Selected departures from April to October 2019
Bulgaria is astonishing for its varied landscapes but perhaps more so for its unique blend of ancient history and contemporary culture. Visitors adore its fine-sand beaches and ski resorts, but one of Europe’s oldest countries holds many more surprises waiting to be unearthed. Fragments of Serdica – as Sofia the capital was known to the ancient Romans – were discovered as recently as 2010 and can be seen at the city’s central metro station!
A Thracian tribe, the Serdi, settled in the region as far back as the Bronze Age, but it was the conquering Romans who brought Serdica to its zenith during the reign of Constantine the Great. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Bulgarians and Byzantine Empire fought for control until Sofia was captured by the Ottomans and held for nearly 500 years. Independence came for Bulgaria in the late 19th century, but a post-World War II alliance kept the country under tight Soviet grip. As communist governments fell, Bulgaria was finally released and is now firmly focused on moving forward as one of the EU member states. The Bulgarians of today are incredibly proud of their heritage and rightly so. Millennium-old folk traditions run parallel with modern life, creating an endlessly fascinating culture. Keeping these customs alive are folk schools, where children learn the dances and songs of yesteryear. In many villages, it’s not uncommon to see locals travelling by horse and cart or trekking into the mountains with mules.
The landscapes of Bulgaria are as diverse as its cultural legacies. Spectacular mountain ranges offer world-class skiing and hiking trails, while the fertile plains of the northeast are commonly referred to as the country’s ‘breadbasket’. Different microclimates create ideal conditions for producing excellent red and white wines. The beautiful Kazanlak Valley is renowned for its roses, making Bulgaria one of the largest producers of quality rose oil.
When it comes to the cuisine, you may recognise flavours introduced by past rulers – the Greeks, Italians, Turkish and Russians – yet the result is unique. Bulgarian food tends to be fresh, hearty and satisfying. Soups, stews and salads commonly feature on menus alongside grilled meats. Try the classic combination of ‘rakia’ or Bulgarian brandy, along with a Shopska salad of tomatoes, red peppers, cucumbers and crumbled cheese.
During our riveting tour, you’ll experience Bulgaria’s historic heavyweights, Sofia the exuberant capital and Plovdiv the ancient cultural centre. We’ll visit some of the world’s best-preserved and most important religious sites, including the revered monasteries at Rila and Bachkovo, plus the incredible Boyana Church with its exceptional medieval art. Bulgaria has a millennium-old heritage of viticulture, which we’ll discover on our visit to a local wine producer – with a tasting included, of course. Gifted with the incredible heritage of so many ancient civilisations, Bulgaria is an extraordinary place to explore them all.
Arrive at the airport for your flight. On arrival, we transfer by coach to your hotel, the four-star superior Hilton Sofia in the heart of the city, where we stay for three nights with breakfast.
Few cities carry an ancient past with youthful exuberance as effortlessly as Sofia. Within the bustling capital is an impressive collection of architectural treasures from some of the greatest civilisations. Thracian foundations, Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and an Ottoman mosque are interspersed with neoclassical buildings and Soviet-style skyscrapers.
This morning, we follow in the footsteps of past rulers on a walking tour of the city centre. Rising like resplendent crowns are the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the symbol of Sofia. This neo-Byzantine masterpiece houses Bulgaria’s largest collection of religious art, with more than 200 icons dating from the 13th century in its crypt. Bathed in flickering candlelight, the poignant paintings of saints set in carved wooden screens appear almost ethereal. Nearby is the fourth-century Sveta Sofia, the city’s second-oldest church after which the capital was named. Concealed beneath is an entire Roman necropolis, where a museum features the remains of tombs and previous churches on which Sveta Sofia was built! We’ll also see the beautiful Russian Church with its green-tiled roof, golden domes and glittering mosaics.
The ruins of ancient Serdica are scattered across the city – and it’s exhilarating uncovering them at the eponymous metro station! Surrounded by the bustle of modern life are fragments of eight streets, an Early-Christian basilica, plus houses and baths from the fourth to the sixth centuries. Close by is Sofia’s only functioning mosque, the splendid 16th-century Banya Bashi with its red-brick minaret, designed by the chief Ottoman architect responsible for the Selimiye Mosque in Turkey. Then there’s the Largo, an intriguing ensemble of Stalinist edifices including the former Communist Party House, an impressive neoclassical structure that stands testament to Bulgaria’s communist period.
We then drive southwest to the affluent suburb of Boyana to visit Sofia’s most revered church and one of Bulgaria’s first UNESCO-listed sites, the 10th-century Boyana Church. Miraculously spared destruction by the Ottomans, it is renowned for its incredible frescoes, some of the most complete and perfectly preserved examples of European medieval art, comparable to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, yet preceding them by over a century.
Later we return to the city centre with free time to relax or further explore on your own. So densely packed with monuments is Sofia that every step reveals a new discovery. Perhaps visit the superb National Archaeological Museum whose intriguing façade, fronted by relics, belongs to a 15th-century Ottoman mosque. Step inside and admire the extensive collection of artefacts from the empires that have occupied the city. Look out for the fourth century BC Thracian burial mask and the original mosaic floor from the Sveta Sofia church. For a change of scenery, Sofia’s many manicured parks and gardens offer a refreshing respite.
This morning we drive south to the foothills of the Rila mountains, called ‘mountains of water’ by the Thracians for the pristine glacial lakes that glisten between the peaks. Rising from a forested valley against a backdrop of misty mountains is the outstanding Rila Monastery, recognised by UNESCO for its historic significance. Founded in the 10th century by St John the hermit, the monastery became Bulgaria’s spiritual and cultural centre in the Middle Ages. Having survived several sackings by the Ottomans and a terrible fire in 1833, with donations from the wealthy and the masses funding its rebuilding, the monastery has come to symbolise the indomitable Bulgarian spirit.
During our tour, we’ll stroll through the fortress-like complex under black-and-white striped archways supported by elegant colonnades. Beneath the church’s large domes are vivid frescoes depicting religious scenes, which our guide will bring to life. Included is a visit to the monastery museum, where there’s a wonderful display of manuscripts, icons and some of the nation’s first printed books. Don’t miss the sublime Rafail’s Cross – 104 religious scenes featuring 650 miniature figures were painstakingly carved on a wooden crucifix measuring a mere 81cm by 43cm! For a glimpse of life in the brotherhood, you may wish to wander through the old kitchens and see its vast cauldrons.
After a fascinating journey back through time, we return to Sofia in the late afternoon.
We depart Sofia after breakfast and travel east to Plovdiv, possibly Bulgaria’s prettiest city and undeniably its artistic and cultural capital, well-poised to be a European Capital of Culture in 2019. Plovdiv is also the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe – the remains of settlements dating to 7000 BC were discovered around the area! Although it’s been nicknamed ‘the city of seven hills’, you may struggle to find them all as one was demolished a century ago to accommodate expansion. It’s easy to spot three of these hills, which inspired the Romans to name the city Trimontium.
Today we learn about Plovdiv’s rich history on a walking tour of the historic centre, filled with colourful National Revival mansions from the 19th century that now house interesting museums and galleries. We’ll soon see the ancient Roman amphitheatre, one of the world’s best-preserved and simply astonishing to behold. Capable of hosting up to 7,000 spectators, its 28 concentric rows of marble seats face south towards the city with fine uninterrupted views of the breathtaking Rhodope Mountains. It’s still a magical venue today for concerts and opera performances. Nearby are the remains of the ancient stadium of Philippopolis, named after Philip II of Macedonia. Today most of it is buried beneath the main pedestrian street, but the excavated northern end can be viewed in the city square. Overlooking the carefully restored remains is the grand Dzhumaya Mosque, the country’s first, built in the 14th century with an imposing minaret towering more than 75 feet high. To the east is one of the gates of Philippopolis, initially constructed during the reign of Hadrian.
There’s time to explore at your own pace. Delve deeper into Bulgaria’s past at the Archaeological Museum and observe its compelling collection of Thracian and Roman artefacts. For art aficionados, there’s a wonderful gallery of antiques, as well as paintings by local artists at the Balabanov House, one of Plovdiv’s most beautiful National Revival-era mansions. Perhaps join the locals on a refreshing stroll through the lovely Tsar Simeon Garden, or head to the lively Kapana artistic quarter, lined with excellent restaurants and cafés.
Our stay in Plovdiv is at the four-star Ramada Plovdiv Trimontium for two nights with breakfast. Some departures will stay at the four-star Imperial Plovdiv Hotel. Tonight we enjoy an included dinner at a local restaurant.
This morning we head south through the scenic Chepelare river valley to the foothills of the majestic Holy Mountain of the Rhodopes, named so for the abundance of religious sites in the area. Here we visit the oldest and most important monastery, famed for its beautiful frescoes by Zahari Zograf, arguably the most famous Bulgarian painter of the National Revival. The UNESCO-listed Bachkovo Monastery was founded in 1083 and its two-storey ossuary, unique in the entire Eastern Orthodox world, still survives from this time. We’ll see the Church of the Holy Archangels, a rare example of a double-storey building from the 12th to 14th centuries. Within the main cathedral is the treasured icon of Virgin Mary, which attracts queues of pilgrims who believe in its miracle-working powers. The museum of the Bachkovo Monastery contains rare religious artefacts from different periods. One of the most interesting areas of the complex is the refectory, whose walls and ceilings are adorned with paintings of some of the most celebrated thinkers, such as Socrates and Aristotle.
After our visit we continue to the Thracian lowlands, one of Bulgaria’s most notable wine regions. Protected from harsh winds by the immense Balkan Mountains, the temperate climate here is ideal for producing quality varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and the famous local wine, Mavrud. It may come as a surprise to discover that Bulgaria has been making wines for a thousand years, and under communist rule, the country was the world’s second-largest exporter. To sample some wonderful local varieties and learn more about Bulgarian viticulture, we visit a local producer.
Later we return to Plovdiv with free time to make the most of our final evening. Perhaps browse the delightful shops for some souvenirs, or dine at one of the city’s many superb restaurants. You may wish to revisit the Roman theatre nearby at sundown to admire Plovdiv and the Rhodope Mountains bathed in the soft glow of the setting sun – a memorable conclusion to our compelling tour!
Transfer to Sofia airport for your flight home.
The price of this holiday is per person based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are subject to availability at the relevant supplement. The price includes return flights, airport departure taxes, five nights accommodation with breakfast and one dinner at a local restaurant, all local taxes, all tours as mentioned, all transport, guided tours of Sofia and Plovdiv, guided tour and entrance to Rila Monastery and museum, entrance to Boyana church, guided tour and entrance to Bachkovo Monastery, wine tasting and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
We want to ensure you make the correct choice before you book your holiday with us. If you have any concerns regarding the suitability of the holiday due to reduced mobility we would encourage you to call us to discuss these concerns. General information on mobility in connection with our tours can be found here.
All transfer times listed here are approximate, and dependent on traffic. If you have a question regarding transfer times please don't hesitate to contact us.
|Arrival airport||First hotel location||Transfer time||Final hotel location||Departure airport||Transfer time|
|Sofia Airport||Sofia||20 mins||Plovdiv||Sofia Airport||2 hrs|