Bulgaria & the Black Sea: Painted Towns, Byzantine Monasteries & Thracian Treasures

11 May – 24 May 2017

  • Region:
    • Bulgaria
    • Europe
    • Late Availability
  • Status: limited
  • Code: 21734
Overview

Tour Highlights

  • Bulgarian archaeologist Dr Katya Melamed leads this tour, travelling from Sofia across to the Black Sea coast. Katya will be assisted by ASA tour manager, Russell Casey.
  • The cosmopolitan capital of Sofia, including the National Archaeological Museum and the World Heritage-listed Boyana Church – its stunning, richly coloured, 13th-century frescoes are among the oldest and most interesting examples of Eastern European medieval art.
  • Rila Monastery – spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site with brightly coloured frescoes.
  • A journey through the Pirin Range to the town of Bansko with fine timber-framed stone houses; home to the Holy Trinity Church and the famous 18th century icon painting school.
  • Roman archaeological sites of Plovdiv.
  • A well-preserved group of Neolithic dwellings at Stara Zagora.
  • Important Thracian (Greek) tombs of Kazanluk, Goliama Kosmatka, Ostrusha and Sveshtari with beautiful 4th-century BC frescoes and reliefs; and the Thracian Art Museum containing the exact replica of the Tomb of Alexandrovo.
  • Unique regional architecture – especially the National Revival architecture of Bulgarian towns such as Veliko Turnovo and distinctive local arts and cultures, such as the wood carving of Tryavna and artisans’ workshops of Etara.
  • Music performances including a concert by the Orthodox choir in Kazanluk.
  • Extraordinary natural beauty of diverse landscapes: lofty mountain ranges, lovely valleys, plains and meadows and ancient mineral springs.
  • A three-day excursion to the Black Sea coast, including visits to the Horseman of Madara bas relief, Varna’s Archaeological Museum (housing an extraordinary collection of 6000-year-old gold ornaments) and the Byzantine churches of Nessebar.
  • The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, a UNESCO World Heritage site containing wonderful examples of Bulgarian medieval art.

14-day Cultural Tour of Bulgaria

Overnight Sofia (2 nights) • Bansko (2 nights) • Plovdiv (3 nights) • Kazanluk (1 night) • Veliko Turnovo (2 nights) • Varna (3 nights) • Bucharest, Romania (1 night)

Overview

From bustling Sofia, we journey over the deeply forested Balkan Mountains to the historic maritime highway of the Black Sea, crossing the broad waters of the Danube to Bucharest. Contemporary Bulgaria owes much to its Thracian, Slavic and Turkic history. Golden Byzantine beauty and Ottoman sophistication meld into Bulgaria’s unique, richly coloured culture. Opulent painted hues animate intricate frescoes at the UNESCO world heritage sites of Boyana Church and remote, mountainous, glinting gold-leafed Rila Monastery. Preobrazhenski, Arbanassi, Bachkovo monasteries, and Bansko, bring medieval pilgrimage and faith to life. Christian belief and strong citadels succoured medieval Bulgarian identity. Hilltop Veliko Turnovo, former capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, combines fine churches with an unconquerable fortress; Baldwin I of Flanders was imprisoned in one its towers. At the well-preserved prehistoric village of Stara Zagora and Thracian Sveshtari and Kazanluk we plunge back into deep time to explore Bulgaria’s roots. The subterranean Thracian tombs at Kazanluk were once filled with the finest gold of the ancient world, which we view in Sofia’s National Museum. Aleksandrovo’s Museum of Thracian Art displays a reconstructed tomb with colourful painted hunting scenes. Sveshtari has extraordinary sculpted caryatids, exceptional in the ancient world. At Kazanluk, once the centre for Rose Attar, an elixir gracing the Courts of Ottoman Sultans and European aristocrats, the Orthodox choir of St Elias will enchant. We wander the cobbled streets of Roman Plovdiv’s old medieval town, with painted houses redolent with Balkan atmosphere. In Tryavna we explore stunning vernacular National Revival architecture decorated with traditional woodcarving. Ancient gold glitters again at Varna, home to master metalworkers 6000 years ago – their creations unequalled for two millennia. The rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo arguably best exemplify the Bulgarian tradition of rich decoration, light and energy. Their expressive interiors shimmer with naturalistic landscapes of intense drama and thrilling atmosphere. Bulgaria offers a heady mix of folk music, roses, sultans and warlords, woodcarving and frescoes, saints, slaves and kings.

Itinerary

The following itinerary lists a range of site visits which we plan to visit. Many are accessible to the public, but some require special permission which may only be confirmed closer to the tour’s departure. The daily activities described in this itinerary may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules and confirmation of private visits. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches and evening meals, indicated in the itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch & D=evening meal.

Sofia - 2 nights

Day 1: Thursday 11 May, Arrive Sofia
  • Airport transfer for participants arriving on the ASA ‘designated’ group flight
  • Group Dinner at the hotel

Our tour commences in Sofia. Those arriving on the ASA ‘designated’ flight will be transferred by private coach to the Grand Hotel Sofialocated in the heart of the city, overlooking the city garden and the National Theatre. If you are travelling independently to Sofia, ASA can arrange a private transfer for you, or you should take an officially marked taxi to the hotel. Tonight we shall have an early dinner together at the hotel. (Overnight Sofia) D

Day 2: Friday 12 May, Sofia
  • National History Museum
  • Boyana Church
  • Parliament Square
  • Roman Walls
  • National Theatre & City Garden
  • Presidency
  • Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church
  • St Sofia Church
  • Serdica Archaeological Complex
  • Welcome Dinner

Sofia has an ancient history. Numerous Neolithic villages have been discovered in the area, and a Chalcolithic settlement has been recently discovered in the very centre of the modern city. The Thracian Serdi tribe settled here in the 7th century BC, and they gave Sofia its first recorded name – Serdica. The Byzantines called it Triaditsa and the Slavs – Sredets. In the 3rd century AD, the Romans built strong walls around Serdica, their capital of Inner Dacia and an important stopping point on the Roman road from Naisus (present Nish, Serbia) to Constantinople. Today there are many interesting archaeological sites in Sofia that display the city’s diverse history – the castle gates and towers of Serdica, public buildings and streets thousands of years old. Unfortunately many of the most important sites are inaccessible, hidden beneath modern buildings. But despite extensive reconstruction in the 20th century, Sofia does contain hidden pockets of great beauty, remnants of the Orthodox Bulgarian Empire.

We begin today by visiting Boyana, a suburb at the foot of Mount Vitosha which overlooks Sofia. Here we first visit the National History Museum, which has an excellent didactic display tracing the history of Bulgaria from prehistory to the 19th century. This exhibition will help you to understand the pattern of the country’s past.

Nearby, we visit the small 11th-century Boyana Church. Its stunning, richly coloured, 13th-century frescoes are among the oldest and most interesting examples of Eastern European medieval art. Their naturalism is arguably in advance of that of the proto-Renaissance in Italy. The Boyana Church has been heritage listed by UNESCO.

After lunch we return to Sofia to see the remains of the city’s Roman walls and, in stark contrast, the Presidency, the National Theatre, Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church and the Basilica of Saint Sofia. Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church was completed in 1912 in honour of the Russian casualties of the 1877-78 War of Liberation from Ottoman Rule. Gold-domed, it is one of the most ambitious and richly elaborated churches in the Balkans. Craftsmen and artists from six countries worked on the five-aisle church in the course of thirty years and created real masterpieces in the form of icons, frescoes, murals and huge chandeliers. The interior decoration, with Italian marble, Egyptian alabaster, Brazilian onyx, gold and beautiful mosaics, embodies the spirit of the finest Eastern Orthodox traditions.

St Sofia church is of profound symbolic importance because, in the 14th century, it gave the city the name it retains today. This Byzantine basilica was built during the reign of the great emperor Justinian in the sixth century. It has survived intact, preserving its 1600-year-old mosaic details.  An optional visit to the basilica’s basement reveals the remains of two or maybe even three earlier churches, destroyed in the barbarian invasions of Goths in the fourth century and Huns in the 5th century.

We also visit Sofia’s ancient Serdica Archaeological Complex, which opened in April 2016. This new complex  offers visitors a glimpse into the Bulgarian capital city’s ancient Roman past. The complex, largely below street level and covering an area of about 9000 square metres, includes eight streets, an early Christian basilica – believed to have been built in two stages in the 4th to late 5th centuries, and the late 5th to late 6th centuries, and the largest and earliest found from ancient Serdica – six large buildings and a late medieval church.

This evening enjoy a Welcome Dinner in one of Sofia’s local restaurants. (Overnight Sofia) BLD

Bansko - 1 night

Day 3: Saturday 13 May, Sofia – Rila Monastery – Bansko
  • St George Rotunda
  • National Archaeological Museum, Sofia
  • Rila Monastery
  • Dinner in a mehana (traditional restaurant)

This morning we commence with a visit to the small Rotunda of St George. This 4th-century brick building in the courtyard behind the Sheraton Hotel is adorned with finely preserved early medieval frescoes. There are also remains of a 2nd-century street and other Byzantine ruins on the site.

Next, we visit Sofia’s National Archaeological Museum, which occupies a former Ottoman mosque in the heart of the city. This collection has priceless treasures from antiquity as well as the first and second Bulgarian kingdoms.

Mid-morning we depart for Rila Monastery, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant whose dishes include grilled trout. Rila Monastery is Bulgaria’s largest monastery, holiest place and greatest pilgrimage centre. Located in a narrow valley of the Rila Mountains, it grew from an original 10th-century foundation by Ivan Rilski, leader of a community of hermits. The present monastery was founded in the 14th century and, despite periods of decline, became a dominant feudal institution, instrumental in preserving Bulgarian religion and culture when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire. It consists of a huge enclosure protected by lofty walls. On the interior side of the walls are lovely, painted wooden balconies, behind which are the monks’ cells and areas designated to services like hospitals and a massive kitchen which could serve thousands of pilgrims at a time.

We then drive to the pretty town of Bansko, nestled in a verdant landscape set against the ice-capped Mt Vihren, highest peak of the Pirin range. This evening we dine in a local mehana. Mehanas are small, cosy restaurants which serve traditional food and entertain guests with Bulgarian folk music. (Overnight Bansko) BLD

Plovdiv - 3 nights

Day 4: Sunday 14 May, Bansko – Velingrad – Plovdiv
  • Walking Tour of Bansko
  • Holy Trinity Church, Bansko
  • Permanent Icon Exhibition ‘Bansko Art School’
  • The Regional Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv

Bansko became a sleepy backwater in the 20th century, and hence preserves much of the style of the former agricultural life of the country. The old town of Bansko has fine timber-framed stone houses protected by stout walls built to withstand siege, and great double doors. Many of these houses were built in the nineteenth century when Bansko grew wealthy from its role as an entrepôt on the trade route to the Aegean port of Kavalla.

Many of the merchants who benefitted from this trade endowed a beautiful church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, that we will visit as we stroll through the old town. Built in 1835, the Holy Trinity complex consists of a church and bell tower, surrounded by a one-metre thick and four-metre high stone wall. At its main entrance a Christian cross and a Turkish crescent symbolises tolerance between religions. The interior of the three-naved sanctuary is impressive, featuring a magnificent iconostasis carved in hazelnut wood and beautiful frescoes. These masterpieces are the work of the 18th-century artist, Veljan Ognev. The most outstanding representative of the Bansko art school, Dimitar Molerov, decorated the icons. Until Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was completed in 1912, this was Bulgaria’s largest church.

Nearby we also visit the exhibition of icon paintings containing original eighteenth-century icons, painted by representatives from the famous Bansko Icon-Painting School, some of which are from the Rila Monastery.

We next drive into the Rhodopes, headed for Plovdiv. These mountains formed in legend when Rhodopis, the lover of Hem, was transformed for daring to call herself Hera. This mountainous area of Bulgaria has powerful memories, for it gave birth in antiquity to Orpheus and the Orphic cult. It has only recently been made accessible to travellers. It has a large Turkish population and is the one region which saw large-scale conversion to Islam after the Ottoman invasion.

We lunch at the popular spa town of Velingrad before driving to Plovdiv to visit the Regional Archaeological Museum (RAM). One of the first Bulgarian cultural institutions, the museum officially opened in 1882. Its funds initially consisted of a numismatic collection of 1500 coins, ethnographic and historical documents, church plates, and incunabula from the 8th-17th centuries AD, as well as 300 icons and paintings by some of the most famous Bulgarian painters Stanislav Dospevski, Ivan Lazarov, Tzanko Lavrenov, Nikolay Rainov, Zlatju Boiadjiev, and many others. Today the museum boasts one of the richest collections of 100,000 exhibits of artefacts related to the history of Plovdiv and its region. Plovdiv is the heir to one of the biggest and most famous ancient towns in the Balkan Peninsula – Philippopolis. (Overnight Plovdiv) BLD

Day 5: Monday 15 May, Plovdiv
  • Traditional Houses of Plovdiv’s historic centre
  • Roman Theatre
  • Trakart Cultural Centre
  • Time at leisure

Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, is a worthy rival to Sofia. Its situation astride the River Maritsa, and its three hills which are prominent features on the Thracian plain, indicate its strategic significance and account for its long history. Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks and Bulgarians have all left their architectural mark on the city. High up on its hill, for example, is the ruined citadel of Nebet Tepe, first fortified in the 5th century BC by a Thracian tribe, and subsequently seen as an essential target by every successive conqueror of this region.

This morning we visit the historic centre of Plovdiv. The old town is a feast of traditional architecture, especially of the National Revival style, here more sophisticated than in Bulgaria’s small towns and villages. There is a veritable warren of cobbled alleys, along some of which ancient fortress walls from the Byzantine period are to be seen. A prominent house with a striking symmetrical appearance is the Lamartine House, named after the French poet who stayed here in 1833 while writing his Voyage en Orient. Several of the old houses are now delightful restaurants, for example the Alafrangite and Puldin, and these give a good idea of the opulence of these mansions in their heyday.

We also visit the Roman theatre, which was discovered after a landslide in 1972. This magnificent 2nd-century AD amphitheatre, built during the reign of Emperor Trajan, once held around 6000 spectators.

After lunch at a local restaurant in this historic core of the city, we end the day’s program with a visit to the Trakart Cultural Centre, which contains an excellent exhibition of floor mosaics from a residential building from the 4th century AD, left in situ. The large mosaics show a female head surrounded by geometric patterns and the name Eirene.

The remainder of the day is at leisure for you to further explore Plovdiv. You may wish to visit the Georgiadi House, which also has a remarkable exterior. Inside, there is a small Museum of the National Liberation Struggle. Another handsome building houses a permanent exhibition of the works of Zlatyu Boyadjiev (1903-1976), who painted many scenes of Bulgarian village life. (Overnight Plovdiv) BL

Day 6: Tuesday 16 May, Plovdiv – Alexandrovo – Haskovo – Bachkovo Monastery – Plovdiv
  • Thracian Art Museum containing an exact replica of the Alexandrovo Tomb
  • Bachkovo Monastery

This morning we make an excursion to the village of Aleksandrovo, where in 2000, the Tomb of Aleksandrovo was discovered during excavations of the Roshava Chuka (‘Rockpile Peak’) Thracian burial mound. This Thracian tomb is one of the most important archeological discoveries ever made in Bulgaria. It was built during the second half of the 4th century BC as a final resting place for an unknown wealthy Thracian ruler. The Aleksandrovo Tomb is one of the largest complexes of its type, and its unique frescoes on a variety of subjects cover the whole tomb, from the corridors to both burial chambers. The most complex of the frescoes are in the circular chamber. Most of the images depict hunting scenes. In 2009, the Museum of Thracian Art in the eastern Rhodopes was opened in the immediate vicinity of the tomb. Here we view an exact replica of the tomb.

We transfer to Haskovo for lunch at a local restaurant housed in a building of the National Revival architecture style before driving to Bachkovo Monastery, second in size only to Rila Monastery and is also heritage listed by UNESCO. Inaugurated in 1083, it was restored many times. Its oldest building is its church, Sveta Bogoroditsa, which has a rich program of murals, including a powerful ‘Last Judgement’. Elsewhere, paintings depict a varied iconography such as a narrative of the monastery’s history and the slaying of a dragon, a Thracian archetype which was transformed by Christians into the personae of St George and St Demetrios. This image can be interpreted as symbolising the Bulgarian struggle against the Turks. (Overnight Plovdiv) BL

Kazanluk - 1 night

Day 7: Wednesday 17 May, Plovdiv – Stara Zagora – Kazanluk
  • Neolithic Dwellings Museum, Stara Zagora
  • Eastern Orthodox Choir Concert, St Elias in Kazanluk
  • Kazanluk Thracian Museum & Thracian Tomb replica
  • Goliama Kosmatka Thracian Tomb (original tomb)
  • Ostrusha Tomb (original tomb)

Today we drive north-west into the Valley of the Roses via the provincial city of Stara Zagora, where we visit the best-preserved prehistoric site in Europe. The site, now incorporated into a purpose-built museum, consists of the remains of two dwellings. These are so extraordinarily well preserved that it is possible to discern where people stored food, cooked and performed other household tasks, and slept. Within these spaces lies a large amount of pottery which was used for a variety of purposes.

After visiting this site, we turn north to Kazanluk, located in the Valley of the Roses. The valley takes its name from roses originally imported from India and which, until recently, supplied seventy per cent of the world’s rose oil. On arrival we attend a short concert by an Eastern Orthodox choir in the Church of St Elias.

After lunch we visit the Thracian Tomb in Kazanluk (we hope for permission to enter the original Kazanaluk tomb, if not possible there is an excellent replica), decorated with beautiful 4th-century BC frescoes. This mausoleum of the 4th century BC was discovered in 1944. The style is typical of Thracian tombs from the 5th to 4th century BC, with a vaulted entrance corridor and a chamber topped by a beehive dome. The tomb has fine reliefs and interesting early paintings. The reliefs depict architectural and plant motifs and battle scenes. The dome paintings are the greatest treasure of the tomb. They are a masterpiece of Hellenistic art and depict a funeral feast and racing chariots.

Next, we visit the Goliama Kosmatka (‘Big Hairy’) Mound. Inside is situated one of the most majestic and rich Thracian tombs with a completely preserved grave of a Thracian king, buried with his horse. It was built in the 5th century BC and consists of three chambers and a corridor with a total length of 26 metres. The first room is rectangular, and a skeleton of a horse has been discovered in it. The second room is round, with a beautiful 450-centimetre-tall dome-shaped roof. There is a marble door with images of people at the entrance of this room. The third room is actually a monolithic granite block – a sarcophagus weighing about sixty tons. There is an inner room, carved into it with great precision, and inside it is the stone bed of the Thracian ruler who was buried here. More than twenty gold objects of great artistic value were discovered inside the sarcophagus – a gold wreath with oak leaves and acorns, a wine chalice, horses’ appliques, a wine glass, gold coins from the time of King Sevt, a deer’s head, a goddess’s head, as well as numerous silver and bronze vessels. Of no lesser value is the iron sword with golden application, a bronze sword, a helmet, an armour-plate, as well as other weapons. The life-size bronze head of a bearded man with eyes made of precious minerals is quite intriguing. The size of the tomb and the great value of the treasures prove that an important Thracian ruler was buried here.

We end the day visiting the Thracian tomb of Ostrusha located near the Bulgarian town of Shipka. The Ostrusha mound, a Thracian burial tumulus, was constructed in the middle of the 4th century BC. The stone structures under the more than 18-metre-high mound form one of the biggest representative tomb-cult complexes with six rooms on an area of 100 square metres. It was professionally excavated in 1993. One of the chambers is fully maintained. It is made of two carved-out solid granite blocks, weighing a total of more than 60 tons. The roof block is divided into dozens of square and circle shaped niches filled with masterfully painted portraits, scenes with people, fighting between animals, plants and geometric decorations. Most of the frescoes are severely damaged, apart from a portrait of a young noblewoman. A horse with full set of silver appliques, as well as a gilded armour collar and two silver vessels, were found in one of the other rooms that was not robbed in antiquity. (Overnight Kazanluk) BLD

Veliko Turnovo - 2 nights

Day 8: Thursday 18 May, Kazanluk – Shipka Pass- Etara – Tryavna – Veliko Turnovo
  • Shipka Memorial Church
  • Shipka Pass Monument
  • Etara Architecture and Ethnographic complex
  • Museum of the Wood-Carving and Ethnographical Arts, Tryavna

This morning we drive to the magnificent Russian-style Shipka Memorial Church (1902), which is dedicated to some 7000 Russian troops and Bulgarian volunteers who died at the nearby Shipka Pass resisting attempts by 27,000 Turkish soldiers to break through to relieve their comrades besieged in nearby Pleven. The Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 was a watershed in the development of modern Bulgaria.

From the Shipka Memorial Church we continue north to Veliko Turnovo via the Shipka Pass, Etara and the village of Tryavna. Our journey provides beautiful panoramas of the Valley of the Roses, relieved everywhere by the mounds of Thracian tombs.

Etara is a fascinating open-air museum in which priceless examples of old Bulgarian architecture and artisan workshops have been gathered. The centre functions like a town in which artisans use 19th-century water-power to turn wood, weave, etc. There are blacksmiths, carpet weavers, cobblers, tinsmiths, makers of delicious cakes and buns, an original Turkish coffee house, and a studio where some of Bulgaria’s most famous icon painters work.

After lunch in Etara, we drive to Tryavna. This is a national centre of wood carving, and most of its lovely nineteenth century houses post-date the creation of the Guild of Master-builders and Woodcarvers (1804). The carvings which grace the houses are a delight. The town has a beautiful square from the National Revival period dominated by a stone clock tower with a picturesque wooden belfry. Ulitsa Slaveykov is arguably the best National Revival streetscape in Bulgaria. We shall spend the early afternoon in Tryavna and then drive north to the dramatically situated Veliko Turnovo. (Overnight Veliko Turnovo) BLD

Day 9: Friday 19 May, Veliko Turnovo – Arbanassi – Preobrazhenski Monastery – Veliko Turnovo
  • Tsarevets Royal Hill & Fortress, Veliko Turnovo
  • Konstantsaliev’s House, Arbanassi
  • Church of the Nativity of Christ, Arbanassi
  • Preobrazhenski Monastery (Monastery of the Transfiguration of God)
  • Samovoden Street, Veliko Turnovo

The old quarter of Veliko Turnovo is one of the most dramatically situated towns in the world. Its houses cling to the steep sides of three hills in the Tsarevets Massif overlooking the Yantra River, interspersed with highly evocative fortifications. Le Corbusier saw the town as a stunning example of organic architecture. Veliko Turnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom which held sway between 1185 and 1396 and then became a centre of resistance against the Turks. It is also surrounded by monasteries and small towns huddled in the mountains which were founded when the town’s aristocracy left the city after it was finally conquered by Ottoman forces. Veliko Turnovo is dominated by the medieval citadel of Tsarevets, which we view from nearby hills. Its profile is inflected by the highly evocative Baldwin’s Tower which takes its name from the fact that the first Frankish emperor of Byzantium, Baldwin of Flanders, was incarcerated here in 1205 (the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade had sacked Constantinople a year earlier and set up a western kingdom there).

We then drive the short distance to the picturesque mountaintop village of Arbanassi, where we will have lunch. Arbanassi’s wealthy merchants, aristocrats who had fled the capital below, built large, fortress-like stone houses around a beautiful urban centre endowed with churches, chapels and public drinking fountains. We spend the afternoon visiting the village. Here we shall visit the lovely Church of the Holy Nativity. Its exterior has little that is church-like, as it had to conform to Ottoman restrictions on church-building. But within the walls everything changes. Every centimetre of its interior is covered by brilliantly coloured frescoes, one of the most extensive Byzantine iconographic cycles in existence.

Mid-afternoon we travel deeper into the forested mountains to the lonely Preobrazhenski Monastery, a small foundation made especially picturesque both by its somewhat dilapidated state and by its extraordinary location beneath dauntingly high cliffs. The monastery, however, has some truly important paintings, including a Wheel of Life painted by the important artist Zahari Zograph (1849).

We shall then return to Veliko Turnovo to allow you to stroll along some of the city’s quaint streets, including Samovoden Street, which has a number of antique and craft shops. (Overnight Veliko Turnovo) BLD

Varna - 3 nights

Day 10: Saturday 20 May, Veliko Turnovo – Sveshtari – Madara – Varna
  • Sveshtarska Tomb, Sveshtari
  • Madara Horseman

This morning we drive west to the Black Sea via the small village of Sveshtari. Near this village we visit a most important Thracian tomb that was discovered in 1982. This tomb of the third century century BC gives you a clear vision of the structure of Thracian cult buildings. It is distinguished from other Thracian structures, however, by unique architectural decor, with polychrome half-human, half-plant caryatids and wall paintings. Ten of these high-relief female figures decorate the walls of its central chamber. These and the tomb’s vault decoration are the only examples of their type found so far in the Thracian lands. The tomb provides a vivid image of the culture of the Getes, a Thracian people who were in contact with the Hellenistic world.

We shall also see the great carving of the so-called Madara Horseman etched twenty-three metres above ground level into the living rock of an almost vertical hundred-metre high cliff. The horseman is thrusting a spear into a lion lying at his horse’s feet. A dog runs after him. The Madara Horseman was carved at the very beginning of the 8th century AD, some three decades after the foundation of the Bulgarian State (681). Large rock-cut images of this type have a long heritage leading back to the ancient Achaemenid and Sasanian cliff sculptures of Persia. Sculptures like these portrayed the power of regimes for millennia. The Madara Horseman marked the recognition of the Bulgarian Kingdom by the Byzantine Empire. (Overnight Varna) BLD

Day 11: Sunday 21 May, Varna – Pobiti Kamani – Varna
  • Varna Archaeological Museum
  • Pobiti Kamani (The Stone Forest)

This morning we visit the Varna Archaeological Museum, one of Bulgaria’s principal collections that displays treasures from all periods of the city’s history. In 1972, excavations in the Varna Necropolis revealed almost two thousand gold artefacts from about 4000 BC; these are arguably the oldest worked gold pieces ever discovered. A highlight is the remains of a tribal leader wearing skillfully-made jewellery and surrounded by personal possessions. Many displays have magnifying glasses which reveal the complex, minute details of the consummate craftsmanship of these gold workers. Other exhibition halls contain Greek and Roman antiquities, including some fine ceramics, icons, weapons and materials from the 19th-century struggle for independence.

In the afternoon we drive some 18 kilometres west of Varna to visit one of Europe’s two deserts (the other is in Spain) to explore the ‘stone forest’ known as Pobiti Kamani, translated to English as ‘hammered stones’. The desert consists of sand dunes from which, over an area of 13 square kilometres, protrude myriad hollow stone columns that are between 5 and 7 metres high and from 0.3 to 3 metres thick. For centuries this extraordinary forest of stones was thought to be man-made, and myths proliferated about their origins. They are now known to be natural underwater chimneys. Some 590 million years ago, when much of Bulgaria and Romania were beneath the sea, gases were released from the seabed to rise through the layers of sludge as bubbles. As the sludge hardened to a crust these bubbles would force their way up through flues in the layers of sediment, and over millions of years these created a series of stone ‘chimneys’. When the sea finally receded the area dried to form a barren, sandy landscape. Much of the limestone was eroded away, leaving only solitary stone chimneys rising out of the desert. (Overnight Varna) BLD

Day 12: Monday 22 May, Varna – Nessebar – Varna
  • Archaeological Museum
  • St John Baptist Church
  • St Stefan Church
  • Basilica of the Holy Mother of God Eleusa
  • Time at leisure

This morning we drive south along the Black Sea coast, to visit the old city of Nessebar and its fine churches. Founded by Megarans, who called it Messembria, it prospered as the only Dorian colony on the Black Sea; all other colonies here were Ionian. Conquered by Rome in the first century BC, it remained a substantial Byzantine city until incorporated into the first Bulgarian kingdom by Khan Kroum (812 AD). It was at this time that many of the city’s myriad churches were built. Today Nessebar is famous for these monuments.

We shall visit the remains of the Byzantine basilica, and two beautiful churches from the period of the first Bulgarian kingdom. Of these, St Stefan Church has a particularly interesting façade decoration and 14th- and 15th-century frescoes. These Bulgarian masterpieces show the way in which the first kingdom derived much of its architectural culture from the Byzantines. After lunch at a local restaurant in Nessebar we return to Varna, where the remainder of the afternoon will be at leisure to relax at our lovely hotel or explore the town. (Overnight Varna) BL

Bucharest - 1 night

Day 13: Tuesday 23 May, Varna – Ivanovo – Rousse – Bucharest
  • The UNESCO Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo
  • Farewell Dinner

This morning we depart Varna and travel 200kms north-west to the valley of the Roussenski Lom River where a complex of rock-hewn churches, chapels, monasteries and cells developed in the vicinity of the village of Ivanovo. This complex, noted for its beautiful and well-preserved medieval frescoes, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

The frescoes of the Ivanovo churches reveal an exceptional artistry and a remarkable artistic sensitivity for 14th century painting and Bulgarian medieval art; they are an important achievement in the Christian art of south-eastern Europe. Posterior to the Khora monastery mosaics (Karia Djami) of 1303-10, these frescoes, by their very expressiveness surpass any other historical monuments discovered, characteristic of the Palaeologues’ style. Neo-classical in spirit and in elements of their subjects, the frescoes represent a departure from the canons of Byzantine iconography. They show close ties with expressive Hellenistic art and a clear preference for the nude, the landscape, an architectural background in a composition, drama, an emotional atmosphere – qualities which combine to make an exceptional masterpiece of the Turnovo school of painting and monumental art.

The five historical monuments in this group (chapels, churches, etc.), dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, serve as examples that pave the way for the distinctive character development, and mastery in the art of the Second Bulgarian State (1187-1396). The richness, the variety of the cells, chapels, churches, monastery complexes, the original architectural solutions – all set in a magnificent natural environment – confirm the value of this extraordinary historical grouping.

In the afternoon we drive to Bucharest. This evening we enjoy a farewell dinner at a traditional restaurant in the old part of the city. (Overnight Bucharest) BLD

Day 14: Wednesday 24 May, Depart Bucharest
  • Airport transfer for participants departing on the ASA ‘designated’ flight

Our tour ends in Bucharest. If you are travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight you will be transferred to the airport. If not, you may take a taxi or arrange a transfer with ASA, or stay on to see more of this fascinating country. Please contact ASA if you require further assistance. B

Accommodation

14-day Cultural Tour of Bulgaria

All hotels are rated 3, 4 and 5-star locally and are comfortable and conveniently situated. All rooms have en suite bathroom. Double/twin rooms for single occupancy may be requested – and are subject to availability and payment of the Double (as Single) Supplement. Further information on hotels will be provided in the ‘Tour Hotel list’ given to tour members prior to their departure.

  • Sofia (2 nights): 5-star Grand Hotel Sofia – located in the heart of the city, overlooking the city garden and the National Theatre. www.grandhotelsofia.bg
  • Bansko (1 night): 5-star Lucky Bansko Apart Hotel & Spa – with a lovely location and beautiful views of the Pirin Mountains. luckybansko.com
  • Plovdiv (3 nights): 4-star Ramada Plovdiv Trimontium Hotel – located near the main shopping and business district in Plovdiv, 3.8 kilometres from the old town. www.ramada.com
  • Kazanluk (1 night): 3-star Hotel Palas – a modern hotel located in the centre of town. www.hotel-palas.com
  • Veliko Turnovo (2 nights): 3-star Hotel Gurko – a delightful and charming family-run hotel offering 21 comfortable rooms, located in the historic centre. www.hotel-gurko.com
  • Varna (3 nights): 5-star Graffit Gallery Hotel – a modern hotel located in the city centre, 400m from the coast of the Black Sea and a 5-6 min walk to Slivnitsa Str, which is the pedestrian street that leads to the city garden. www.graffithotel.com
  • Bucharest (1 night): 4-star Mercure Bucharest City Center – a modern new hotel (opened in November 2014) located in the city centre, 350m from the National Museum of Art of Romania; various luxury stores, shops, restaurants and cafes can be reached within a 10-minute walk. www.mercure.com

Notehotels are subject to change, in which case a hotel of similar standard will be provided.

How to book

Make A Reservation

ASA RESERVATION APPLICATION FORM

Please complete the ASA RESERVATION APPLICATION and send it to Australians Studying Abroad together with your non-refundable deposit of AUD $500.00 per person (payable to Australians Studying Abroad).

Passport Details

All participants must provide no later than 75 days prior to the commencement of the program a photocopy of the front page of their current passport.

Double (as Single) Supplement

Payment of this supplement will ensure accommodation in a double (or twin) room for single occupancy throughout the tour.  The number of rooms available for single occupancy is extremely limited. People wishing to take this supplement are therefore advised to book well in advance.

Gallery Tour Map
Physical Endurance & Practical Information
Physical Rating

The number of flags is a guide to the degree of difficulty of ASA tours relative to each other (not to those of other tour companies). It is neither absolute nor literal. One flag is given to the least taxing tours, seven to the most. Flags are allocated, above all, according to the amount of walking and standing each tour involves. Nevertheless, all ASA tours require that participants have a good degree of fitness enabling 2-3 hours walking or 1-1.5 hours standing still on any given site visit or excursion. Many sites are accessed by climbing slopes or steps and have uneven terrain.

This 14-day Cultural Tour of Bulgaria involves:

  • Visiting some sites and towns (eg Plovdiv) that require walking up steps or uphill on uneven/cobbled streets. Cobbled streets can be very slippery during rain showers!
  • A moderate amount of walking and standing during museum and other site visits.
  • Extensive coach travel including winding mountain roads.
  • The use of audio headsets which amplify the voice of your guide (despite noisy surroundings). This technology also allows you to move freely during site visits without missing any information.
  • 3- to 5-star hotels with six hotel changes.
  • You must be able to carry your own hand luggage. Hotel porterage includes 1 piece of luggage per person.

It is important to remember that ASA programs are group tours, and slow walkers affect everyone in the group. As the group must move at the speed of the slowest member, the amount of time spent at a site may be reduced if group members cannot maintain a moderate walking pace. ASA tours should not present any problem for active people who can manage day-to-day walking and stair-climbing. However, if you have any doubts about your ability to manage on a program, please ask your ASA travel consultant whether this is a suitable tour for you.

Please note: it is a condition of travel that all participants agree to accept ASA’s directions in relation to their suitability to participate in activities undertaken on the tour, and that ASA retains the sole discretion to direct a tour participant to refrain from a particular activity on part of the tour. For further information please refer to the ASA Reservation Application Form.

Practical Information

Prior to departure, tour members will receive practical notes which include information on visa requirements, health, photography, weather, clothing and what to pack, custom regulations, bank hours, currency regulations, electrical appliances and food. The Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade website has advice for travellers: www.smartraveller.gov.au

Tour Price & Inclusions

AUD $5290.00 Land Content Only – Early-Bird Special: Book before 30 June 2016

AUD $5490.00 Land Content Only

AUD $590.00 Double (as Single) Supplement

For competitive Economy, Business or First Class airfares and/or group airfares please contact ASA for further information.

Tour Price (Land Content Only) includes:
  • Accommodation in twin-share rooms with private facilities in 3-, 4- and 5-star hotels
  • Breakfast daily, lunches and evening meals indicated in the tour itinerary, where: B=breakfast, L=lunch & D=evening meal
  • Drinks at welcome and farewell meals. Other meals may not have drinks included
  • Transportation as outlined in the tour itinerary by air-conditioned coach
  • Airport-hotel transfers if travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flights
  • Porterage of one piece of luggage per person at hotels (not at airports)
  • Lecture and site-visit program
  • Tour Notes
  • Entrance fees
  • Use of audio headsets during site excursions
  • Tips for the coach driver, local guides and restaurants for included meals
Tour Price (Land Content Only) does not include:
  • Airfare: Australia-Sofia, Bucharest-Australia
  • Personal spending money
  • Airport-hotel transfers if not travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flights
  • Luggage in excess of 20kg (44lbs)
  • Travel insurance
  • Visas (if applicable)
Terms & Conditions
Deposits

A deposit of $500.00 AUD per person is required to reserve a place on an ASA tour.

Cancellation Fees

If you decide to cancel your booking the following charges apply:

  • More than 75 days before departure: $500.00**
  • 75-46 days prior 25% of total amount due
  • 45-31 days prior 50% of total amount due
  • 30-15 days prior 75% of total amount due
  • 14-0 days prior 100% of total amount due

**This amount may be credited to another ASA tour departing within 12 months of the original tour you booked. We regret, in this case early-bird discounts will not apply. We take the day on which you cancel as being that on which we receive written confirmation of cancellation.

Unused Portions of the Tour

We regret that refunds will not be given for any unused portions of the tour, such as meals, entry fees, accommodation, flights or transfers.

Will the Tour Price or Itinerary Change?

If the number of participants on a tour is significantly less than budgeted, or if there is a significant change in exchange rates ASA reserves the right to amend the advertised price. We shall, however, do all in our power to maintain the published price. If an ASA tour is forced to cancel you will get a full refund of all tour monies paid. Occasionally circumstances beyond the control of ASA make it necessary to change airline, hotel or to make amendments to daily itineraries. We will inform you of any changes in due course.

Travel Insurance

ASA requires all participants to obtain comprehensive travel insurance. A copy of your travel insurance certificate and the reverse charge emergency contact phone number must be received by ASA no later than 75 days prior to the commencement of the tour.

Final Payment

The balance of the tour price will be due 75 days prior to the tour commencement date.

Limitation of Liability

ASA is not a carrier, event or tourist attraction host, accommodation or dining service provider. All bookings made and tickets or coupons issued by ASA for transport, event, accommodation, dining and the like are issued as an agent for various service providers and are subject to the terms and conditions and limitations of liability imposed by each service provider. ASA is not responsible for their products or services. If a service provider does not deliver the product or service for which you have contracted, your remedy lies with the service provider, not ASA. ASA will not be liable for any claim (eg. sickness, injury, death, damage or loss) arising from any change, delay, detention, breakdown, cancellation, failure, accident, act, omission or negligence of any such service provider however caused (contingencies). You must take out adequate travel insurance against such contingencies. ASA’s liability in respect of any tour will be limited to the refund of amounts received from you less all non-refundable costs and charges and the costs of any substituted event or alternate services provided. The terms and conditions of the relevant service provider from time to time comprise the sole agreement between you and that service provider. ASA reserves the sole discretion to cancel any tour or to modify itineraries in any way it considers appropriate. Tour costs may be revised, subject to unexpected price increases or exchange rate fluctuations.

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