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Travel through Bulgaria, Greece and North Macedonia to uncover the stunning and varying scenery in the lost empire of Alexander the Great. This trip is ideal for those interested in ancient history and contrasting cultures.
Explore Tour Leader
13 nights comfortable hotel
1 nights comfortable monastery
Trip maximum 16 Explore Average 11
Itineraries on some departure dates may differ, please select the itinerary that you wish to explore.
Arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. Sofia has a long history which can be seen in the onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques, Roman ruins and old Soviet monuments. However, it is largely modern and youthful with a wealth of museums, art galleries, cafes and restaurants.
For those arriving on time our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 6pm for the welcome meeting and for those that wish, there is the chance to go out for dinner. There are no other activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Sofia at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Sofia Airport (SOF), which is about 30 minutes' drive from the city centre. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up.
If your flight arrives earlier in the day or you're extending your stay by a night, perhaps you might choose to visit the Archaeological Museum where there are Thracian, Roman and medieval artefacts on display in a former mosque dating from 1496. Or perhaps the Museum of Socialist Art where you'll find many of the items removed from around the country when the Soviet era came to an end such as unwanted statues of Lenin, the red star from Sofia's Party House and footage from old propaganda films. There are also the ancient ruins of Serdica, which were discovered during the building of a new metro station. Now partially excavated you can see a small section of eight streets, an early Christian church and a bathhouse from this old Roman city. A short distance from Sofia is the beautiful Vitosha Nature Park with a number of hiking routes up Vitosha Mountain and it is also home to the working Dragalevtsi Monastery, which is probably the oldest of its kind in the country. It contains colourful murals and is renowned as being one of the hiding places of the anti-Turkish rebel leader Vasil Levski.
This evening you'll have your first chance to sample the local cuisine. Food in Bulgaria tends to be hearty and made from fresh local produce and dinner usually starts with a salad such as 'shopska salata' consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and white cheese. Other specialities include 'kebapche' small and spicy minced meat rolls and 'surmi' stuffed cabbage or vine leafs. Both red and white wines are popular, as is the local brandy 'rakia' or the aniseed spirit 'mastika'.
Budapest Hotel (or similar)
We start our day with a guided walking tour of Sofia where we visit the neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Cathedral, which was built to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria's independence. Along the way we will also see the synagogue, Presidential Palace and Saint Sofia's Church.
After our walk we have free time for lunch before we leave the city and drive to the border with North Macedonia and on to the Saint Joakim Osogovski Monastery. This well preserved historic monastery is nestled amongst the picturesque hillside forests and this is where we spend the night. The drive today will take us around three hours in total. Founded in the 12th century the monastery became a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, situated as it was on the main route to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). We will see the brightly coloured 18th century frescoes before settling in to our unique accommodation.
Monastery St. Joakim Osogovski (or similar)
This morning we drive to the charming historical Roman mining town of Kratovo, located in the crater of an extinct volcano. A local guide will take us down the winding cobbled narrow streets and show us the main sights of this small town, known for its Ottoman towers and high stone bridges which cross the deep ravine which divides the town in two. We will also have the opportunity to sample a homemade lunch, which will often be accompanied by traditional music played on a sheepskin bagpipe, before we drive on to Skopje, North Macedonia's capital.
This afternoon we will go on a guided walking tour of Skopje including Fortress Kale, the Church of Saint Spas and the old Turkish bazaar, which is the largest and most well preserved in south-east Europe. In 1963 a huge earthquake rocked the city and destroyed an estimated 75%, but it is still rich in historic culture and Ottoman heritage. Skopje has been used a pawn in many wars, including World War II and many empires have ruled over the city, all having influenced the architecture, religion and traditions. Despite the turbulent and sometimes violent history, Skopje is now a peaceful city where residents are free to practice all religions, the main faiths being Macedonian Orthodox and Islam. The city boasts many beautiful churches and mosques, although you'll notice mostly minarets on the skyline due to a historic law that was enforced by the Turks stating Christian buildings could not be taller than mosques.
This evening you are free to have dinner. A popular Macedonian dish is 'turlitava', a meat and vegetable stew baked in a terracotta pot. 'Ravanija' is a traditional dessert which originates from when the country was under Turkish rule; it's a type of cake with a sherbet top. Macedonian wine is a popular choice with red being the more dominate option; usually made using the Vranec grape or sometimes Stanusina Crna, which is indigenous to the country.
Hotel Centar (or similar)
A half-day excursion this morning takes us to Matka Gorge, on the outskirts of the city, where we visit the spectacular karst formations and the manmade Matka Lake, created by the damming of the Treska River. Fluctuating temperatures and the impact of the mountain rivers has resulted in a landscape of valleys, crevices and caves that carve their way through the 50 square kilometre canyon. Of the 1000 or so species of plants in the gorge some 20% are endemic, including the Kosanini Violet and the dainty lavender coloured Nataly's Ramonda. There are also 119 varieties of butterfly in the canyon. There is the option to take a boat ride out onto the lake above the dam and appreciate the canyon views and visit one of its numerous caves. Or you may prefer to take a walk along the gorge and visit an old church that is tucked in beside the water.
Returning to Skopje this afternoon the rest of the day is free for you to explore and perhaps to visit some of the museums, mosques and galleries dotted around the city, or maybe pay another visit to the bustling bazaar. Skopje is an excellent city in which to wander, given that much of the centre is pedestrianised.
Today we drive a scenic route, largely through the Black Drim River Valley, to reach the shores of Lake Ohrid. En route we make a stop to visit one of North Macedonia's finest monasteries - Saint Jovan Bigorski - dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It is famous for its remarkable iconostasis, which is among the most beautiful in North Macedonia, constructed by intricate wood carving between 1829 and 1835. We will also stop at the foot of Mount Jablanica in the typical Macedonian village of Vevchani. Here we have time for lunch and to see the pretty meandering streets and babbling waterfalls.
On arrival in Ohrid town late this afternoon we have time to settle into our hotel before heading into the centre for free time for dinner this evening. Alternatively, you may like to stretch your legs with a walk along the lakeshore.
Hotel Granit (or similar)
Our setting for the next few days is simply sublime, with a dramatic mountain backdrop almost encircling the tranquil waters of Lake Ohrid. Founded over 2400 years ago, Ohrid has a wealth of heritage and is today an important cultural and spiritual centre. To help its protection both the town and lake were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world and allegedly there are some 365 churches, monasteries and other religious sites around the lake.
We start today with a walking tour of Ohrid including a visit to Tsar Samuel's Fortress, Saint Sophia's Church and the Roman amphitheatre for sensational panoramic views. When we reach Saint Clement's Church and the Plaosnik archaeological site we will walk down the steps to the Church of Saint John at Kaneo with its fantastic views out over the lake. From here we board a boat for the short ride back to the centre of Ohrid.
This afternoon is free for you to relax and further explore. You might like to stroll around the cobbled lanes of the Old Town or boats run frequent trips across the lake. The lakeshore also has a good array of beaches should you wish to take it easy. There's a good choice of restaurants and old Turkish shops in the lower town area. Each year, between mid-July and mid-August, the Ohrid Summer Festival takes place, with concerts and plays held in outdoor venues around town.
Today is free for you to continuing discovering Lake Ohrid or you might like to join a full day excursion further afield to neighbouring Albania. Lake Ohrid straddles the border line and this morning our drive will take us through Struga at the northern tip of the lake and across the Albanian border. Our first stop is in the small fishing village of Lin, where we will hopefully have the opportunity to see mosaics dating from the Ottoman period (due to local conditions access to the mosaics might not always be possible). From here we continue to the town of Podgradec where we have four hours free time to relax in the town, enjoy the Ohrid springs or visit the summer villa of the former dictator Enver Hoxha. We will also have time for lunch and the opportunity to try the local specialty of Ohrid trout. We return to Ohrid crossing back over the border at the southern end of the lake near Saint Naum having driven the whole way around the lake.
Located close to Ohrid is Galicica National Park, part of the Sara-Pind mountain range. With its exceptional natural beauty and wealth of endemic flora and fauna the park was created in 1958, covering an area between the Ohrid and Prespa. Large, deep valleys and a long mountain ridge typify the relief of the massif, with peaks reaching over 2000 metres. With the crest falling between the two lakes it ensures dramatic views over both on a clear day. Today we set out to explore this region by bus, a short walk and by rowing boat.
Firstly we drive along the lakeshore to the photogenic Saint Naum Monastery, located on a bluff stretching out into the lake and close to the Albanian border. Inside the monastery we can admire the 19th century frescoes and iconostasis dating from 1711. Next we enjoy a short trip by rowing boat to the bubbling springs that feed Lake Ohrid. Then we continue across Galicica National Park and over the Livada Pass (at 1568 metres), before heading down to Lake Prespa where we'll stop for photos. We drive on to Podmochani village to visit the privately owned Ethno Museum. A local farmer has amassed an impressive collection of jewellery, weaponry, coins and over 140 national costumes, some of which date back over 300 years.
Next we visit the ancient site of Heraclea with a local guide. Founded in the 4th century BC by Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, Heraclea grew to be an important trading town under the Romans, before being raided by the northern tribes and eventually falling into decay after an earthquake in AD518. Leaving here we drive on to the Pelister National Park where we will spend the night.
Hotel Sator (or similar)
This morning we leave North Macedonia and drive towards Thessaloniki, Greece's second city.
Our first stop will be at Vergina, which in ancient times was known as the city of Aigai and was the capital of the Macedonian kings. The ruins of Aigai were only rediscovered in 1977. With our local guide we will visit the spectacular royal tombs of King Phillip II and the young prince Alexander IV among others sights during out visit. After free time for lunch we will head back to Thessaloniki where you are free for the rest of the afternoon.
We drive next to Pella where we take a guided tour of the ancient site and visit the museum. Lying on the Macedonia Plain, Pella is most famous as the birthplace of Alexander the Great, who was born here in 356BC. Nowadays the main draw is the mosaics depicting mythological scenes in coloured stone.
We arrive at our hotel in Thessaloniki where this evening is free for you to have dinner and sample your first taste of traditional Greek cuisine, such as scrumptious aubergines, tomatoes and cheese washed down with ouzo or raki or perhaps you'd prefer to sample some of the fresh local seafood. The city tavernas here are known for their delicious grilled meats and the slow-cooked pork shank is especially worth trying.
Hotel Vergina (or similar)
Filled with the reminders of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule, Thessaloniki is a vibrant city situated on the Thermaic Gulf. This morning on a guided tour we will discover the steep narrow streets and walk among the whitewashed houses with overhanging balconies leading to magnificent views down to the gulf and across the city. Along the way we'll see the Roman Rotunda, the White Tower, Acropolis and impressive Saint Demetrius Church.
After our explorations on foot you have the rest of the day free to discover more at your own pace. You might like to visit the Archaeological Museum or Byzantine Museum.
Leaving Thessaloniki early this morning we head across the Halkidiki Peninsula to Kavala, set in the foothills of Mount Symvolon on the Gulf of Kavala. Travelling along scenic roads we pass through Arnea to the Athos Peninsula, the easternmost of the three-pronged Halkidiki. We continue to Ouranopoli at the northern end, from where we take a boat along the coast of Mount Athos. Known as 'The Holy Mountain', it is a semi-autonomous region of monastic orders originally settled in the 4th century and it's still forbidden for women to step foot on the island. At its peak there were said to be 40 monasteries, but today the number has declined by half. After viewing the monasteries from our boat we have free time back on the mainland for lunch and to relax on the beach before continuing our journey to Kavala, a very attractive city formed around a harbour with an old quarter dominated by a Byzantine fortress.
Esperia Hotel (or similar)
We begin today by driving to Keramoti to catch the ferry to Thassos Island (the crossing takes around 30 minutes). We have free time to explore the island on foot or local bus from the capital of Limenas, or relax on one of its superb beaches. Around Limenas there are a number of archaeological sites, including an ancient Roman theatre and a medieval fortress that offers stunning views of the surrounding area. Later in the afternoon we return by ferry to the mainland and to Kavala.
This morning we leave Greece and head back to Bulgaria. We drive to Bansko via the ancient site of Philippi for a guided tour. Philippi's claim to fame is twofold: it was the first European city to accept Christianity in the 5th century, but prior to that it was the scene of a decisive battle between two Roman armies in the 1st century AD. On one side was the army of imperial Rome, led by Mark Anthony and Octavian, and on the other representatives of republican Rome, led by Cassius and Brutus. The outcome of the battle was a victory for the imperialist and the death of the republic (not to mention Cassius and Brutus). We will also visit the Baptistery of Lydia, time permitting.
In winter Bansko is a popular ski resort, sitting at 927 metres above sea level in the foothills of the Pirin Mountains. It has a pretty old town centre with its winding cobbled streets and stone clad buildings with red terracotta tiled roofs. There are a variety of restaurants, bars and shops here.
Hotel Molerite (or similar)
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Rila Monastery is an important religious and cultural centre for the Bulgarian people. Remaining in wonderful condition it has the most stunning brightly coloured frescoes and distinctive striped brickwork. Originally founded in the 10th century the monastery served to preserve Bulgarian culture during the 400 years of Turkish rule and was a hiding place for the Bulgarian revolutionaries. Today the magnificent church and its museum house a priceless collection of frescoes, gilded iconostasis and religious art and artefacts. This morning we will have time to explore the monastery complex.
This afternoon we complete our journey through ancient Macedonia when we return to Sofia for our final evening. On arrival there should be time to explore a little more of this charming city and maybe do some last minute shopping.
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Sofia.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Sofia at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Sofia Airport (SOF), which is about 30 minutes' drive.
Bulgaria has a somewhat temperate climate, influence by the combination of Mediterranean and Eastern European weather systems. The winters are mild and the summers warm and fresh. The alpine regions can be cooler, but Ezerovo is one of the sunniest areas in this part of Europe, with some 280 days of sunshine a year.
2 Pin Round
Bulgarian Orthodox, Islam
Bulgarian, Russian and English.
Greece has such a vast geographical difference between the mainland and the islands, and travel is possible at all times of year but the climate can vary depending on when you go.
During late spring or early autumn, in the months of April-May or September-October, temperatures are warm and pleasant, usually hovering around 25 degrees. Rainfall is low, but can be erratic during these months. Cooler evenings take the heat off the day. If you have booked a walking holiday, wild flowers bloom during the spring, adding colour to the hiking trails.
Summers are hot and dry, with plenty of sunshine and little rain. Temperatures can go north of 35 degrees in July and August. On the islands, restaurants and bars may be busy with cruise ship passengers. While this period definitely gives you a ‘summer holiday’ feeling, those wishing to explore Greece’s ancient sites may find the heat challenging.
When travelling in winter, from late November to early March, the villages will be very quiet. Temperatures in Athens at this time are around 10-15 degrees, while the nights will be colder. Hotels in northern Greece in particular are well adapted to deal with cold winters, having proper heating and warm fires to retreat to after a day of exploring. This makes it a good destination for travel between November-March.
North Macedonia has a transitional climate from Mediterranean to continental. Summers are hot and dry and winters are moderately cold. It is a land locked country, so isn't cooled by coastal breezes and is separated from both the Adriatic and Aegean Seas by mountain ranges. The wettest time is in late spring and autumn, but rainfall isn't abundant in the valleys, such as around Skopje. Rainfall in summer is uncommon. Temperatures from May to October are generally in the mid to high 20's (in °C) and reach into the 30's (in °C) in July and August - although it can reach as high as 40°C sometimes.
Kratovo: Homemade lunch €8.00. Matka Gorge: Boat trip 400 Macedonian Denar (MKD). Lake Ohrid: Boat trip €25.00 per boat; excursion to Albania €20.00-40.00 (depending on passenger numbers). If there are 6 or more participates this excursion will be accompanied by the Explore Leader or if not then it will be driver only. Pelister National Park: Cooking class €10.00 (including instruction and local ingredients). Thessaloniki: Archaeological Museum €8.00; Byzantine Museum €8.00 pp.
Weather is changeable in the mountains and it can be cool, especially at night, so bring a warmer jacket/fleece. A raincoat is essential at all times in case of the odd shower. It can be hot in summer so wear light weight cotton clothing and layers. Bring your swimming costume and a towel with you. You should dress with respect in the rural villages so bring some long trousers, as wearing shorts is not permitted in monasteries. When entering some churches and mosques women should cover their head and shoulders, so it's handy to pack a scarf.
Trainers/Walking shoes for any walks and comfortable shoes or sandals for visiting the sites and towns.
You will need one main piece of baggage and a daypack. Please do not overload yourself with luggage as at some points during this trip you will be required to transport it yourself (e.g. from vehicles, to your rooms).
Take a towel, a water bottle, binoclulars, insect repellent, a sunhat and suncream. A torch is useful in case of powercuts/emergencies. Walking poles may also be useful especially for exploring Kratovo which is uneven underfoot.
Bus, Boat, Ferry
Can you drink the water?
It is generally possible to drink the local tap water, therefore to reduce the need for single-use plastic bottles we recommend you bring a refillable water bottle with you. Your leader will advise you on refill points each day.
Can you drink the water?
The water quality is poor and therefore it is recommended to avoid drinking tap water during your trip.
We strongly recommend that you check your government's travel advisory for up-to-date information and advice about your destination: safety and security, entry requirements, health, local laws and customs. For UK citizens, check the latest Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advice.
Please refer to our COVID-19 entry requirements page for any country-specific conditions of entry. Whilst we strive to update this on a regular basis we recommend you also check the FCDO website for the latest advice on entry requirements in this fast-evolving situation. Information can change at any time.
Please note that some countries require proof of parental consent when travelling overseas with under 18s. Please check requirements with the relevant embassy or consular office well in advance of travel if this applies to your party.
Once your booking has been confirmed we guarantee the price will not increase, whatever the circumstances. However, please note that if you voluntarily make any changes to your booking including changing your trip or departure date, any additional costs or charges incurred will not be covered. Before booking please ensure you have read our important tour pricing information.Booking Conditions
Bulgaria: Visas are not required by UK, Australian, New Zealand, US and Canadian citizens. North Macedonia: Visas are not required by UK, Australian, New Zealand, US and Canadian citizens. Greece: Visas are not required by UK, Australian, New Zealand, US and Canadian citizens. Other nationalities should consult their local embassy or consular office.
If you do require assistance in obtaining a visa then you may be able to apply through Explore's recommended visa service in the UK, Travcour. See www.travcour.com to download the relevant visa application for your trip, if applicable (UK citizens only), along with details of how to apply for your visa through Travcour. The Team at Travcour will be happy to answer specific questions relating to visa applications, please call them directly on 0208 5431846.
It is your responsibility to ensure that you are in possession of a full passport, with the correct validity for your chosen destination.
Before booking your Explore trip, please ensure that you read both our Essential Information and Booking Conditions.
Customers who have chosen to book on the ‘Land Only’ arrangements of our tour, please ensure that you have checked your tour specific ‘Joining Instructions’ prior to booking your own travel arrangements. Your joining instructions can be found below in the dates and prices information.
You may also be eligible for the Free Explore Transfer.
Customers booked on the ‘Land Only’ arrangements will receive a Free Transfer, provided you arrive and depart on the tour only itinerary start and end dates. The complimentary transfers will be arranged from the Explore designated airport or train station to your trips joining point, and then back from the ending point to the designated airport or train station. Generally the airport or station that Explore have selected will be the one that is closest to the town or city where the trip starts, or the one nearest to the joining point. It will be either an airport or train station but not both.
The exception to this rule is customers who are booked on a tour where the joining and ending point is at the designated airport or train station.
Free transfers are not available for Polar customers.
If you are not eligible for the Free Transfer then you will need to make your own way through to the joining and ending point. On a majority of our tours Explore will be able to provide a private transfer at an additional cost. Please ask for a quote at the time of booking.
For more information regarding the Explore Free Transfer click here
It is a condition of booking with Explore that you have adequate valid travel insurance. It is your responsibility to arrange appropriate travel insurance and ensure you have read and understood the full terms and conditions of your travel insurance policy to ensure that you are covered for all activities you intend to undertake whilst on the tour, including all optional activities. Your Insurance Policy must fully cover you for medical expenses and emergency repatriation to your home country. Please ensure your policy includes medical emergency helicopter evacuation in the event of illness or injury and covers the entire duration of your holiday. If you are trekking at altitude please ensure that there is no upper altitude limit which may limit or exclude cover for your trip. The cost of many of our Polar Voyages will exceed the capped amount covered by standard insurance premiums and you will be required to pay an additional premium to cover the full value of your trip. Please ensure that you are covered for the full amount of your holiday cost, as insufficient cover could invalidate a claim under the policy. Medical and repatriation insurance cover is not mandatory for UK residents who are travelling on trips within the United Kingdom.
Read more information about what travel insurance is required.
Explore offers a wide range of flexible flying options to make joining and leaving our trips easy. Read more about them here.
You are able to book this tour on a 'land only' basis or as a ‘flight inclusive’ package. Your flight inclusive package will be fully protected by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ATOL protection scheme.
We have a good selection of flights not only from London but from many regional airports around the UK allowing us to compare fares between scheduled carriers as well as low cost and charter airlines. Our dedicated flights team will match the best flight options to your arrival and departure airport.
On our website we display a UK flight inclusive package guide price which is generally based on a London departure. To avoid paying supplements or to secure your preferred flight option, we recommend booking as early as possible, especially for peak travel dates.
We recommend protection against typhoid, hepatitis A, polio and tetanus. Please check the latest requirements with your travel clinic or doctor prior to departure. The above is not an exhaustive list. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health advice can be found by following the NHS and NaTHNaC links at Explore Travel Health and from your local healthcare provider. Visa and vaccination requirements are subject to change and should be confirmed by you before travelling.
Nothing compulsory but we recommend protection against tetanus and polio. Please check the latest requirements with your travel clinic or doctor prior to departure. The above is not an exhaustive list. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health advice can be found by following the NHS and NaTHNaC links at Explore Travel Health and from your local healthcare provider. Visa and vaccination requirements are subject to change and should be confirmed by you before travelling.
Nothing compulsory, but we recommend being up-to-date with your routine vaccination courses and boosters as recommended in the UK including protection against measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. Please check the latest requirements with your travel clinic or doctor prior to departure. The above is not an exhaustive list. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health advice can be found by following the NHS and NaTHNaC links at Explore Travel Health and from your local healthcare provider. Visa and vaccination requirements are subject to change and should be confirmed by you before travelling.