Culture

Rail Wonders of the Balkans

21 September to 2 October
Serbia, North Macedonia, Bulgaria

Travel through the Balkans by train with us and along the way visit the culturally rich cities of Belgrade, Skopje and Sofia and other smaller, but equally historic, towns on route. Each city or town has its own story to tell and is overflowing with history and charm at every turn. There is the option of a 7, 8 or full 12 day trip. Where possible we travel by train with our tour bus shadowing us and taking care of our luggage.

We travel on the amazing “Šargan Eight” railway, one the most scenic railways in Europe and is considered a unique construction masterpiece in the world among the narrow-gauge railway lines. Narrow gauge railway fans will love this holiday as we also visit the stunning Septembri to Bansko line. A two foot six gauge line, known as the “Alpine Railway of the Balkans” and takes 5 hours to cover the full length.

Highlights

  • Travel on the “Alpine railway of the Balkans”
  • “Šargan Eight” narrow gauge railway
  • World famous Rila Monastery
  • See the oldest inhabited city in Europe
  • Incredible range of scenery
  • Includes dinner every night
  • First class rail travel where available
Itinerary

Day 1 Saturday 21 September Direct early afternoon flight from London Heathrow or the evening flight from Luton.  Indirect flights from other UK airports to Belgrade the capital of Serbia. Check in at the hotel and dinner for those on the Heathrow flight.

Day 2 Sunday 22 September (B,D) Morning panorama tour of Belgrade located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. We visit the Palace of Serbia, Arena, New Ada Bridge, the confluence, St. Sava Cathedral Church, the New and the Old Parliament Building, Republic Square. Afternoon departure from Belgrade to Novi Sad by train. Walking tour of the centre of Novi Sad – once the border area during the great Austro-Ottoman war, the second-largest city, known as well as “the Serbian Athens”.

Optional visit to the Petrovaradin fortress – an exceptional work of the 18th-century fortification engineering, one of the largest, most complex and best-preserved artillery bastions in this part of Europe.  Return to Belgrade by minibus and dinner at Skadarlija, located in the Stari Grad (Old town) of Belgrade and generally considered the main bohemian quarter of the city.

Day 3 Monday 23 September (B,D) We travel from Belgrade to Uzice by train, transfer to Zlatibor. Based on arrival time we hope visit the beautiful ethno village “Drvengrad”, built by Emir Kusturica. Located on Mećavnik hill in Mokra Gora nature park, the meeting point of two beautiful Serbian mountains.

“Drvengrad” has an art gallery, a library, a cinema called “Underground” after one of Kusturica’s most famous movies, a cake shop with home made sweets, a restaurant with traditional Serbian cuisine, a souvenir shop etc. After the visit, we will be transferred to Zlatibor – situated at an elevation of just over 1,000 metres, this is a climatic resort, characterized by a cool alpine climate, clean air, long periods of sunshine during the summer and a heavy snow cover in winter.

Day 4 Tuesday 24 September (B,D) We travel by train today Mokra Gora – Šargan Vitasi – Mokra Gora – Kraguevac – Jagodina. “Šargan Eight” is one the most scenic railways in Europe and is considered a unique construction masterpiece in the world among the narrow-gauge railway lines. The track of 760 mm gauge width passes through the most beautiful mountain areas of Mokra Gora with 5 bridges and 22 tunnels.

On the total length of the railway line, on the Mokra Gora – Šargan Vitasi route, in the length of 15.5 km passes the height difference of 300 m. Transfer to Kraguevac, panorama tour and dinner, take the overnight train from Jagodina (21:00 ) to Skopje (this is the international train to Thessaloniki). We have private twin berth sleeping compartments.

Day 5 Wednesday 25 September (B,D) Early morning arrival in Skopje. Transfer to our hotel for breakfast followed by a tour of Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia – the City square, the house of Mother Theresa, Stone bridge, St. Spas Church and the Old Bazaar. It is also possible to join the tour today by catching the daily 08.55 flight direct from Luton to Skopje.

Although Skopje has been destroyed many times through its history, it still has many historical landmarks which reflect the successive occupations of the city. It was also a ground for modernist experiments in the 20th century, following the 1963 earthquake.

Free time or afternoon train ride from Skopje to Gostivar (this is part of the Ohrid line  – a narrow gauge railway which ran to a gauge of 600 mm). The original route was Skopje to Ohrid, a distance of 167 kilometers. The section from Skopje – Gostivar was converted to standard gauge in the 1950s. The remaining 600 mm lines were closed altogether in 1966. Back to Skopje by coach, overnight Skopje.

Day 6 Thursday 26 September (B,D) Early morning train from Skopje to Bitola, the 2nd largest city of Macedonia.  The city stands at an important junction connecting the south of the Adriatic Sea region with the Aegean Sea and Central Europe. Arrival before noon and short walking tour of Bitola – the former Military school, the main street Shirok Sokak, the main square with St. Dimitrius Church. Transfer to Ohrid UNESCO town (1.5 h) with free time for lunch and walking tour, followed by a short boat cruise on the lake.  Transfer to Skopje by coach. Dinner and second overnight in Skopje.

Day 7 Friday 27 September (B,D) At the moment there is no train connection between Macedonia and Bulgaria. Bulgaria has a rail line upto the border, but Macedonian has only just started their construction. For those who have visited Bulgaria can end their tour with transfer to Sofia Airport for flights back to the UK. For those on the full tour we transfer by coach from Skopje to Bulgaria. Stop to visit Rila Monastery – the largest monastery in Bulgaria, located at an altitude of 1147 m above sea level in Rila Mountain National Park.  Admire wooden balconies, azure fretwork, collonades, facades and colourful frescoes, silhouetted against a fantastic panorama of mountain peaks.  Proceed to Bansko museum town, located at the foothills of Pirin Mountain National Park  (UNESCO site). In winter, Bansko is a host of many world cup alpine ski races, while in summer time international jazz, opera and theatre festivals are organized. We will have a walking tour of the Old Bansko to see St. Trinity Church and the complex of National Revival houses with their typical architecture Check in at the hotel, dinner and overnight.

Day 8 Saturday 28 September (B,D) We depart by narrow-gauge passenger train from Dobrinishte and Bansko to Septemvri. This is the only operating narrow gauge (760 mm) line in Bulgaria nowadays, built in the period 1921-1945. The journey takes almost five hours through the valleys and gorges. The route leaves Bansko, passing Razlog, Yakoruda and Velingrad, linking the western part of the Upper Thracian Plain with the Western Rhodopes, Rila and Pirin mountains. Along the route there are 35 tunnels, 11 stations and 10 stops. Transfer from Septemvri to Brestovitsa village by coach. Wine tasting and visit of a boutique wine cellar. Transfer to Plovdiv by coach.  Dinner at the hotel and overnight. Plovdiv is the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

Day 9 Sunday 29 September (B,D) Day tour from Plovdiv to the Rhodope mountains, transfer to the town of Haskovo, where remains of 1st settlements have been discovered dating from 5000 BC. A landmark of the city is the 32-metre-high monument of the Mother of God and the Infant Jesus – entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the highest monument to the Mother of God in the world.

We take the train to Podkova – the southernmost rail station in Bulgaria and the end of a major railway route. Take the train from here and you can end up in Ruse and from there travel to Romania, Ukraine and Russia, or, if you change in Plovdiv, to Istanbul or Vienna. Back to Plovdiv by coach. Dinner and 2nd night at the hotel.

Day 10 Monday 30 September (B,D)  We start the day with a guided tour of Plovdiv – considered the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe and the 6th oldest in the world. The Eternal City, as Rome is conventionally called, is much younger than Plovdiv. Athens, Carthage, Constantinople came into being later.

We will visit the Old Plovdiv architectural reserve, awarded golden medal for architecture by UNESCO – the national revival houses complex, the ancient Amphitheatre, the Roman Forum and Stadium, St. Constantine and Helena Church. 

We take the train Plovdiv – Panagurishte. Panagyurishte is primarily known for being the centre of the April Uprising against the Ottoman rule in Bulgaria in 1876. It was capital of the Fourth Revolutionary District which was the main centre of the rebellion. The uprising was bloodily suppressed after 10 days of declared freedom, and the town was burnt down and almost completely destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. Lady Strangford arrived from Britain later that year and established hospitals and mills to assist the Bulgarians. Tour of Panagurishte – one of the museum houses and the treasury of the History museum with Panagurishte Thracian golden treasure (400-300 BC).  Check in at a SPA hotel. Dinner and overnight.

Day 11 Tuesday 1 October (B,D) We start with a tour of Panagurishte then transfer Panagurishte – Sofia by coach (2 h). Tour of Sofia – the capital city of Bulgaria, which Emperor Constantine the Great once called “My Rome”.  The city covers ancient Serdica, founded 4,000 years ago by the Thracians, while its numerous monuments and buildings reveal as well Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian influence. Visit Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral, St. Sofia 6th c basilica, the Parliament Square, the Old City garden and the former Royal Palace, National Theatre, Presidency, St. George rotunda (4th c, the oldest building preserved in Sofia), the ruins of Ancient Serdica and Arena di Serdica. Farewell dinner, overnight.

Day 12 Wednesday 2 October (B) Return flights to several UK airports.

Hotels – All 4*

2 nights in Belgrade
1 night in Zlatibor
2 nights in Skopje
1 night in Bansko
2 nights in Plovdiv
1 night in Panagurishte
1 night in Sofia

Outward Flights

JU381 13.30 Heathrow T4 to Belgrade
WizzAir 21.20 Luton to Belgrade

W67702 08.55 Luton to Skopje

Return Flights

FR6335 16.45 Sofia to Birmingham (arr 18.10)
FR6337 16.45 Sofia to Liverpool (arr 18.20)
FR9962 11.45 Sofia to Stansted (arr 13.00)
EZY8974 11.50 Sofia to Gatwick (arr 13.10)
BA891 14.00 Sofia to Heathrow (arr 15.30)

Some of these flights are not daily so an extra night in Sofia may be required.

Place(s) available

Holiday Prices (per person)

  • 7 day Serbia and Macedonia tour only from Luton: £1,035
  • 8 day Macedonia and Bulgaria tour from Luton: £1,150
  • 12 day holiday including flights from London Luton: £1,699
  • 7 day Serbia and Macedonia tour own flights: £835
  • 8 day Macedonia and Bulgaria tour own flights: £950
  • 12 day holiday with own flight arrangements: £1,499

Options

  • Single room supplement: £110 (7 day), £125 (8 day), £190 (12 day)
  • Supplement (confirmed at time of booking) might apply for returning to other UK airports other than Luton. Supplement for out and back from London Heathrow add £130.

Deposit

  • £600 with flight option or £300 for all other options

Price Includes

  • Travel and activities as outlined in the itinerary
  • 4* hotel accommodation
  • All breakfasts and dinners
  • Services of our local tour manager (fully escorted from Belgrade)
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