We depart this morning from London on a direct flight to Sofia - other regional flight connections and/or overnight accommodation before or after the tour available on request. On arrival we will be met by our coach and and we will be taken to our hotel.
After lunch (not included) we shall travel to the National Museum of History here in Sofia, which will give us a good introduction to our tour of Bulgaria. We will then visit the Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The east wing of this two-storey Orthodox church was originally constructed in the late 10th or early 11th century, the central wing was added in the 13th century under the Second Bulgarian Empire, and the whole building was finished with a further expansion to the west in the middle of the 19th century. The church is notable mainly for its frescoes from 1259, which form a second layer over the paintings from earlier centuries and represent one of the most complete and well preserved monuments of Eastern European mediaeval art. A total of 89 scenes with 240 human images are depicted.
We shall return to Sofia for our panoramic tour, the capital city of Bulgaria. In the course of our tour we will see the Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral, the 6th century Basilica of St. Sofia, Parliament Square, the National Theatre, the former Royal Palace, the 4th century St. George Rotunda (the oldest preserved building in Sofia), the ruins of Ancient Serdica and the Presidency.
We shall return to our hotel where dinner is served in the evening.
After breakfast we depart to the Arena di Serdica ruins in the centre of Sofia.
We shall then visit the newly opened Underground Museum. This unique museum is located under the ‘St Sofia’ church. On the four underground levels below the basilica visitors can see 56 tombs and four churches, one which dates back to the 4th century AD.
Later we leave Sofia and visit the remains of the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, which was founded by Emperor Trajan around 101–106 AD, at the junction of the Iatrus and the Rosita rivers, in memory of his victory over the Dacians. Archaeologists have uncovered the network of streets, planned according to the orthogonal system; the forum, surrounded by an Ionic colonnade and many buildings; a two-nave room later turned into a basilica and other public buildings. The rich architectures and sculptures show a similarity with those of the ancient towns in Asia Minor. In 447 AD, the town was destroyed by Attila's Huns. In the 6th century, it was rebuilt as a powerful fortress enclosing little more than military buildings and churches, following a very common trend for the cities of that century in the Danube area. A Bulgarian medieval settlement arose upon its ruins later (10th-14th century).
We will then proceed to Veliko Turnovo, our overnight stop for tonight. Here we will visit the hill fortress of Tsarevets, which served as the Second Bulgarian Empire's primary fortress and strongest bulwark from 1185 to 1393, housing the royal and the patriarchal palaces. There is also a modern reconstruction of Baldwin’s Tower, located on the site of the original medieval tower where Emperor Baldwin I of Constantinople, the leader of the 4th Crusade, supposedly met his death as a prisoner of Kaloyan of Bulgaria.
Dinner is served in the evening.
After breakfast we depart for a look at the Madara Horseman, the second of our UNESCO World Heritage sites, which is a large rock relief, dated to about 710 AD, depicting a majestic horseman, 75 feet above ground level. The horseman is shown thrusting a spear into a lion lying at his horse's feet, with an eagle flying in front of him and a dog running after him and is thought to depict a military triumph. The monument was created during the rule of the Bulgar Khan Tervel, and is probably a portrayal of the khan himself and a work of the Bulgars, a nomadic tribe of warriors which settled in northeastern Bulgaria at the end of the 7th century AD. Other theories connect the relief with the ancient Thracians, claiming it portrays a Thracian god.
We then proceed to the small town of Devnya (the old Roman/early Byzantine city of Marcianopolis) where we will visit the Mosaics Museum, which is built on top of a large ruined Roman villa from the late 3rd or early 4th century and exhibits mosaics from that period as well as other archaeological artefacts.
Later in the afternoon we continue to Varna on the Black Sea coast, where will have a panoramic tour of the town. Varna was inhabited even before the Greeks established the colony of Odessos here in about 580BC. Later, under the Romans and their successors, the Slavs, Varna became a major port trading with Constantinople, Venice and Dubrovnik.
We then continue to our hotel, where dinner is served in the evening.
Enjoy your breakfast. This morning we will visit the Archaeology Museum here in Varna, which houses the oldest golden treasure in the world, discovered at the nearby archaeological site of Varna Necropolis and dated to 5,000 BC.
We will then travel to the Roman Baths at nearby Odessos, which are among the best preserved monuments from the Roman presence in Bulgaria. They are also the biggest Roman bath complex on the Balkan peninsula and the fourth largest in Europe.
We conclude today with a visit to the Aladja Rock Monastery, a short drive from Varna. The monastery was founded in the 13th century, in rock caves which had been used as early as the 4th-6th centuries by hermits and brotherhoods of monks.
Dinner is served in the evening as we spend a second night here in Varna.
After breakfast we leave our hotel and travel south along the Black Sea coast to the town of Nessebur (another UNESCO World Heritage site). According to Strabo, the town was named Messambria (later altered to the Slavonic Nessebur), after the legendary founder – a Thracian by the name of Melsa coupled with the Thracian word for city, “bria”. The original settlement dates back to the 2nd millennium BC, while the Hellenic colony on this site was founded in 510 BC by Dorian settlers. Having captured Messambria in 72 – 71 BC, the Romans preserved the city intact, leaving a permanent garrison there. During the Roman epoch, new temples dedicated to Demeter, Asclepiad, Hecate and Isis were erected and on the northern shore of the peninsula the Temple of Zeus appeared. From the 4th century AD, Messambria maintained close links with Constantinople, and during the 7th century it became one of the “special” locations where out of favour politicians and courtiers were exiled from Constantinople. Visits are included to the local archaeology museum and one of the churches (of which there are around 80 to choose from!)
In the afternoon we go to Stara Zagora to visit the Neolithic Dwellings museum, which is built around two of the best preserved Neolithic houses in Europe. They date to the 6th century BC and yielded 1826 artefacts, the richest inventory of prehistoric house life in Europe. Shelves, hearths and pots can be seen in situ while the Art Exhibition displays hundreds of finds from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC.
Later we continue to Kazanlak, the centre of the Valley of Roses, also known as the ‘Valley of the Thracian Kings’. The Thracian tribes are first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, being described as brave warriors and excellent seafarers, and allies of the Trojans in their war against the Achaeans.
Dinner is served in the evening at our hotel here in Kazanlak.
Following breakfast this morning we will visit the Regional Museum in Kazanluk, which will give us an overview of the many discoveries made in the Valley of the Thracian Kings.
We continue to the suburbs of Kazanluk to visit visit two remarkable Thracian tombs. The Goliama Kosmatka tomb was unearthed in 2004. Believed to be the symbolic tomb of the Thracian king Seuthes III, it contained an enormous treasure, more than 70 silver, gold and bronze objects, which were used as ritual offering to the gods. The Ostrusha tomb was discovered in 1993 and dates back to the middle of the 4th century BC. It is divided into six parts and in the square southwest chamber a horse has apparently been offered as a sacrifice. The ceiling of the tomb is impressive with its sectional structure and the unique image of the face of a beautiful woman. The central chamber is carved out of a single granite block weighing about 60 tonnes. We shall also have time to visit a further two tombs the tomb with the Gryphons and the Thracian Necropolis Helvetia.
In the afternoon we shall visit the Kazanluk Thracian Tomb (a replica of the original site). All visits to the original Kazanluk Thracian tomb UNESCO site have been stopped to preserve the future of the site, therefore, we shall visit the copy of the site which is recreated some 50m from the original site. The tomb dates back to the 4th century BC and is part of a large Thracian necropolis, comprising a narrow corridor and a round burial chamber, both decorated with murals representing a Thracian couple at a ritual funeral feast. The murals are notable for the splendid horses and especially for the gesture of farewell, in which the seated couple grasp each other's wrists in a moment of tenderness and equality. The paintings are Bulgaria's best-preserved artistic masterpieces from the Hellenistic period. A replica of the tombs architecture and its fresco decoration can be found in the nearby museum.
Following our visit here we will have a look at the central part of the town of Stara Zagora, including the Roman Forum, then proceed to the ancient town of Nova Zagora and the nearby village of Karanovo, where there is a huge settlement mound which chronicles 5000 years of prehistoric culture in the region.
Later we return to our hotel in Kazanluk, where dinner is served in the evening.
After breakfast we depart for Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, which can trace its roots back to a Neolithic settlement of around 4000 BC. Thracians and Greeks settled here but it is the Roman legacy which dominates, as we will see when we visit the Amphitheatre, Stadium and the exhibition of Roman Mosaics. The Roman times were a period of growth and cultural excellence and these ancient ruins tell the story of a vibrant, growing city with numerous public buildings, shrines, baths, and theatres. The city had an advanced water system and sewerage and was defended with a double wall. Centuries later, Plovdiv became the focus for the Bulgarian National Revival, the period of national integration and socio-economic development during Ottoman rule (14th - 19th century), and we will visit the Old Plovdiv Architectural Reserve, a well-preserved old quarter from this period with beautiful houses, churches and narrow paved streets.
We will stop overnight here in Plovdiv, with dinner served in our hotel in the evening.
This morning, after breakfast, we visit our final UNESCO site, the famous Rila Monastery. A particularly scenic journey takes us high in to the Rila Mountains - the Monastery itself is at a height of 3763 feet above sea level. It was founded early in the 10th century and is named after the hermit Ivan of Rila (876-946 AD), who lived in a cave near here. Ever since its creation, the Rila Monastery has been supported and respected by the Bulgarian rulers, and large donations were made by almost every tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire up until the Ottoman Conquest, making the monastery a cultural and spiritual centre of Bulgarian national consciousness that reached its apogee from the 12th to the 14th century. Our tour of the monastery includes the old kitchen, the museum and the main church.
Following our visit we return to Sofia and our overnight accommodation. In the evening we will walk to a nearby local restaurant for our farewell dinner.
Following breakfast there will be some free time for shopping and sightseeing before we transfer to the airport for our return flight to London, where on arrival the group will disperse or make onward connections.