From Sofia to Salonika:

Jewish Gems of the Balkans

May 3—14, 2017

Stone Bridge, Skopje Macedonia |

Traveling with You...

Scholar in Residence

Joseph Benatov holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches Hebrew at all levels. He is originally from Bulgaria and a member of Sofia’s Jewish community. Dr. Benatov is the English translator of the contemporary Bulgarian novel Zift. He has also translated Israeli poetry, prose, and drama. His translations of plays by Hanoch Levin, Martin McDonagh, and Ethan Coen were all staged to wide acclaim in Bulgaria. Dr.Benatov has over 10 years of experience leading travelers across Bulgaria, including UNESCO representatives, 92nd Street Y visitors, JDC board members, and Anti-Defamation League officials. Dr.Benatov lectures regularly on the history of Jewish life in Bulgaria and has published on the fate of Bulgaria’s Jews during the Holocaust. His article on the topic appears in the anthology Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in post-communist Europe (University of Nebraska Press).


Program Overview

Jews have lived in the Balkans since Roman times, with the largest numbers being primarily Sephardic Jews who arrived following the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Over the next 500 years, Sephardic culture—songs, cuisine, Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish language), customs, and folklore—defined the Jewish communities of Greece, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

Bulgaria and northern Greece’s Jewish histories are an important part of this Sephardic cultural context. In Sofia, we will meet with leading members of the Jewish community, visit its magnificent synagogue, enjoy daylong outings to  Plovdiv and the Rila Monastery, and tour other sites of interest, including Bulgaria’s National Historical Museum and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

En route to Thessaloniki (Salonika), dubbed “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” we will visit Skopje, capital of Macedonia, and see its newly built Holocaust Memorial Center and the Beit Yaakov synagogue and Jewish community center. We will have ample time to stroll through the Oriental cobblestone streets of its old bazaar.

Jewish Heritage Travel to the Balkans

Thessaloniki, Greece

In Thessaloniki, where Ladino once served as the city’s lingua franca, we will be hosted by the Jewish community; visit the city’s two synagogues as well as the important Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki; learn about the tragic fate of Salonika’s Jews during the Holocaust; and see other important sites, including the Hagia Sofia Church and tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Led by Aryeh Maidenbaum and accompanying scholar Joseph Benatov, whose research has focused on the history of Jewish life in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Salonika, we will enjoy deluxe accommodations throughout our trip and enjoy hearing local music.


Tentative Daily Itinerary*

Wednesday, May 3

Check into the 5-star Sense Hotel Sofia, known for its sophisticated design and elegant, modern atmosphere. Rest and relax from our journey.
Evening: Overview by our accompanying scholar, Joseph Benatov, followed by orientation and an opportunity to get to know one another. Welcoming dinner at our hotel (included).

Thursday, May 4

Walking tour of Sofia that will include, among other sites, the Old Town, Independence Square, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the mosque, and covered market. Break for lunch on our own before visiting the Sofia synagogue.


Floor Mosaic, Synagogue, Sofia, Bulgaria.

One of the architectural monuments of Sofia, the synagogue boasts a richly decorated interior, featuring columns of Carrara marble and multicolored Venetian mosaics, as well as decorative wood carving—and the largest chandelier in the Balkans, which is rumored to be made from gold from ancient Palestine.

Evening: Presentation by Professor Joseph Benatov, “A History of Jewish Life in Bulgaria,” before dinner on our own.

Friday, May 5
Sofia—Rila Monastery

Visit the Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church situated on the outskirts of Sofia. The east wing of the two-story church was originally constructed in the late tenth or early eleventh century. In 1979, the building was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Break for lunch (included) before arriving at Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest and most renowned monastery, which emerges abruptly out of a forested valley in the Rila Mountains. The monastery complex, 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.
Return to Sofia in time for a festive Shabbat dinner (included), followed by a special performance of local music.

Gems of the Balkans with Jewish Heritage Travel

Old Sophia Synagogue

Saturday, May 6

Morning: Free to relax, or attend services at the Sofia synagogue, which is a short walk from our hotel.

Afternoon: At leisure, or visit one of the nearby muse­ums.
Evening: Presentation by Joseph Benatov, “How the Bulgarian Jews Survived the Holocaust.”

Sunday, May 7

Plovdiv, with many parks and gardens, museums, and archaeological monuments, will be the European Cultural Capital in 2019. Its Old Town, with houses from the National Revival period (eighteenth–nineteenth century), is an imposing open-air museum situated on the three hills of the ancient Trimontium.

Old Plovdiv Cityscape

Old Plovdiv Cityscape

Plovdiv boasts Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and Bulgarian antiquities, the most impressive being the Roman amphitheater—the best-preserved in the Balkans, it is still used for performances. We will break for lunch (included) before visiting the Museum Trakart, with an excellent exhibition of floor mosaics from a residential building from the fourth century ce and glassworks dating from fifth century bce up to the fourth century ce.

Roman Amphitheatre, Plovdiv, Macedonia

Roman Amphitheatre, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

We will also visit the synagogue and the Jewish monument commemorating the rescue of the local Jewish community.

Monday, May 8

Depart for Skopje. En route, stop in Kyustendil and visit the Dimitar Peshev museum, dedicated to the life of locally born Dimitar Peshev, Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian National Assembly during World War II.

Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje, Macedonia

In 1943, he publicly stood up against the planned deportations of the Bulgarian Jews. Just a few weeks before his death, Peshev was awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. En route, break for lunch (included).

Arrive late afternoon, check in to the new 5-star Skopje Marriott hotel. Rest and relax before dinner at our hotel (included).

Tuesday, May 9

We will visit the Jewish community of Skopje and the Beit Yaakov Synagogue. The synagogue was opened on the top floor of the Jewish community center in Skopje in 2000. The sanctuary is a simple room, decorated with modern stained-glass windows illustrating Jewish symbols. Following this visit, a walking tour of Skopje’s old market and the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia. The Memorial Center is located in the so-called Jewish Quarter of Skopje, which was the center of Jewish life in this city until the deportation of the Jews. The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia was officially opened in 2011, exactly 68 years after the German forces deported the Macedonian Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Panorama, Skopje, Macedonia

Panorama, Skopje, Macedonia

Afternoon: Free to explore Skopje on our own and visit sites and museums of interest.

Evening: Presentation by Joseph Benatov, “Sephardi Vignettes from the Balkans,” before dinner on our own.

Wednesday, May 10

Depart for Thessaloniki. En route, we will stop at Vergina for lunch (included) and a private guided tour of the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and new museum. Our guide will be Eugenia Koukoura, a lecturer and historian of ancient Greek history. We will then visit the Veria before arriving in Thessaloniki. The Jewish community of Veria, which received Saint Paul at its synagogue, dates from antiquity. It was a Romaniot community, which grew further after the fifteenth century, with the arrival of the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. The almost completely preserved Jewish quarter, called Barbouta, dates from the early and mid-nineteenth century. It is of a defensive and introverted typology, where the houses are built around an open courtyard, with access only through two gates that used to be locked at night.

Check into the 5-star Daios Luxury Living hotel. Rest and relax before dinner (included).

Thursday, May 11

Today will begin with a walking tour of Thessaloniki, including the synagogue, Old Market, Allatini Bank building, Jewish Museum, and new Jewish memorial

New Holocaust Memorial, Thessaloniki

New Holocaust Memorial, Thessaloniki

that commemorates the Jewish population that never returned from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our Jewish guide will be Hella Kounio-Matalon, who will share her family’s story of Nazi-occupied times in Thessaloniki.

Evening: Presentation by a local Jewish scholar.

Friday, May 12

Our guide, Hella, will take us to the old train station, where the deportations to Auschwitz took place, past historic villas once home to the Jewish elite of Thessaloniki, Yeni Cami (new mosque) built for converted Jews, the old city walls with a panoramic view of the harbor, and a new monument on the university campus where the Jewish cemetery was once located. We will have lunch along the way (included).

Evening: Shabbat dinner (included) with members of the Jewish community.

Saturday, May 13

Morning: Free, or (optional) attend services at synagogue.
Afternoon: (optional) private guided tour of the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum with Eugenia Koukoura, followed by

White Tower, Thessaloniki, Greece

White Tower, Thessaloniki, Greece

a walking tour, including the White Tower. Once used as a fort enhancing the harbor’s defenses, a garrison, and a prison, it is an informative museum today, dedicated to the city’s history and the multicultural spirit of Thessaloniki.

Evening: Closing meeting and dinner (included).

Sunday, May 14

Depart on flights for home.

*Please Note: Daily schedule may be modified subject to weather or unanticipated changes.


Sense Hotel, Sofia

Sense_Hotel_Sophia_room02(1)Sofia’s first upscale design hotel, balancing luxury and superb design with world class service. Proud member of Design Hotels, Sense Hotel Sofia is an architectural piece of art that stands out from the crowd. Nestled in the heart of Bulgaria’s capital, Sense Hotel Sofia has a matchless location on Sofia’s main boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel, a street that is home to some of Bulgaria’s most important buildings, including the country’s National Assembly.

Marriott Hotel, Skopje

Marriot_Hotel_skopje_room-04(1)The brand new 5-star Skopje Marriott hotel is located in the heart of the city on Macedonia Square and boasts incredible views to the Vardar River and 500-year old Stone Bridge. The hotel’s spa features a state-of-the-art gym, treatment rooms, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and 4 types of saunas.

Daios Luxury Living Hotel, Thessaloniki

daios_hotel_-thessaloniki_room04(1)Located on Thessaloniki’s seafront, the urban chic Daios Luxury Living includes a Mediterranean bar/restaurant and stylish rooms, both with splendid panoramas over Thermaikos Gulf and the White Tower. In a privileged location, Daios Luxury Living is just few steps away from the city’s landmark, the White Tower, and Aristotelous Square. A variety of restaurants, museums, cultural centers, bookstores and smaller shops can be found within walking distance.

Book Your Trip
Book Your Trip

Program Details

Program Cost: $6,650 (plus $54 Museum of Jewish Heritage fee for nonmembers)

  • Eleven nights’ accommodations at deluxe hotels*
  • Full breakfast daily; five lunches; six dinners
  • All group transportation via deluxe air-conditioned coach
  • Entrance fees to all museums and sites on itinerary

*Per person, double occupancy; single supplement ($965) and gratuities ($160) additional

To reserve your place, please complete the registration form and submit with a nonrefundable deposit of $1,000 per person (payable to the Jewish Heritage Travel Program). A second nonrefundable deposit of $1,000 per person is due on December 3, 2016. Balance is due in full by January 3, 2017.

Prefer paper?

Download and print the trip information.

Register with confidence: Your deposit is 100% refundable if Covid restrictions cause us to cancel this trip.


Limited to 30 participants, the program will entail considerable walking, including uneven terrain. Participants need to be in active, good health, able to keep up with the group, ready to travel and experience group and cultural differences with grace. If you have any questions, or need help with your travel plans, please call the Jewish Heritage Travel Office at 845.256.0197.

Help with Travel Arrangements

One of the services we provide, at no additional charge, is to help with your travel arrangements. Our knowledgeable and patient staff can assist you in making your travel plans — including booking reservations that are available from the various airlines.