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Day 1: Arrival in Sofia, Bulgaria
You will be met on arrival at the airport in Sofia and transferred to your hotel. In the evening, we meet for our welcome dinner and orientation. Overnight in Sofia.
Day 2: Sofia Sightseeing
Today we explore the main sites of Sofia. Established 2100 years ago, the city became the capital of Bulgaria in 1879. We visit Alexander Nevski Cathedral -Å“ one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in Europe, and the church of St. Sophia, built by the Roman emperor Justinian in the 6th century. In the late afternoon, we will visit the Royal Palace. Overnight in Sofia.
Day 3: Rila Monastery
We commence our day at Bulgaria's greatest known heritage site, the eastern orthodox Rila Monastery, founded in 927 A.D. Our 2.5-mile walk highlights the beautiful landscape near St. Ivan Rilski Cave. St. Ivan is said to be the most important saint in the Bulgarian Orthodox church. He lived and is buried by the cave. Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and is a key tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southern Europe. Ever since its creation, the Rila Monastery has been supported and respected by the Bulgarian rulers, and the complex acted as a depository of Bulgarian language and culture in the ages of foreign rule. The monastery complex, regarded as one of the foremost masterpieces of Bulgarian National Revival architecture, was declared a national historical monument in 1976 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. Overnight in Sofia.
Day 4: To Plovdiv, Asenovgrad Castle
This morning we travel to the greatest Bulgarian city, Plovdiv. As one of Europe's oldest cities, Plovdiv will amaze you with its history and sights. Here we visit the ancient Roman amphitheater, the Roman odeon and the Roman stadium. After lunch, we explore Asenovgrad Castle, a medieval fortress in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains. This is one of the best-preserved castles in Bulgaria. Set on the edge of a high, rocky ridge, this medieval fortress dates back to the Thracians. Overnight in Plovdiv.
Day 5: To Skopje, Macedonia
Our longest travel day brings us to Skopje, Macedonia. Depending on the length of time it takes us to cross the border, we will visit the Stone Bridge, the St. Spas Church, Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the huge bazaar area with its famous inn, Kapan Ann, and the main street with its modern statues, which was part of the "Skopje 2014" project including statues depicting the most important historical figures of Macedonia, including Alexander the Great. Macedonia was part of former Yugoslavia, from which it gained its independence in 1991. The population is largely Macedonian, a slavic speaking eastern orthodox majority, but also having a 25% Albanian minority, who are largely Muslim. Overnight in Skopje.
Day 6: Sightseeing in Skopje, to Bitola
After finishing the major sights of Skopja, we drive to Bitola where we visit the ancient Macedonian city of Heraclea, founded in the 4th century BC. Marvel at the pristine condition of ancient buildings and palaces with their well preserved mosaics. Later, we drive to Ohrid, located on the shore of the fabled Lake Ohrid, one of the largest lakes in the Balkans. Lake Ohrid is one of Europe's deepest and oldest lakes, preserving a unique aquatic ecosystem with more than 200 endemic species with worldwide importance. It was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979. Overnight in Ohrid.
Day 7: Kalista Cave Monastery, Vevcani Springs, Old Ohrid sightseeing
Today, we enjoy the most interesting sites in and around Ohrid. First, we visit Kalista Cave Monastery on the lakeshore, which is unique with its special settings and location. After lunch, near the lovely Vevcani springs, we return to Ohrid, where we visit the Icon Gallery, the archeological site of Ploeshnik, the Church of St. Bogorodica Perivleptos and the Tcar Samoil fortress. As today is a busy day, should we run short on time, we will have time to continue our visits on the morning of day 8. Overnight in Ohrid.
Day 8: Galicia National Park and Lake Prespa
Today enjoy the extremely scenic countryside as we travel. We make our way to Lake Prespa via Galicica Mountains National Park, situated between the two lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. Here, we can enjoy one of the 20 best drives in Europe, as voted by Forbes. This drive is offers splendid views in every direction. This park has a wealth of endemic flora and fauna. If we are lucky, we may see eagles, vultures, Balkan butterflies and even land turtles. Our destination is the (fishing) village of Stenje on the lakeshore. If time permits, we can enjoy a hike to a beautiful viewpoint.
Day 9: Mavrovo Monastery, Tetovo, Sar Planina National Park, to Prizren, Kosovo
Our long drive today takes us along the banks of the black Drini river, through Struga, Debar and Gostivar. We make several stops along the way including the Monastery of Jovan Bigorski and Tetova. We also visit the Arabati Baba Tekke, and the Motley Mosque (Sarena Xhamija), before we cross into Kosovo through breathtaking mountain scenery of the Sar Planina mountains.
Day 10: Kosovo Field, Pristhina, Peja, Gjakova
Today is a very busy day as we explore the finest sites of Kosovo, including a stop at the battlefield where a major battle took place between Christian and Ottoman armies in 1389. We visit the Tomb of Sultan Murad II, the Museum, the Bazaar Mosque, the Clock Tower, the Mosque of Sultan Fatih of Pristhina, and the capital of Kosovo.
Day 11: To Albania
We spend the morning in Prizren, one of the most scenic towns of the Balkans, with a magnificent setting on the slopes of the Sar Mountains and the former capital of old, historic Serbia. The municipality of Prizren is still the most culturally and ethnically heterogeneous area of Kosovo, retaining communities of Bosniaks, Turks, and Romani in addition to the majority Kosovo Albanian population which also live in Prizren. We learn about the recent turbulent history and enjoy views of the fortress, stone bridges, minarets and mosques.
Day 12: Valbona National Park
Today, we enjoy a full day visit to the Valbona Valley, one of most beautiful parts of the Northern Albanian Alps with over 8000 hectares, becoming a national park in 1996. Depending on the weather, we will have an opportunity to hike a lovely trail and visit a local family restaurant in the region. The remainder of the afternoon is yours to relax and enjoy the magnificent area near our hotel. Overnight in Valbona.
Day 13: Boating on Drini River, Shkodra sightseeing
This morning we have a very early start to the day as we board our small ship, cruising to Koman along the Drini river. Upon our arrival in Loman, we will board our bus and drive to Shkodra, located on the southernmost shore of beautiful Lake Shkoder in northwestern Albania. It is one of the oldest and most historic towns in Albania. It is a vibrant and important cultural and economic center and has a pulsating street life. Many visitors feel that Shkodra is the soul of Albania. The most attractive quarters of the city are commonly called the Pjaca. We stop quickly to take a photo of Mother Teresa's Memorial statue before visiting the Shkodra Cathedral and Ethnic Museum to learn about the religions within Albania. Overnight in Shkodra.
Day 14: Rozafa Castle, Memorial of Shkanderbeg, Kruja, To Tirana
This morning we visit the Rozafa Castle near Shkodra, which rises imposingly on a rocky hill, 130 metres above sea level, surrounded by the Bojana and Drin rivers. This is one of the largest and most impressive fortresses of the entire region, dating back to the Illyrian times. We learn here about local legends, explore the ruins and enjoy beautiful views over the rugged landscapes.
Day 15: Tirana Sightseeing
Today is a full day of city sightseeing. After breakfast we visit the Headquarters of the Muslim Bektashi Sect and ex-residential block of communist party leaders followed by a visit to the mosaics of Tirana. After lunch we enjoy a city tour by bus before our leisurely excursion to Mt. Dajti by cable car. From here, we enjoy our dinner with amazing views of the city including the Adriatic Sea in the distance. Overnight in Tirana.
Day 16: To Durres, Berat (UNESCO)
After breakfast, we drive to the second largest city in Albania, Durres, which sits on the Adriatic Sea. The city is located on the central Albanian coast, where we will visit the Roman amphitheater and archaeological museum.
Day 17: Ottoman Town of Gjirokastra (UNESCO)
After breakfast, we drive along a mountainous road to Gjirokastra (UNESCO), the birthplace of former iron-fisted dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha. Its old town is inscribed on the World Heritage List as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estates". Gjirokastra is situated in a valley between the Gjere mountains and the Drino River. The city is overlooked by the Gjirokastra Castle, which includes a pre-Ottoman citadel with a weapons museum and former political prison.
Day 18: Blue Eye Springs & Butrint ruinfields
Towards the Ionian seashore, we stop enroute at the gorgeous "Blue Eye" springs. The clear blue water of the river bubbles forth from a stunning pool which is more than 50 meters deep. Divers have descended to fifty meters, but it is still unclear what the actual depth of the karst hole is.
Day 19: To Corfu (Greece)
In the morning, we take a ferry to the island of Corfu, Greece. Upon our arrival, we visit Paleokastris to see the local monastery. Here we enjoy commanding views of the area. We make our way through the scenic Ropa Valley and visit the New Fortress. We also visit the Achilleion Palace, built by the Empress of Austria, Elisabeth of Bavaria, also known as Sissi, wife of Austro-Hungarian Monarch Franz Joseph. She lost her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, when he committed murder-suicide in The Mayerling Incident of 1889. A year later, in 1890, she built a summer palace with the powerful mythical hero Achilles as its central theme. Overnight in Corfu
Day 20: Day in Corfu
After breakfast, we visit the historic Corfu city, including the Jewish memorials.
Day 21: Ferry to Sarande, Apollonia Ruinfields, Ardenica Monastery, To Tirana
After breakfast, we take a ferry back to the mainland and drive to Durres along the mountainous roads of the Albanian Riviera, enjoying the beautiful scenery and fantastic landscapes of Llogara National Park and Ionian Coastline. Depending on time, we might do a photo stop at the fortress of Ali Pasha of Ioanina at Porto Palermo Bay. We then make our way to visit the huge Roman ruins of Apolonia, founded in 588 BCE by Greek colonists from Corfu and Corinth. The site was initially occupied by Illyrian tribes and was perhaps the most important of the several classical towns of the area, as well as an important port along the route between Rome and Byzantium.
Day 22: Depart Tirana
Today we say goodbye to our new friends and the wonderful adventure we had as we transfer to the airport for our onward journey.
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