After your overnight flight, you will be greeted at the Sofia International Airport by a smiling face of one of the Stone & Compass guides. Getting settled into your room at the Premier Best Western Hotel and taking a nice hot shower may be your first choice to get ready for the adventures ahead. After a little rest the group will gather for a welcome dinner and then a much-needed nights sleep awaits you. Sleep well as tomorrow you will be embracing Bulgaria’s vibrant capital city of Sofia for a guided walking tour.
June 9 arrival in Sofia--flight will originate on June 8
Wake up to a full breakfast before heading out with the group to have a guided walking tour of Sofia where you will see the Archeological Museum, Nevski Cathedral, Catacombs under St. Sofia Church, and many other sites. After a traditional lunch, deepen your cultural knowledge of Sofia’s history with a lecture/tour at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum or enjoy more sight seeing before taking off to drive to the Stone & Compass Center in Stolat, Bulgaria.
Enjoy a little rest and relaxation as you awake at The Center and take in the views of the mountains and 2000 acres that the property has to offer. The morning will focus on class lectures/discussion. In the afternoon you will try your hand at spelunking (cave exploration) in sprawling Devetashka Cave, examining the local geology and learning the formation processes for such caves. You will also visit Krushuna Waterfall, a beautiful cascade of aquamarine water atop travertine. Back at The Center, there will be a cultural performance and dinner in the barn.
Today you travel to the World Heritage Site of Nikopolis ad Istrum, an ancient Roman and Early Byzantine town. Your guided tour of the ruins will show you the remains of a cannonade, a theater, public baths, and buildings and shops around the agora, or central square. In the fourth century, the Gothic alphabet was developed here, and the Bible was translated from Greek to Gothic. You will also learn from Bulgarian park officials how they maintain and protect national sites of natural and cultural importance.
Arbanasi is an ancient village with beautiful architectural monuments, many dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, when it rose to prominence as an important craft and commercial center, and others dating to the Bulgarian National Revival period of the 19th century. Arbanasi is especially well-known for its numerous old churches. The Church of the Nativity of Christ, for example, dates back to the 15th century, and features impressive murals and iconostases representative of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
Step back in time as you enter the gates of Etara, a living museum featuring a traditional craft marketplace. Etara is a classic example of sustainability where waterwheels power machinery used for woodcarving, pottery, weaving, and silversmithing, among others. You will learn about the design and maintenance of this green infrastructure from a village expert. Try traditional apple pastry from the bakery or Turkish coffee brewed over hot sand while you watch the artisans at work and shop for unique handcrafted items.
Dryanovo monastery, founded in the 13th century and rebuilt in the 17th century, was used as a preparation site by revolutionaries for liberation from Ottoman rule. There is a restaurant and traditional craft shopping within the complex. A short walk offers views of a waterfall and the picturesque cliffs of the Dryanovo River gorge, as well as an opportunity to explore the caverns of Bacho Kiro Cave.
Early in the morning you will depart for Pobiti Kamani, also known as the Stone Desert—a bizarre set of natural rock columns found in Eastern Europe’s only desert, in the northeast corner of Bulgaria. After exploring and discussing the interesting geology and botany of the desert, it is off to the Black Sea resort city of Varna, which is a vibrant pulse of warm beaches and nightlife. You will spend the night in Varna, resting for adventures the next day.
You will start the day driving north from Varna along the beautiful Black Sea coast to the seaside resort town of Balchik. En route you will have lunch and lecture at the lovely Balchik Botanic Garden, on the grounds of historic Balchik Palace, the former summer residence for Queen Marie of Romania. The Botanic Garden features a collection of plant species unique to Bulgaria. After lunch you will venture inland to meet the Danube River, the physical geographic border with Romania, at the city of Ruse. You will take an afternoon river cruise on the Danube, learning about the water quality and environmental issues related to the second-longest river of Europe, which passes through ten countries. In early evening you will return to the comforts of The Center, to enjoy a traditional Bulgarian meal.
Explore Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of Second Bulgarian Empire. Climb the steps of the medieval fortress of Tsarevets for panoramic views of this city and the river that winds around it. Inside the reconstructed church atop the fortress you will see unique modern frescoes reflecting the long history of this site. After trying your hand at an ancient pottery technique in a master class you will have time to visit a museum of local history, shop for gifts and souvenirs, or enjoy a gelato in this city where old meets new.
Take a day hike and swim under a waterfall when we travel to Emen Canyon located 20km from Veliko Tarnovo in the foothills of the Central Balkan Range. Formed by the currents of the Negovanka River, the area boasts several rapids, waterfalls, pools, and recesses beneath cliffs that rise as high as 90m. Divided into an Upper and Lower Boaz, the Canyon has been a reserve protected by the state since 1980, especially important due to the diversity of bat species that live in the caves. These caves reveal evidence of human habitation dating back to the Neolithic period, and Romans later built an outpost nearby. In the evening you will pack your bags and stargaze one last night at The Center as tomorrow morning begins the journey back toward Sofia, but via the dramatic Rila Mountains of southwest Bulgaria!
Today you will head toward the rugged Rila Mountains, the highest elevations of Bulgaria. The mountains contain tarns (glacial-carved lakes) and abundant geothermal springs. You will learn about this geology firsthand by soaking in the Saperava Banya Mineral Baths, not far from the World Heritage site of the Rila Monastery, the most visited landmark in all of Bulgaria. The Rila Monastery is an Eastern Orthodox center at an 1100m elevation in the Rila Mountains. The striking buildings date to the 14th century, containing famous woodcarvings and impressive frescoes painted by Bulgarian masters. You will have time to explore all of these antiquities, and learn about the amazing history of Rila in the monastery museum, before relaxing in your Rila hotel for the evening.
You will end your grand Bulgarian tour with the wonderful outdoors of Rila National Park. You will start your day by riding a ski gondola up the Rila Mountains. There in the rolling alpine tundra, you will day hike to the Seven Rila Lakes, a picturesque series of seven connected tarns. You will divert to see the Skakavitsa Waterfall, a 70m plunge on the headwaters of the Skakavitsa River. Along the open trail there will be numerous stops to discuss the physical geographic features that are being observed firsthand. When the touring is complete, you will return down the mountains via the gondola, then continue on to Sofia where you will sleep one last night before departing for home.
Today you wake and reflect upon all your learning and exploration as you either head home or off to your next adventure.