceremonies during his visits.

Sofia was proclaimed capital of Bulgaria in 1879, just a year after the Russian-Turkish War of Liberation of 1877-1878. It is the fourth Bulgarian capital after Pliska, Preslav and Veliko Tarnovo.

In the morning we’ll drive to the outskirts of the city to visit the National Museum of History, where the magnificent Thracian treasures of ancient gold are on display. We’ll also visit the famed Boyana Church, a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site with fascinating frescoes from the 13th century, reflecting both Byzantine and local Christian art traditions. They impress with the humanistic trends, which were unusual for the medieval period. The frescoes were painted by an unknown Bulgarian painter in the style of the Tarnovo School of Painting and are considered the finest examples of Bulgarian medieval art.

In the afternoon we’ll continue our exploration through the downtown area to see some of the most characteristic historical, architectural and cultural landmarks of Bulgaria’s capital. We will see the Roman Serdica Fortifications (3rd-5th centuries) and St. George’s Rotunda (4th century), which is the only building to survive completely, famous for its original architecture and unique frescoes. Painted several times in different ages (4th, 10th – 12th and 14th centuries), the majestic figures illustrate the development of monumental painting over several centuries, making the Rotunda one of the gems of Bulgarian and East European culture.

Other highlights this afternoon will be St. Sofia Basilica (6th century), which is one of the most valuable pieces of early Christian architecture in the Balkans, and the magnificent St. Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, built to the designs of the Russian architect Pomerantsev from 1904 to 1912. The church is a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture, splendidly decorated. The underground crypt is a renowned Orthodox icon museum, which houses an impressive collection of icons from the 9th to 18th centuries. Some of these icons match the best works of Constantinople studios.

Overnight in Sofia.

Day 3:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

All day in Sofia.

In the morning we’ll take a sightseeing walk through downtown area to view some more emblematic architectural and historical buildings that illustrate Bulgaria’s long-lasting traditional ethnic and religious acceptance.

We will see the impressive Sephardic Synagogue, which is the third largest in Europe (next to the synagogues in Budapest and Amsterdam). The building was completed in 1912 and was designed by the Austrian architect Friedrich Gruenanger in a Spanish-Moresque and Byzantine style, preserving precisely the rules of Jewish monotheistic religion, while the temple resembles the Vienna synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis. Adjacent to the Synagogue is the unique Jewish Museum telling about the truly amazing story about the saving of the entire Jewish population in Bulgaria, amounting to 50 000 people, during the World War II. The Bulgarian people, led by their Orthodox Church Metropolitans Kiril and Stefan, stood in the way of the Nazi machine and ultimately not a single Bulgarian Jew was deported to Nazi death camps. Anti-Semitism never had roots in Bulgaria and Jews have always been an integral part of the Bulgarian society.

Close to the Synagogue is situated the beautiful Banya Bashi mosque which is one of the oldest in Europe. It was designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and was completed in 1576. The name ‘banya bashi’ comes from the neighboring natural thermal spas, as in the Turkish language it means “a lot of baths”.

Finally, we’ll see the National Art Gallery. Housed in the former Royal Palace, the gallery treasures the most valuable collection of classical paintings and sculptures, which chronically illustrate Bulgaria’s artistic achievements from the beginning of the 19th century to mid 20th century.

In the afternoon we can opt for an excursion in the Mt Vitosha to see the ‘stone rivers’ natural phenomenon and enjoy scenic beauties, or instead, you may wish to have a free time to explore in downtown area on your own. Options may include viewing the Archaeological Museum, the Ethnographical Museum, visiting some of the modern art galleries, or spending some time in the shopping malls.

Overnight in Sofia.

Day 4:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

Transfer Day: Travel from Sofia to Plovdiv.

In the morning, en route, we’ll stop to see the Rila Monastery, which is the most impressive of all Bulgarian monasteries. Located 90 miles south of Sofia in the Rila Mountains, the monastery is an original national museum with a century-old history.

The monastery dates back to the 10th century, but has been plundered and burned down several times. The present building was built in mid-19th century (1816–1848). Located in the gorgeous mountain scenery of the mountains, it is considered the highest achievement of Bulgarian monumental architecture of the National Revival period (18th-19th centuries). It is also a monument of international significance, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the afternoon we’ll continue our scenic drive through the Rila Mountains, passing via the famous Borovets mountain resort. Late afternoon arrival in Plovdiv and settle in at your hotel (4* category), located in downtown area. Overnight in Plovdiv.

Day 5:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

All day in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city.

The ancient and picturesque city of Plovdiv has a history that dates back thousands of years, traces of which have survived to the present day. Recently, British archaeologists proclaimed Plovdiv to be the sixth oldest city in the world.

It was founded by the Thracians in the 2nd millennium BCE and called Eumolpia, and has had several names since then, like Philipopolis after Philip II of Macedon (342 BCE); Trimontium, i.e. ‘the City on Three Hills’ during the Roman times when it was the major city of the Roman province of Thrace (1st century CE).

The Old Town was built in the 18th-19th centuries as the center of the Bulgarian National Revival architecture. Along steep cobblestone lanes, behind stone walls and iron-studded heavy oak gates, one could glimpse at verdure and flowers, surrounding the typical Plovdiv symmetrical houses with their painted facades, oriels and jetties and grid windows. Every house here has its own style and atmosphere, its intimate world with carved ceilings and bright murals, window seats and fine furniture from Venice, Vienna and London.

During the day we’ll explore the historical, architectural and cultural landmarks of ancient Plovdiv.

In the morning we’ll see the 2nd century Roman forum and stadium, the fabulous Roman amphitheater, which was built during the time of Emperor Trajan (98-117), and the fortress walls of ancient Trimontium. We’ll also see Dzhumaya mosque which was built as an imperial mosque by Sultan Murad II in about year 1423. It is said to be one of the three examples of the oldest type of the Ottoman worship buildings still preserved on the Balkan Peninsula.

In the afternoon our walking sightseeing tour continues in the fascinating Old Town. We’ll see the charming Ethnographical museum and some of the museum-houses of prominent 19th-century Plovdiv citizens; the art gallery-museum of one of the most famous modern Bulgarian painters of the 20th century, and the beautiful St Constantine and St Helena church, completed in 1832, which contains murals painted by Zakhari Zograph, who was the best known Bulgarian artist during the period of the National Revival. After the tour, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to stroll in the Old Town or in the High Street on our own, and to enjoy the artistic manner of life, which is so typical for this charming city.

Overnight in Plovdiv.

Day 6:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

Transfer Day: Travel from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo.

In the morning we’ll take a scenic drive through the famous Valley of Roses. This is the home of Bulgarian Rosa Damascena, which is the source for the production of the exquisite and rare Bulgarian rose oil, also known as “attar of roses”, used as a key source for many of world’s finest perfumes. May and June are the most majestic months for visiting the Valley of Roses, as then the rose fields are blossoming and the whole valley is absorbed with rose fragrance. We’ll visit a rose oil distillery and plantation en route to learn about rose-growing and rose oil production in Bulgaria.

Rose picking lasts for about a month, from around May 20 to June 20, however this depends on the actual weather conditions. Rose picking is done early in the morning, from 5 a.m. till not later than 9-10 a.m. The process is very labor-consuming, for example a kilogram of rose oil requires about 300 kilograms of rose blossoms. A kilogram of rose oil costs about 5500 euros on the international markets.

Every first Saturday and Sunday of June the traditional Rose Festival takes place, which is unforgettable experience of Bulgarian beauty, merriment and hospitality.

Later in the morning we’ll stop in the town of Kazanlak to visit the world-famous Thracian tomb (4th century BCE), a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area around Kazanlak became particularly popular in the last two decades, as many new Thracian tombs were unearthed there, presenting the evolution of the Thracian culture in the 5th-4th century BCE. Bulgaria and the world started to speak about the Valley of the Thracian kings. The Kazanlak Thracian Tomb was the first cultural site in Bulgaria which was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. This mausoleum of 4th century BCE was discovered in 1944. The style is typical for Thracian tombs from the 5th to 4th century BCE, with a vaulted entrance corridor and a chamber topped by a beehive dome. The dome frescoes paintings are the greatest treasure of the tomb. They are a masterpiece of Hellenistic art and depict the civil and military life of a Thracian noble who was buried there. The original site is located inside a protected building, and the replica is right next to it and is open to visitors.

In the afternoon we’ll continue our scenic drive through the historical Shipka Pass in the Balkan Mountains, which is one of the most important roads connecting the South and the North part of Bulgaria. It is a famous historical site, due to the dramatic events during the War of Liberation (1877-1878). A bloody battle was fought here in August 1877 when 7500 Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers, held the position against 30,000 Turks. On top of the peak is the Monument of Freedom (over 30 m high), which was built in the period of 1926-1934 honoring to the soldiers who fell in the fierce battle to defend the peak. 894 steps lead up to the monument.

Later, we’ll stop to see the Etara Museum of Architecture and Ethnography. This is an open-air village museum with numerous artisan workshops, the only one of its kind in Southeastern Europe. It displays the authentic atmosphere of a typical Bulgarian town from the period of the National Revival in the 18th – 19th centuries. In the authentic workshops of the museum more than 20 traditional Bulgarian crafts are being practiced in their traditional technological cycle.

Late afternoon arrival in Veliko Tarnovo and settle in at your hotel (4* category), located in downtown area. Overnight in Veliko Tarnovo.

Day 7:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

All day in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital city.

The regal city of Veliko Tarnovo with its famed archeological sites was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185 – 1396), when Bulgaria was one of the largest states in Europe, until the Ottoman Empire captured it. The city has been at the center of many important historical events and was the birthplace of the first Bulgarian constitution. Perched on steep hills overlooking the Yantra River, the Old Town’s narrow, lantern-lit streets wind past ancient ruins and unique architecture. The Tsarevets Hill is a natural inaccessible fortress perched on a steep hill where the Royal Palace and the Patriarch Church once stood. There are also remarkable 12th–14th century medieval churches and monasteries, and also many historical buildings like the Town Hall (1872), where in 1879 the First Constitution of Bulgaria was proclaimed. Nowadays it houses the National Revival Museum. The Samovodene Market Street has been revived with its small workshops where master goldsmiths, potters, carvers, weavers and pastry cooks keep busy with their crafts. The nearby historical village of Arbanassi was known as the Royal residence of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It holds fast to the traditions of the Old Bulgarian architecture and its oldest stone buildings resemble inaccessible fortresses with their tiny windows like embrasures, but with richly decorated interiors of carvings and wrought iron, recalling the wealthy life of their former inhabitants. Of the 80 preserved houses, 36 have been declared national monuments of culture.

In the morning we’ll take a sightseeing walk in the Fortress at Tsarevets Hill and will visit the Museum of the National Revival, where the first Bulgarian Constitution was adopted in 1879. Afterwards we’ll take a short drive to the village-museum of Arbanassi, famous for its traditional architecture and the beautifully decorated Nativity church, dating from the 16th – 17th centuries. Dug into the ground with austere exterior, hidden domes and without a belfry, it is a genuine art gallery containing 3,500 figures painted by unknown masters of different periods. Our sightseeing tour continues in the afternoon viewing the architectural landmarks of the Old Town and in the Samovodene Market Street, a traditional 19th century artisan and shopping area. There are plenty of free time opportunities for enjoyable individual activities in the area.

Overnight in Veliko Tarnovo.

Day 8:

Breakfast: Hotel dining room.

Transfer Day: Travel from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest, Romania.

In the morning, en route, we’ll take a short detour to visit the historical site of the rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo, which were inhabited by monks in the 11th-14th centuries. Picturesquely situated in the valley of the Rusenski Lom River Nature Park, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its valuable murals from various ages. They are all full of life and light, showing many figures in expressive and dramatic poses against the architectural background.

Before crossing the Bridge of Friendship, that connects Bulgaria and Romania, we’ll make a short stop for a brief sightseeing walk in Ruse, the major Bulgarian city on the Danube River, with elegant architecture in Neoclassic and Secession styles.

We’ll continue our drive, proceeding for Bucharest, the capital city of Romania.

Arrival in Bucharest and settle in your hotel. Our Romanian partner will take over.

Overnight in Bucharest.

Bulgaria’s Tour Highlights:

- Visit 4 outstanding UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites

- The National Museum of History in Sofia

- Explore in the charming city of Plovdiv, considered 6th oldest city in the world, and in the picturesque Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital city (12th – 14th centuries)

- Exciting journey through the famous Valley of Roses