Day 1: Meals: Dinner. Arrival to Sophia, Bulgaria. Transfer to the hotel.
Day 2: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. Today we will start with the exploration of the Bulgarian capital. Our first stop will be the Archaeological excavations to learn about the history of the city and to visit one of the oldest structures in Sophia – St. George’s Rotunda. From here we will proceed to St. Sophia church, built in the 6th century. This church is considered to be one of the oldest in the country. As part of the walking tour of the centre we will also visit the huge neo-Byzantine Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky with a nice icon museum in its underground vault.
We’ll visit St. Nedelya church, also neo-Byzantine, rebuilt in the 19th century on the spot of a much earlier church. In the afternoon we will visit several historical places in Sophia’s suburbs: the Boyana Church, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its medieval frescoes that date from the 11th to 15th centuries. Next stop will be the monastery of St. George in Kremikovtsi. The original monastery was sacked and destroyed by the Ottomans in the 14th century, but in 1493 it was rebuilt, and surviving frescoes date back to that time.
Day 3: Meals: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. After early breakfast we will leave Sophia on our way toward the Macedonian Border. Our first stop along the way will be Zemen Monastery, a functioning Monastery of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church that is famed for its katholicon (main church of the monastery) that dates back to the 11th century. Some of the frescoes date back to the founding of the monastery; others date from the 13th century and are a bit better preserved.
Upon crossing the Macedonian border we will stop at St. Joakim Osogovo Monastery, one of the important spiritual centres of Macedonia. Little remains here from the founding age, but we will be able to trace the history of the monastic site through all of the eight centuries of its existence. Later murals in the main part of the church of the Monastery may be not be executed with the greatest artistic merit, but are worth seeing nevertheless. After the Monastery we will stop for a lunch in Ethno village, and after some refreshment will continue to Lesnovo Monastery, yet another Medieval foundation, with church and frescoes that date back to mid-14th century. From here we will proceed to Skopje for dinner and overnight.
Please note: this is the “Day 1” for people who will join us at Skopje. We will all join together as a group in the evening at the hotel for supper, and from then on will travel all together. For those arriving at Skopje: meal plan this day includes dinner only.
Day 4: Meals: Breakfast and Lunch. During our first day in the Macedonian capital we will explore several important monuments in the city and its outskirts. Of greatest interest are the churches of Sveti Spas, with an amazing carved iconostas from the early 19th century, and the modern Cathedral of St. Kliment Ohridski (St. Clement of Ohrid) built in a rather unique style. Not far from the Cathedral there is an Icon Museum with a very interesting collection of Balkan icons. After Lunch we will visit three Medieval “jewels” – Markov Monastery, the Monastery of St. Nikita, and the church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Kucevishte Village.
Markov Monastery dates to the 14th century and its beautiful frescoes that survive from that period are of great importance to Byzantine Art as they contain many unique themes. St. Nikita Monastery is older than Markov Monastery, but as the original place was destroyed, it was restored in the 14th century by the Serbian King Milutin. The church itself is rather small, but contains many unique frescoes of the highest artistic quality. Last stop for the day will be the church of the Presentation of the Holy Virgin, also known as St. Savior’s church. It also dates from the mid-14th century, and likely was built and frescoed before 1348. For overnight we will return to our hotel in Skopje.
Day 5: Meals: Breakfast and Lunch. Today we will embark on the full day excursion to Kosovo. Recently the province was ravaged by an ethnic conflict; today the situation in most parts of Kosovo is calm, but a few remaining Serbian enclaves and historical sites are under the protection of the international military forces known as KFOR. Hopefully, situation will remain calm, but please note that in case of even the slightest political disturbance in Kosovo we will remain in Macedonia and will offer an alternative plan of sightseeing.
In Kosovo we are planning to visit three ecclesiastical centers renowned throughout the world: Gracanica Monastery, Visoki Dechani Monastery, and Pec Patriarchate Medieval Complex; all three are UNESCO World heritage sites. Gracanica Monastery architecturally and artistically is perhaps the most delicate and unique of them all, dating back to the 14th century. The frescoes in the main church are exquisite representations of Paleologan Art and perhaps the highest artistic achievement in any of King Milutin’s Foundations.
Visoki Decani Monastery was established in the early 14th century by King Urosh, who was later buried in the monastery, and it has the largest medieval church anywhere in the Balkans, with the most extensive interior cycles of frescoes. In the twenty major cycles on the walls of the church, there are over a thousand compositions and several thousand portraits of the highest artistic quality.
Historically, Pec patriarchate is the location of the enthronements of the Serbian Patriarchs, and their mausoleum as well. It was founded under Saintly Savva back in the 13th century and was greatly expanded in several stages though the centuries. Several churches on the territory of the medieval complex are decorated with frescoes that date back to the 13th to 16th centuries. We will return to Skopje for overnight.
Day 6: Meals: Breakfast and Lunch. The first visit of the day will be to St. Panteleimon in Gorno Nerezi, near Skopje. This Monastery was constructed in 1164 and is famous for its spectacular Komnenous-era frescoes. The church was repainted in subsequent ages on several occasions, but in in the 1920’s original frescoes were discovered and restored. The Church of St. George in the village of Staro Nagoricane near Kumanovo was originally built in the second half of the 11th century, but expanded and renovated early in the 14th century under the Serbian King Stephan Milutin.
The frescoes of the interior come to us from the same period. Just before Lunch we will stop at the Monastery of St. Andrew, located in the spectacular Matka gorge near Skopje. The small monastery katholikon was decorated with frescoes by the renowned iconographer Metropolite Jovan in 1389. From here we will get on the highway and transfer to the ancient city of Ohrid. On the way we will stop to see the church of St. Spas (Savior’s church) in the village of Leskoes, built in 1426, and the Church of All Saints in the village of Lesani, built and decorated with frescoes in the middle of the 15th century. For overnight we will arrive to Ohrid.
Day 7: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. Today we will spend exploring the city of Ohrid, nicknamed “Slavic Jerusalem” in the days of old. The first stop in our exploration will be the church known as Bogorodica Perevlepta (originally dedicated to the Mother of God), built at the very end of the 13th century and famed for its most beautiful frescoes. Near it, there are the smaller churches of St. Demetrius and Mali Vrachi (“Small” doctors), both dating to the 14 century, and church of SS. Constantine and Helen that dates back to 1477.
The icon gallery of Ohrid is rather small, but due to the importance of the icons it is considered one of the best collections in the World. After the Museum we will visit the Cathedral Church of St. Sophia, the largest and one of the oldest in the area, adorned with frescoes from 11th to 14 centuries. St. Clement's monastery "St. Panteleimon" is perhaps the oldest recorded Slavic structure, although only the ruins remain of the original Monastery. Centuries ago, this center of learning played an incredibly important role in education of the recently converted Slavs. The current building is a new replica of an ancient church, but the remains of the ancient complex can be seen in the archeological excavations.
The church of St. John in Kaneo enjoys a picturesque setting right above Lake Ohrid, with surviving frescoes from the early 15th century. Our last stop for the day will be the cave church of St. Erasmus, located a little bit outside the city. Researchers say that it was one of the first caves in the area that was converted into the church, perhaps from prior use as a monastic cell. Based on the artistic analysis of the surviving frescoes we know that the church was established here sometime in the course of the 12th century. For overnight we will remain in Ohrid.
Day 8: Meals: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Prior to our departure from Ohrid we will stop to see St. Nicholas and Bogorodica Bolnicka churches in the city center. “Bolnicka” refers to the medieval hospital quarter of the city where these 14th century churches are located. On our way to the Monastery of St. Naum we will stop to see the cave churches of St. Stephen and Bogorodica Pestanska, both with extensively frescoed interiors. It is not know for sure when the churches were constructed, but based on the artistic styles it seems that both monuments date back to the 14th century. St. Naum’s Monastery was founded early in the 10th century but hardly anything remains from that period.
The frescoes that we can see today were done “only” in 1806. Still, St. Naum’s Monastery remains an incredibly important place in Slavic history and literacy. After crossing the mountain pass we will come to the little “off the beaten path” village of Kurbinovo to see the church of the former Monastery of St. George. The holy site was built, frescoed and consecrated some time at the very end of the 12th century. Our last stop of the day will be at SS. Peter and Paul monastery near village of Zrze. The monastery is built on the foundations of a Paleo-Christian basilica. Actually, there are several churches and chapels that cluster under the same roof, with a variety of architecture styles and frescoes dating from the 14th to 16 centuries. For dinner and overnight we will arrive at the town of Prilep.
Day 9: Meals: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. In the morning we will visit the church of St. Nicholas in Prilep. The frescoes here are from the end of the 13th century and very different in style from other contemporary frescoes in other Macedonian churches of the period. Next stop will be St. Archangel Monastery near Prilep, which commands a spectacular setting. Early foundations date back to at least 10th century, but most things that can be seen today are dated to renovations of the 12th and then 19th century.
In the main church of the monastery some frescoes from the 13th century survive. From Prilep we will have a lengthy transfer to the Serbian border, and on the way we will make a stop at the Archaeological Park of Stobi, capital of Ancient Macedonia Secunda. Stobi Archaeological Park has some of the best preserved ancient Roman Ruins in Macedonia, and of particular interest to us are the ruins of the Christian Basilica and Baptistery with their extensive and beautiful mosaics. For an overnight stay we will arrive at the Serbian city of Nis.
Day 10: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. After a transfer from Nis, we will explore one of the most important Serbian ecclesiastical centers – the Monastery of Sopocani. The Monastery was built by King Urosh in 1265 and soon afterwards the main church of the Monastery, which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was frescoed. Despite the fact that for centuries the monastery was desecrated and remained exposed to the elements, a very significant portion of the frescoes have survived till the present day and can been be seen in the renewed monastery.
Not far from Sopocani, there is another important royal foundation from the 13th century, the Monastery of St. George, nicknamed “St. George’s Pillars or Towers” or Djurdjevi Stupovi in Serbian (although some dispute such translation) due to the presence of the two Romanesque towers that flanked the building. Most of the surviving frescoes have been removed from the ruins of the complex, but this spectacular place, now also a revived Monastery, once again become a renown religious center and popular destination for all lovers of history, art and architecture.
Just down the hill from Djurdjevi Stupovi, there is the oldest church in all of Serbia dedicated to SS. Apostles Peter and Paul. It is one of the most important attractions in the area. Our last visit for the day will be to the Monastery of Crna Reka (“Black River”). It requires a hike through a spectacularly beautiful mountain pass to reach the monastic cave complex and the church of the Archangel Michael with surviving Sacred Art in the interior. For overnight we will transfer to the nearby town of Novi Pazar.
Day 11: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. Stara Pavlica (“Old” Pavlica) Monastery was established some time at the end of 11th - early 12th century. Little remains from the monastic complex, but some fragments of the surviving frescoes give an idea about the splendour and glory of the original interior decoration of the church. Nova Pavlica (“New” Pavlica) Monastery dates back to the second half of the 14th century, and is in a much better state of preservation. Unlike its older counterpart that is mainly preserved as an important architectural ruin, the newer complex is a vibrant monastic community.
Gradac Monastery is an endowment of Helen of Anjou, wife of the Serbian King Urosh I. The Monastery is built in the tradition of Rashka architectural style. Today the church is beautifully restored, and visitors can see the remaining frescoes of the 13th century. Studenica Monastery, the largest of all Serbian Monasteries, was established in the 12th century. Its main church combines well the features of the Romanesque West and Byzantine East. The beautiful marble churches of the Monastery contain some of the best preserved and most beautiful frescoes from the 12th and 14th centuries. This afternoon we will have a lengthy transfer to the Convent of Milesheva, where we will have supper and stay for overnight.
Day 12: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. Milesheva is world renowned for the composition, The Holy Myrrhbearing women by the tomb of Christ; more precisely for the depiction of the “White” angel pointing out the empty tomb, bringing the good news to the Myrrhbearers. The monastery was established by Serbian ruler Vladislav in 1230 and its frescoes, executed at the same time, are considered by art historians to be the best in all of Europe of that time.
The “White” Church in Karan village was built about a hundred years later than the Monastery in Milesheva by the family of the local nobleman on the site of an ancient Roman settlement. Both – church and frescoes – are very nice examples of the Rashka ecclesiastical tradition. The Church of St. Achilles (saintly Bishop from Greece, participant of the first Ecumenical Council) is another vivid mix in tradition of the 13th century Rashka School, where the Romanesque exterior nicely combines with the Byzantine interior.
From among the frescoes, one of the better known is that of the Archangel Gabriel, nicknamed “the Blue Angel” as if opposite or in addition to the White Angel of Milesheva. It will take another transfer to reach another famous Serbian Monastery, at Zhicha. It is easily recognizable for its main church, painted a fiery red color. Zhicha Monastery was built by the first Serbian King II Nemanjić, who was crowned here, and by his brother St. Savva, the greatest Serbian Saint and first Archbishop of the Serbian Church. The monastery also incorporates elements of the Romanesque and Byzantine styles, and was frescoed by some outstanding iconographer, likely from Constantinople itself. For supper and overnight we will arrive at Kalenic Monastery.
Day 13: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. Kalenic Monastery, where we spent the night, was built early in the 15th century. The katholicon of the monastery looks very delicate, done in a very artistic Morava style. Surviving frescoes in the interior are of incredible spiritual edification and aesthetic beauty. Ljubostina Monastery is a bit older than Kalenic monastery. The church here shares the same features of the Morava architectural style. However, most of the frescoes were destroyed during the fire and following pillage of the monastery that was done by the Ottoman Army as a reprisal for the Serbian rebellion against Turkish dominance.
Our next stop will be at the Manasija Monastery, a fortified establishment of the Serbian Despot Stefan Lazarevic. The nicely restored church set amidst the ruins of the mighty fortifications has some very nice frescoes of the period, done, according to the surviving historical records, by “the most skilful artists of the time”. Ravanica Monastery is the last Medieval Ecclesiastical monument on our tour program. It was built by the famous Prince Lazar, hero of the Kosovo Battle in the 1370’s. The frescoes inside were done a bit later, at some point toward the end of the 14th century. For dinner and overnight we will arrive at the capital of Serbia – Belgrade.
Day 14: Meals: Breakfast and Dinner. The last day of our “Sacred Legacy of the Balkans” tour will be dedicated to the exploration of Belgrade. We will visit the historical Kalemgdan fortress, originally built as a pre-Roman Celtic fortification, and expanded greatly through the millennia of its existence. We will visit St. Mark’s Church that has served as the Cathedral for the Serbian patriarch for several decades now. On the outside it recognizably follows the architectural outline of the Gracanica Monastery.
Also, we will visit one of the largest Orthodox Cathedrals in the World, that of St. Savvas, built with the splendid lavishness of Neo-Byzantine style. It is not quite finished on the inside, but this is compensated for by a visit to a much smaller neighbouring church adorned with modern murals splendidly executed in a traditional style. We also will visit the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church, with a collection of important ecclesiastical treasures and icons. For dinner and overnight we will remain in Belgrade.
Day 15: Meals: Breakfast. Transfer to the airport. Departure back home.
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