The Golden Balkans
Explore lands of Thracian gold, Byzantine monasteries and Roman cities on the ancient Via Egnatia and Via Militaris, roads connecting the mountains and valleys of the Balkan peninsula.
Journey through a region shaped by empire, from Alexander’s Macedon, Thracian kings, Byzantium purple and Ottoman Sultans, to the lost socialist republics of Yugoslavia and Albania.
Delve into the artistic traditions and culture of the region’s long and dynamic history, including Europe’s better kept secrets: the ancient Roman city of Plovdiv, Lake Ohrid’s Byzantine monasteries and the living medieval towns and glorious Greek cities along Albania’s Adriatic coast.
This tour is part of the World Art Tours program organised by the Art Gallery Society of NSW in partnership with Renaissance Tours.
Arrive in Sofia on suggested flights and make your own way to the hotel. Renaissance Tours or your travel agent can assist you with your flights and other travel arrangements including travel insurance (a condition of travel), private hotel transfer, accommodation before or after the tour and a room category upgrade.
At 18:00, attend a welcome briefing and talk by your tour leader, Iain Shearer, followed by dinner with Iain and fellow tour members.
After a morning talk, discover the ruins of the well-preserved remains of the ancient Roman city (Serdica) and the red brick rotunda Church of Saint George. Then, visit the National Archaeological Museum, housed within the oldest former Ottoman mosque in the city, with a large collection of pieces from Prehistory through the Thracian and Roman periods to Byzantine art.
In the afternoon, explore the fifth century Byzantine Church of Saint Sofia. Drive to the outskirts of the city to the National History Museum, home to 650,000 artifacts including the famous gold Panagyurishte Treasure, and to the nearby Boyana Church, with its colourful medieval frescoes.
Depart Sofia and travel to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and also one of its most ancient. Discover the Regional Archeological Museum and its rich collection of Thracian, Ancient Greek and Roman art, and see the stunning floor mosaics at the Trakart Cultural Centre.
Explore the charming cobbled streets of the old city of Plovdiv which contain a living museum of the various phases of Bulgarian domestic architecture, including the unique buildings of the National Revival style. A highlight of Plovdiv is the second century Roman amphitheatre built during the reign of Emperor Trajan. In the lower town, see the remains of the Roman Stadium, also built in the second century and modelled after the Greek stadium in Delphi.
Depart Plovdiv for Kazanluk, located in the Valley of the Roses, the geographical centre of Bulgaria. Visit the replica of the Thracian Tomb, a round burial chamber decorated with lively murals representing the military and political life of the Thracian leader. Continue to the “beehive” tomb of Thracian King Seuthes III, who ruled in the fourth century BC, and to the recently-opened Thracian tomb at Shushmanets.
Then, continue to Varna, one of the Black Sea’s major ports for over 2,000 years.
In the morning, visit the Archaeological Museum, housing an extraordinary collection of gold jewellery and artefacts excavated from a nearby necropolis, and the remains of the Roman Baths of Odessos.
Continue to the ancient city of Nessebar, originally a Thracian settlement, situated on a rocky peninsula on the Black Sea. Visit some of its stunning churches, including Saint Stephan Church and its remarkable frescoes and façade decoration.
Leave Varna and travel inland to see the Madara Rider, an impressive figure of a knight triumphing over a lion, carved into a 100-metre-high cliff in the eight century.
Continue to the small village of Sveshtari and visit the remarkably well-preserved Thracian Tomb. Built in the third century BC, the tomb reflects the fundamental structural principles of Thracian cult buildings. However, the tomb has a unique architectural décor, including ten female figures carved in high relief on the walls of the central chamber with polychrome half-human and half-plant caryatids.
In the late afternoon, arrive in Veliko Tarnovo, the former capital of Bulgaria and often referred to as the ‘City of the Tsars’.
This morning, explore the medieval fortress of Tsarevets, the Second Bulgarian Empire’s main fortress and its strongest bulwark from 1185 to 1393, housing the royal and patriarchal palaces.
Discover the nearby village of Arbanassi, an open-air museum of architectural and cultural heritage perched on a high plateau overlooking the Trapezitsa and Tsarevets hills. Visit the eighteenth century Konastanzalieva House and the Church of the Nativity, with its colourful seventeenth century frescoes.
Continue to Sofia, arriving in the late afternoon.
Visit the striking Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in the tenth century, it became the primary spiritual and cultural centre of Bulgaria. Devastated by fire in 1833, it was rebuilt and stands today as Bulgaria’s most impressive example of National Revival architecture.
Continue to the Bulgarian/Macedonian border and checkpoint. Following visa and passport formalities, drive to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia.
Following a morning talk by Iain, enjoy a walking tour of Skopje’s old quarter and discover the Stone Bridge, an historic landmark crossing over the river Vardar, and the Old Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the Balkans.
After lunch, visit the Archaeological Museum, which offers an interesting insight into the country’s history, from the early prehistory to the end of the Ottoman period.
Continue to the Memorial of Mother Teresa, a memorial built in her hometown and dedicated to her legacy. The Memorial House, erected on an old church where Mother Teresa was baptised, is remarkable for its futuristic architecture.
Depart Skopje and travel south to Bitola, an important historic trading centre and now the second largest city of North Macedonia. Enjoy a walking tour through its pedestrian streets, see the city’s iconic landmark – the Clock Tower – and some other important sites representative of the Ottoman period, including Isak Celebi and Yeni mosques.
Then, visit the ancient city of Heraclea Lyncestis, founded by Philip II of Macedon in the fourth century BC and then ruled by the Romans. Named in honour of the mythological Greek hero Heracles, the site comprises well-preserved mosaics, ancient theatre and Roman baths.
Continue to Ohrid, located on the north-eastern shore of Lake Ohrid, arriving in the late afternoon.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Ohrid was among the most important religious centres in the Balkans, with 365 churches erected in the small city. Spend the day exploring Byzantine and Slavic Orthodox monasteries, including the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, the Church of Saint John the Theologian and the Church of Saint Sophia, home to eleventh- to fourteenth- century frescoes and paintings.
After lunch, visit Saint Naum Monastery, built in the tenth century on the shores of Lake Ohrid close to the Albanian border. The massive monastic complex includes the Church of Saint Naum where his grave and paintings of his miracles are located.
In the morning, transfer to the Macedonian/Albanian border and checkpoint. Following visa and passport formalities, continue to Berat in Albania.
Arrive in the afternoon in Berat, an elegant stone-and-alabaster city built on the steep slopes of Mount Tomorri that remains a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town.
After a morning talk, explore Berat’s lower town and mangalem area, where many Ottoman houses are scattered across the hills, and some of its old mosques including the Sultan’s Mosque, one of the oldest in Albania.
Then, discover the old town and the impressive medieval citadel situated above the village. Visit the Church of Saint Mary and its museum that displays outstanding icons from the sixteenth century.
This morning, visit the large Apollonia Archaeological Park. Established in the sixth century BC on a hilltop by Corinthian colonies, the ancient city took its name from the god Apollo. Among the ruins of Apollonia can be found the portico of a temple, an Odeon theatre, surrounding walls and a stadium.
Continue to the hillside town of Gjirokaster, arriving in the late afternoon.
Begin your exploration of Gjirokaster’s old town, one of the best examples of Ottoman towns in the Balkans, that comprises over 600 Ottoman houses. Wander through the picturesque, cobbled streets, visit a traditional Ottoman house and the old bazaar that sits beneath the castle walls.
Then, transfer to the Butrint archaeological site located near the Greek border. Founded by the Greeks in the sixth century BC, Butrint became a prominent trading city, later converted to a Roman centre, then a bishopric and then finally abandoned in the late Middle Ages.
Continue to the nearby coastal city of Saranda, located on the shores of the green-blue Ionian Sea.
Today, travel north along Albania’s rugged coastline, stretching along the Adriatic and the Ionian seas, with scenic vistas and turquoise waters.
Visit Durres, established in the sixth century BC by the Greeks, that became an important port and trade city during the Roman period. Discover the Roman amphitheatre, one of the largest in the Balkans, the Byzantine forum and ancient city walls.
Continue to Tirana, the capital of Albania, arriving in the late afternoon.
This morning, explore Skanderbeg Square, the main plaza in the city centre named after the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, see the old Ottoman mosque Et’hem Bej and the Clock Tower surrounding the square.
Then, visit the National History Museum, home to many of the country’s archaeological treasures from the Neolithic to the Communist regime, including medieval artefacts and jewellery excavated from tombs, and a replica of Skanderbeg’s sword.
Tonight, celebrate the conclusion of the tour with a special farewell dinner with Iain and fellow travellers.
Tour arrangements conclude after breakfast.
For those returning home today, make your way to Tirana Airport for suggested flights to Australia or New Zealand. Renaissance Tours or your travel agent can assist you with your flights and other travel arrangements, including a private airport transfer, additional nights’ accommodation either before or after the tour and travel insurance (a condition of travel).
Per person, twin-share
Deposit per person (at time of booking)
Final payment due
08 March 2024
Room category upgrade available on request; please enquire with us.
Tour price includes
- Accommodation in 3- to 5-star hotels with breakfast daily (B)
- Meals as per itinerary (L = Lunch, D = Dinner), including drinks with dinners
- Comprehensive sightseeing, including local guides and entrance fees as per itinerary
- Transportation throughout on comfortable, air-conditioned coaches
- Lectures and talks with your tour leader, Iain Shearer
- Gratuities for local guides, drivers and wait staff
- Hotel porterage (one piece per person)
Tour price does not include
- International airfares (please contact Renaissance Tours or your travel agent for assistance)
- Airport/hotel transfers on arrival and departure
- Airport porterage
- Items of a personal nature (e.g. telephone, laundry, room service, minibar, taxis etc.)
- Travel insurance (a condition of travel; please contact Renaissance Tours or your travel agent for assistance)
Sofia – Grand Hotel Sofia*****
Plovdiv – Doubletree by Hilton Plovdiv Center****
Varna – Rosslyn Dimyat Hotel*****
Veliko Tarnovo – Yantra Grand Hotel***
Skopje – Skopje Marriott Hotel*****
Ohrid – Unique Resort****
Berat – Portik Hotel***
Gjirokaster – Hotel Fantasy****
Saranda – Hotel Butrinti****
Tirana – Rogner Hotel*****
N.B. Hotels of a similar standard may be substituted.
Tour code: AG2404
Fitness level: Above Moderate
Please see Terms & Conditions for fitness level definitions here.
Suggested airline: Emirates
Please contact Renaissance Tours or your travel agent for current airfares and flight reservations.
Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania – No visa required for Australian and New Zealand passport holders.
Download booking form here.