With our original style and intimate approach, we’ll open doors and windows to the people, cuisines and centuries-old traditions that you simply cant experience on other Greece tours. Explore Albanias Balkan traditions and learn about life during the Communist era, visit ancient monasteries in Greece, and see the cultural treasures of Macedonia.
Day 1 - Welcome to Tirana, Albania
On arrival, you’ll be escorted to the Hotel Plaza. Meet your fellow travelers and Trip leader Alexander over cocktails and dinner. Meals D
Day 2 - Excursion to Shkodra
After breakfast, you’ll embark on a full-day excursion to Shkodra. This is one of Europe’s oldest cities, filled with historic landmarks and fascinating stories from centuries past. By special arrangement, your sightseeing begins at a workshop that produces many of the colorful and highly-detailed Carnevale masks that you will find in the shops of Venice; it’s a fascinating visit and a reminder of Shkodra’s historic ties to the famous Italian city on the opposite shores of the Adriatic.
Continue to Rozafa Castle. Built on a rocky hilltop, the remains of this ancient stone castle are impressive and on a clear day, its strategic setting offers terrific views of the city and open countryside all the way north to the distant mountains and Serbian border. It’s a great place to enjoy a glass of the local brandy.
Heading back to Tirana, you’ll stop in Lezhë, a charming town that traces its roots to the ancient days of Greece when it was known as Lissus. Here you’ll enjoy lunch at Mrizi i Zanave, famed for its finely prepared, organic farm-to-table cuisine. Enjoy the scenic drive back to Tirana where you’ll have time to relax and refresh at our hotel before this evening’s dinner. Meals B+L+D
Day 3 - Exploring Tirana + Krujë
This morning, we’ll travel to historic Krujë. At a centuries-old Dervish monastery, the caretaker will share insight into the beliefs and traditions of ancient Sufism. At the Ethnographic Museum, set in a 200-year-old Ottoman house, we’ve arranged for a private meeting with the curator; enjoy coffee as you learn more about Albania’s history and people After lunch at a restaurant set within the ancient castle walls, you’ll enjoy some free time to explore the old bazaar where you can meet artisans and carpet weavers who belong to local guilds that have functioned since Ottoman times.
Return to Tirana for a guided afternoon tour of the Albanian capital including the Blloku district. Enver Hoxha’s villa was located in this neighborhood and during his dictatorship, this area was the exclusive enclave of government officials and the Communist Party elite; other citizens would not have been able to even enter. Today Blloku, or the Block, has become one of Tirana’s most vibrant districts – home to some of the city’s most popular cafes, restaurants and boutiques. It’s the perfect place to gain an understanding of Albania’s Communist-era history and its effect on the country’s modern life and attitudes. This afternoon’s sightseeing also takes you to Skanderbeg Square, where you’ll find many of Tirana’s other notable landmarks including the 18th-century Et’hem Bey Mosque and the statue of Albania’s national hero for whom the Square is named. In the 15th century, Skanderbeg was a warrior and nobleman who defended his native land in battles against the Ottomans. Mingling with residents here in the lively square offers insight into local life and culture. This evening, you’ll dine at Era. Meals B+L+D
Day 4 - Durrës + Apollonia + Gjirokastra
Just 21 miles west of the vibrant capital, Durrës is a historic Adriatic port – one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Focusing upon its wealth of ancient landmarks, our guided tour this morning includes the ancient Byzantine Walls and the spectacular Roman Amphitheater. Built in the 2nd century to accommodate up to 20,000 spectators who came to witness Gladiator combats, this is one of the largest ancient Roman arenas in the Balkans. Surrounded by modern high rise buildings in the heart of town and only partially excavated, it is nonetheless an impressive site! We’ll also visit the ancient Roman Baths and the Venetian Tower, a 15th-century addition to the much older Byzantine Fortress that was one of the most powerful defensive buildings along the western Adriatic.
After lunch, we’ll visit the Ardenica Monastery, situated on a remote hilltop surrounded by a vast sweep of Albanian countryside. Originally founded by a 13th-century Byzantine Emperor, this revered landmark is home to splendid interior frescoes. But it’s also a living religious community and special arrangements have been made for us to meet with one of the resident monks. This experience promises a chance to learn about religious life in Albania since the fall of Communism.
We’ll continue to Apollonia for a tour of its remarkably preserved ruins. Set in a region of gently rolling terrain and forest, this picturesque archaeological site was once home to an estimated 70,000 people who lived inside its ancient city walls. Among its impressive landmarks are the remarkable 2,000-year-old Odeon and the Monastery. Guided by one of the site’s archaeological directors, our afternoon visit promises a rich look into the ancient world. Late in the day, we’ll continue to Gjirokastra and check in to the Kalemi 2 Hotel, a charming 12-room hotel in the heart of Old Town. You’ll have time to refresh before we dine this evening at Arra. Meals B+L+D
Day 5 - Discover Gjirokastra
Also recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, Gjirokastra is a splendid town perched along the slopes of the Drino Valley. Clustered around the ancient 13th-century citadel is an outstanding collection of homes typical of the Balkans… Turreted homes reflect the city’s 17th-century Ottoman heritage while other buildings show the architectural and cultural influences of later eras, especially the early 19th century. With our expert guide, you’ll explore along Gjirokastra’s steep cobblestone streets, learning about the region’s history and culture as we visit notable landmarks including two museums set inside the fortress walls. Then spend time with the matriarch of a Balkan family for deeper insight into the city’s enduring traditions – as well as what life was like during Albania’s Communist era.
In the afternoon, a literature professor from the local University will share some readings from the works of Ismail Kadare, the Nobel-nominated author who used this historic town as the setting for many of his stories. Continuing your tour of Gjirokastra, our specialist guide will bring Kadare’s literary works and characters to life as he ties various local sites to the passages you’ve just enjoyed. It’s a fascinating and entertaining way to learn more about the town and one of the country’s most beloved authors. This evening, you’ll enjoy traditional Albanian cuisine and a performance by Iso Polifonia, an internationally acclaimed polyphonic choir. Meals B+L+D
Day 6 - Onward to Ioannina + Kalambaka, Greece
Departing Gjirokastra this morning, we’ll travel across the border into northern Greece to Ioannina. Founded by the Emperor Justinian along the shores of beautiful Lake Pamvotis, this historic castle town is now the vibrant capital of Epirus. Our city tour reveals a rich multicultural heritage with ancient Christian, Jewish and Islamic influences, from the oldest Byzantine fortress in Greece to the impressive Aslan Pasha Mosque, built in 1618.
After lunch at a charming lakeside restaurant, we’ll continue our journey to the modern town of Kalambaka – the gateway to one of the world’s most awe-inspiring architectural assemblages. Here in a region of seemingly inaccessible sandstone peaks, medieval monks settled upon these towering pinnacles from the 11th century onwards. In the 1400’s, overcoming enormous logistical and engineering challenges, twenty four monasteries were built atop these “columns in the sky.” A century later, their remarkable frescoes heralded a key state in the development of post-Byzantine art.
This afternoon, we’ll visit the Holy Monastery of Great Meteora, the largest and oldest of the monasteries. We’ll begin our tour in the lovely courtyard – embellished with remarkable frescoes from the 16th century. Inside this 700-year-old monastery, you’ll also see the original sacristy and fascinating exhibits of ancient icons and centuries-old codices and manuscripts. As the sun dips towards the horizon, our guide will lead you to a prime vantage point to take in the spectacular panorama of the sun as it sets over the Meteora hills. We’ll enjoy dinner and a tranquil overnight at the lovely Amalia Hotel. Meals B+L+D
Day 7 - Meteora Monasteries + Heraclea + Skopje
Seemingly suspended in the air, only six of the original twenty four ancient monasteries remain. This morning, we’ll visit one of the most spectacular. Perched on a steep and magnificent rocky outcrop, the Holy Trinity Monastery is reached by a staircase that ascends from the foot of the sandstone pinnacle. The main cathedral of Holy Trinity was constructed in the 1400’s; its fabulous interior frescoes are the work of two monks who painted them in 1741. Also of great interest is a small circular rock-hewn church embellished with fine paintings from the late 1600’s.
We’ll of course have a chance to take in the spectacular view from the Monastery before we continue onward to Florina, a charming Greek town close to the Macedonian border. We’ll savor the rich bounty of the region at a local restaurant renowned for its fine farm-to-table cuisine before continuing across the border. At Heraclea Lyncestis, a local archaeologist leads our exploration of this ancient city – founded by King Philip of Macedon in the 4th century BCE. Even long after King Philip’s reign, the town retained its wealth and importance due to its strategic location on an important route connecting Rome and Constantinople; among its impressive sites is an amphitheater built by Emperor Hadrian in the first century. Indeed, Heraclea Lyncestis continued to thrive through the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, and our specially guided tour reveals an ancient city that endured in wealth and power across centuries and empires.
Early this evening at the Tikves Winery, we’ll sample their fine vintages before sitting down to a congenial dinner with selected wine pairings. Tonight finds us at the deluxe Marriott Hotel in Skopje. Meals B+L+D
Day 8 - From Skopje to Ohrid, Macedonia
After breakfast, we’ll embark on a sightseeing tour here in Skopje, the inviting Macedonian capital. A construction boom over the past decade has graced the city with a new abundance of fountains, buildings, bridges and statues, but there are still plenty of centuries-old landmarks that attest to Skopje’s long and rich heritage - encompassing Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Notable among the landmarks we’ll see this morning is the imposing 5th-century fortress, dramatically situated on the city’s highest point overlooking the Vardar River. We’ll stand upon the monumental 600-year-old stone bridge that spans the river in the heart of town and visit the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who lived here from 1910 to 1928. We’ll also meet with a young city artist to hear their personal insight into the city’s rapid growth over the past decade and its emergence as one of Europe’s most unique capitals. Before lunch, you’ll have time to explore the cobblestone streets and browse the colorful markets of the sprawling Old Bazaar, which has existed here since Ottoman times.
In the afternoon, we depart for Ohrid where we’ll check in to the inviting City Palace Hotel, ideally situated on the lakefront promenade close to the landmarks of Old Town. You’ll have time to relax or explore along the promenade before we enjoy the fine Macedonian and Continental cuisine of Belvedere, a charmingly decorated restaurant along the shores of Lake Ohrid. Meals B+L+D
Day 9 - Ancient Ohrid
The captivating lakeside town of Ohrid is one of the oldest in all of Europe. The Cyrillic Alphabet was created here in the 9th century, a key development that allowed the missionary brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, to continue their missionary work throughout the Slavic world. Indeed, for the next thousand years, Ohrid was regarded as the cultural heart of the Slavic world.
Delving into these rarely-studied chapters of history and showcasing remarkable cultural treasures of the Byzantine, Renaissance and Slavic eras, our full-day sightseeing begins with important city landmarks like the 11th-century Fortress ruins that overlook Lake Ohrid and the city’s rooftops. With 18 guard towers and long sections of its massive walls still intact, it’s easy to comprehend why this was considered to be one of the most impregnable strongholds in the Balkans. In the medieval church of St. Sophia, you’ll marvel at centuries-old frescoes widely hailed as among the finest examples of Byzantine art in the Balkans. As you explore the town with our expert guide and stroll in the bustling Old Bazaar, you’ll also learn firsthand about the region’s rich artistic traditions – including fine silver filigree work, woodcarving, and famous Ohrid Pearls.
We’ll end our morning on a relaxing high note with a cruise on Lake Ohrid, the perfect way to take in the beauty of the city and its surrounding region – including the mountain slopes of Galicia National Park. For lunch, we’ll enjoy the traditional Balkan cuisine of Dalga, a charming restaurant situated on the lakefront in the heart of Old Town. After a bit of free time to relax or to stroll the evocative ancient streets of Ohrid at your own pace, we’ll depart on an excursion that takes us along the eastern shores of the lake into the beautiful landscapes of Galicica National Park. Our destination is the Monastery of Saint Naum, dramatically set on a rocky outcrop where the Black Drim River flows into Lake Ohrid. Our tour of the monastery reveals a wonderful Byzantine treasure, originally built more than 1,000 years ago – but renewed and enlarged over the centuries. Inside, its wonderful icons and frescoes date mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries. But earlier etchings from the Byzantine Greek era can also be seen. After dinner at a nearby restaurant, we’ll return to the City Palace Hotel in Ohrid. Meals B+L+D
Day 10 - Back to Tirana
After breakfast, we’ll depart Ohrid and make our way across the border back into Albania. In the quiet village of Labinot, we’ll stop to experience a slice of rural Albanian life. We’ll also visit small museum where residents have gathered and preserved relics of the Communist era. In Elbasan, we’ll sit down to lunch at a charming restaurant situated within the massive walls of the town’s historic 15th-century castle. After lunch, we’ll enjoy a guided tour of the castle grounds including the King Mosque; built in 1482, this is the oldest active mosque in Albania. We’ll also visit St. Mary’s, an Eastern Orthodox church and monastery that also dates back to the 15th century.
We’ll continue our journey back to Tirana for another night at the deluxe Hotel Plaza. You’ll have time to relax and refresh before we get together for our Farewell Dinner. Meals B+L+D
Day 11 - Depart Tirana
Transfer to the airport for your onward journey. Meals B