Bulgaria: Old Europe
Discover Bulgaria, one of Europe’s richest areas for archaeology and one of its oldest mainsprings of culture. Led by Professor Andrew Poulter, a specialist in Bulgarian archaeology, our tour travels from capital to coast through the country’s impressive ancient sites, historic towns and unspoilt Balkan landscapes.
Overview: As the gateway between Europe, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, this cosmopolitan land has created, over the millennia, a remarkably significant world heritage. Hidden for decades behind the Iron Curtain, now is the time to experience its wealth of prehistoric, classical and medieval treasures, from the world’s oldest gold to unique Thracian tombs, thriving Roman cities, Byzantine Orthodox gems and the legacy of the Slavic Khans.
Dates & Prices:
- 11–22 May 2019. Early booking price only £1595.
- 28 September–09 October 2019. Early booking price only £1595.
- Single supplement only £195.
Reserve your place early for a best price guarantee.
- Eleven nights centrally-located 4-star hotel accommodation (see ‘Hotel’ tab above).
- All breakfasts, six evening meals and three lunches.
- Daily excursions with all entrances, guiding and transport (see ‘Itinerary’ tab above).
- Led by a specialist in Bulgarian archaeology, supported by a local Bulgarian guide.
- Flexible flight arrangements and airport transfers (see ‘Flights’ tab above).
- 100% TTA financial guarantee.
Meal arrangements: This tour has a balance of included and independent meals. For your convenience we have included evening meals on the first night at each hotel, and also three lunches in the remoter areas. The rest of the time is left free for you to explore the local cuisine and we have made sure that our hotels are centrally located within walking distance of a good selection of local restaurants.
Your Tour Director
Professor Andrew Poulter holds a research chair in Late Roman and Early Byzantine archaeology at the University of Birmingham. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and also of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. His academic research and tour leading have taken him to many parts of Europe, but his direction of large-scale excavations in Bulgaria for many years makes him particularly valuable on this tour.
This tour is not especially challenging and simply requires a reasonable level of mobility and independence. As usual, there is plenty of walking and standing, sometimes on uneven ground, but the pace is quite gentle and stops are frequent. Feel free to ask us for more details.
Flights and Extended Stays
Flights are added on a personal basis rather than included in the tour price. This gives you complete freedom to choose your preferred departure airport, flight times, length of stay, airline etc. We will be pleased to quote and book flights for you, and any extended stays, or you can book your own if you prefer. Flights booked with us are fully ATOL protected and can be available from as little as £100 return.
How To Book
Reservations & Enquiries: To reserve your place or enquire further simply fill in the booking form, or call us on (UK) 0121 444 1854. There is no commitment and no payment at this stage; reservations are purely provisional until we have confirmed availability and proceeded with booking and payment.
Booking & Payment: Once you have checked availability and reserved your place, we will require your full details and a deposit of £250 per person to secure your booking. This can be done with a credit/debit card over the telephone (0121-444-1854) or by sending us a completed booking form and cheque. To print a booking form click here.
See our booking conditions for further details.
All Hidden History’s tours include a host of fully guided excursions and interesting talks to create an enriching travel experience. They also include some luxury and leisure by choosing great hotels and keeping the itineraries fairly relaxed and varied. More about What to Expect…
Departure TimeDeparts 11 May 2019 and 28 September 2019.
Day 1: Arrivals.
You are met on arrival at Sofia Airport and transferred to your city centre hotel for your first two nights’ accommodation. After settling-in you are invited to join your tour director for an early evening meeting and lecture, followed by an included three-course evening meal in the hotel.
Day 2: Sofia.
Today we explore Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. We take in all the main sights and include visits to the Ancient Serdica Complex, the National Archaeological Museum, Saint George’s Rotunda, Saint Sophia Church and Alexander Nevski Cathedral. We also return to Sofia for our last day, when there will be a further opportunity to see the sights. Dinner is independent this evening so that you can sample the city’s cuisine.
Sofia has been the capital of Bulgaria since 1879, when the nation was liberated from Ottoman rule by Russia. This youthfulness is complemented by an exotic feel from its position on the outer fringe of Europe, oriented east and south as much as west, and for decades locked behind the Iron Curtain. The magnificent Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with its neo-Byzantine style, Orthodox domes and Russian connections, is a symbol of recent Bulgarian history.
The city’s name derives from the Greek word for wisdom, sophia, and the saint of the same name whose 6th century church is one of the oldest in the city. Recent excavations have unveiled Thracian and earlier prehistoric settlement but it is the Roman remains which really impress. Indeed, the emperor Constantine considered making the city (then called Serdica) his eastern imperial capital, before he finally determined on Byzantium (Constantinople) just 500 km further east at present-day Istanbul.
Day 3: Rila Monastery.
Leaving Sofia we travel into the forested mountains of south-west Bulgaria to Rila, the most famous of Bulgaria’s Eastern Orthodox monasteries. In its peaceful and dramatic setting, this large and beautiful monastery, with its colourful art and architecture, was founded in the 10th century by the heavenly protector of the Bulgarians, Saint John of Rila. It remains today the spiritual cradle of the country, a working monastery and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We include lunch in a nearby mountain restaurant and then continue to our hotel in Plovdiv, where we stay for two nights. Dinner is included in the hotel this evening.
Day 4: Plovdiv.
Known for its vibrant cultural and artistic life, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second largest city and the 2019 European Capital of Culture. It is also one of Europe’s oldest cities, with settlement stretching back to the Neolithic before it became a Thracian town, and then the important Roman city of Trimontium. Under subsequent Slavs, Byzantines and Ottomans, the city retained its cultural and economic importance and played a central role in the 19th century Bulgarian National Revival. The result is a fine historic city with a wonderful atmosphere where we spend the day enjoying its numerous monuments and buildings, and exploring its narrow paved streets. Dinner is independent this evening.
Day 5: Hissar and the Valley of the Thracian Kings.
A short drive brings us to Hissar, where the hot mineral water springs have attracted people since ancient times. The town’s heyday was in the late Roman era when it was probably named Diocletianopolis, after the emperor Diocletian. The remains today give us a remarkable impression of a late Roman city with fortifications that rank amongst the best preserved in Europe.
Hissar is also the gateway to the archaeologically rich Valley of the Thracian Kings, also known as the Valley of the Roses for its history of exquisite rose oil production. Here we explore the largest concentration of Thracian burial tombs in the country; some 1500 treasure-filled tumuli dating largely from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC. The elaborate architecture, artistic decoration and rich grave goods of the tombs attest to the wealth and sophistication of the Thracian rulers and aristocrats. The Thracians take Bulgaria from the Bronze Age into the historic period through contact with Greeks, Persians and Romans until eventually assimilated by the Slavs and Bulgars. They therefore retain a powerful indigenous presence in Bulgarian identity, and interesting connections with wider events.
We begin by seeing the spectacular finds of gold and silver on display in the Kazanlak Museum before visiting a selection of the best tombs in the valley. Soon after leaving the valley we arrive at our hotel in Stara Zagora, where we stay for two nights. Dinner is included in the hotel this evening.
Day 6: Stara Zagora and Alexandrovo Tomb.
This morning we focus on the pleasant small town of Stara Zagora which contains a surprising archaeological asset; one of Europe’s oldest and best preserved prehistoric houses, dating from the sixth millennium BC. We find it in the Neolithic Dwellings Museum where we also see some excellent examples of Neolithic art and artefacts. In the town centre we discover the remains of Augusta Traiana, the town’s Roman name in honour of the emperor Trajan, and in the basement of the Regional History Museum we find ourselves walking on the main street of the town which flourished during the 2nd century AD.
In the afternoon we take a drive of about one hour to the Alexandrovo tomb, one of the largest and best preserved of Bulgaria’s Thracian tombs. It was built in the 4th century BC for an unknown ruler and its interior walls are covered with unique and colourful frescoes which inform about Thracian culture. Dinner is independent this evening so that you can enjoy the atmosphere of the town.
Day 7: Karanovo and Nessebar.
Leaving Stara Zagora we head eastwards to the Black Sea coast. We stop first at one of Bulgaria’s most important prehistoric sites, the Karanovo Tell. This large settlement mound has a 12 metre deep stratigraphy covering some 4000 years of successive occupation by generations of people from the early Neolithic to the early Bronze Age, a rare sequence of value not only in Bulgaria but also to the wider prehistory of ‘Old Europe’.
Arriving at the Black Sea coast, our next stop is the ancient city of Nessebar, beautifully situated on a small peninsula linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. We include lunch here before visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site. The significance of the site lies in its multi-layered cultural heritage with tangible archaeology stretching from the Bronze Age through Thracian, Greek, Roman and Medieval times. Throughout all these centuries the city thrived as one of the largest trading posts on the Black Sea coast, with its connections to the ancient Mediterranean world, and it also became an important centre of Christianity with numerous medieval churches of outstanding architectural interest. In fact, it contains more standing Byzantine churches than anywhere in the world apart from Constantinople (Istanbul).
We finish the day a little further up the coast at Varna, where we stay for two nights. Dinner is included in the hotel this evening.
Day 8: Varna.
Varna is a popular seaside resort and also home to Bulgaria’s largest Roman baths complex. But it is the city’s prehistoric cemetery that has captured the world’s archaeological interest. Some 300 graves are dated to around 4500 BC and contained some 3000 gold artefacts, internationally considered the oldest gold treasure in the world. The finds attest to the scale of early metallurgy in the Balkans and, furthermore, the riches were found in just a handful of graves, making them the oldest evidence for social hierarchies, including the oldest known burial of an elite male. In a European context this Varna Culture was clearly advanced for its age, perhaps the most sophisticated part of ‘Old Europe’.
Under water survey has demonstrated the existence of wooden houses of the same period as the cemetery, but these await full exploration. In fact, excavation of the prehistoric cemetery itself has been halted, and the site infilled for posterity, but the magnificent finds are on display in the Varna Archaeological Museum. Our morning tour of Varna takes in the museum, while the afternoon is free to relax and enjoy this attractive seaside resort. Dinner is independent this evening so that you can enjoy the atmosphere of the town.
Day 9: Madara, Shumen and Veliko Tarnovo.
Leaving the Black Sea behind us we make our way back into central Bulgaria. We stop first at Madara, the principal sacred place of the First Bulgarian Empire. Here we view the Madara Rider, a unique relief carved into a 100 metre high cliff. It is an exceptional work of art from the 8th century AD, the earliest years of the Bulgarian state, and the inscriptions beside it are a chronicle of important events concerning the reigns of famous Khans.
Nearby, at Pliska, we find the remains of Bulgaria’s first capital. It was founded in the late 7th century and served until the end of the 9th century when the capital was moved to Preslav. Today we can see the remains of the Eastern Gate, the Imperial Palace and the Great Basilica which signalled the Bulgar’s conversion to Christianity in 864.
After an included lunch, we head for our final destination of the day; the picturesque city of Veliko Turnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, where we stay for two nights. Dinner is included In the hotel this evening.
Day 10: Nicopolis ad Istrum, Etur and Veliko Tarnovo.
We will explore the old town of Veliko Turnovo later today but first we must visit the nearby Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, an important element in Rome’s Danube frontier. It was excavated by your tour leader, Professor Poulter. Translating as ‘town of the victory on the Danube’, the city was founded in c. 110 by the emperor Trajan after his victories over the Dacians in 101 and 106. Excavation has shown that the city grew into a major urban centre until destroyed by Atilla’s Huns in the 5th century. After this, during Justinian’s Byzantine re-conquest, the city contracted into a military and ecclesiastical stronghold . It was finally destroyed by the Avar invasions at the end of the 6th century.
We include a traditional Bulgarian lunch today at the museum village of Etur, perched high up in the ‘Old Mountains’ south of Veliko Turnovo. The village contains excellent examples of 19th century Bulgarian houses and local crafts. Returning to Veliko Turnovo, we have the rest of the day to explore the medieval streets of the old town and admire the views from the Tsaravets Fortress, home of Bulgarian kings from the 12th to 14th centuries. Dinner is independent this evening so that you can enjoy the atmosphere of the town.
Day 11: Sofia.
We take the morning to travel to Sofia and then have the afternoon to visit anything we missed on our first day, perhaps the Boyana Church and the National History Museum. In the evening we include a farewell dinner in a city centre restaurant, a chance to celebrate the experiences, knowledge and friendships gained on your tour.
Day 12: Departures.
You will be transferred to Sofia airport for your return flight home. Or why not stay longer in Bulgaria, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Please note that we sometimes have to change hotels for reasons beyond our control. However, we always choose 3 or 4-star hotels with high standards and great locations, designed to give you a little luxury and leisure alongside your cultural enrichment.
Sofia, 3 nights: The 4-star Hotel City in Sofia is part of the Best Western Premier Collection. It has an excellent location in the city centre, only 200 yards from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Address: 6 “Stara Planina” Str., Sofia, Bulgaria.
Plovdiv, 2 nights: The 4-star Ramada Plovdiv Trimontium occupies an impressive period property in the heart of this historic city.
Address: 2 Kapitan Raicho St., Plovdiv 4000.
Stara Zagora, 2 nights: The 4-star Hotel Efir is a refined boutique hotel in the centre of Stara Zagora.
Address: 52 H. D. Asenov Str., Stara Zagora 6000.
Varna, 2 nights: The 4-star Hotel Golden Tulip is a classic, comfortable hotel in the centre of Varna.
Address: 3A Hristo Botev Boulevard, Varna City Centre, Varna.
Veliko Turnovo, 2 nights: The 4-star Hotel Meridian Bolyarski is a unique, characterful hotel in the heart of the Old City.
Address: 53, Stefan Stambolov Str., Veliko Turnovo 5000.
Current timetables indicate that direct flights to Sofia will be available from Gatwick with Easyjet, from Heathrow with British Airways and Bulgaria Air, from Stansted with Ryanair and from Luton with Wizz Air.
Flights are added on a personal basis rather than included in the tour price. This gives you complete freedom to choose your preferred departure airport, flight times, length of stay, airline, cabin class etc.
Book with us or book your own: Once we have confirmed availability of the tour, you can choose either to book your flights with us, or to make your own travel arrangements. Before booking any flights of your own please ensure we have confirmed the availability of the tour as our tours are subject to minimum and maximum numbers of participants.
Transfers: The tour price usually includes private transfers to/from the hotel on the tour start and end days. We may combine some transfers for flights arriving or departing within about 30 minutes of each other, and we may add a transfer charge if travelling at unusual times or on other days.
Airfares: Ask us for a quote. Use the reservation/enquiries form or call 0121 444 1854.
ATOL Protection: If you book your flights with us you will be ATOL protected, which means that you will not lose your money or be stranded abroad if things go wrong. If you book your own flights they may not be ATOL protected, even if you book direct with the airline or with an online search facility.