Jews have lived in the Balkans since Roman times, with the largest numbers 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.
In Thessaloniki (known as Salonika until 1937), where Ladino once served as the city’s lingua franca, and where at one time half of the city’s population was Jewish, 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.
Throughout our stay in Bulgaria, we will be guided, and hear lectures on the Jews of Bulgaria, by scholar Joseph Benatov, while in Greece, our guide and expert will be Hella Kounio-Matalon, whose research has focused on the history of Jewish life in Macedonia and Salonika.
During the course our trip, we will be experiencing spectacular countryside, enjoy deluxe accommodations, and have the opportunity to meet members of the local Jewish community. We invite you to join us on this unique trip to Sofia, Skopje, and Salonika!
Check in to the five-star Hyatt Regency, superbly located in Sofia’s city center. Evening: Overview by our accompanying scholar, Dr. Joseph Benatov, followed by orientation and an opportunity to get to know one another and welcoming dinner at our hotel (included).
9:30 a.m.: Walking tour of Sofia that will include, among other sites, Old Town, Independence Square, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia’s Mosque, and the picturesque, covered market. Break for lunch on our own before visiting the Sofia Synagogue. One of the architectural gems of Sofia, the synagogue has a richly decorated interior, featuring columns of Carrera marble, multicolored Venetian mosaics, decorative wood carvings, and the largest chandelier in the Balkans — rumored to be made of gold from ancient Palestine.
Evening: Presentation by Professor Joseph Benatov, “A History of Jewish Life in Bulgaria,” before dinner on our own.
Depart for Plovdiv. With its many parks and gardens, museums, and archaeological monuments, Plovdiv was designated European Cultural Capital in 2019. Plovdiv’s Old Town, with houses from the National Revival period (18th and 19th centuries), is an imposing open-air museum situated on the three hills of ancient Trimontium (an important crossroad during Roman times). Plovdiv boasts Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and Bulgarian antiquities, the most impressive being the Roman amphitheater—the best-preserved in the Balkans- which is still used for performances.
Following lunch (included), we will visit the Museum Trakart and can see an excellent exhibition of floor mosaics, including a residential building dating back to the 4th century CE, and glassworks dating from back to the 4th and 5th centuries BCE. Additionally, we will also visit the Plovdiv Synagogue and Jewish monument commemorating the rescue of the local Jewish community.
Evening: Enjoy a festive, Shabbat dinner with some members of the Jewish community at a local restaurant (included).
Morning: Free to relax or (optional) attend services at the Sofia synagogue – a short walk from our hotel.
Afternoon: At leisure to visit one of the nearby museums on our own….OR…
(optional) tour of the National Archaeological Museum.
Evening: Presentation by Joseph Benatov, “How the Bulgarian Jews Survived the Holocaust.”
Depart hotel for a visit to the Boyana Church- a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church situated on the outskirts of Sofia. Originally constructed in the late tenth or early eleventh century, the building is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 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 a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
Evening: Free, dinner on our own
Depart for Skopje, Macedonia. 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, in 1943, Dmitri Peshev publicly stood up against the planned deportations of the Bulgarian Jews. Just a few weeks before his death, he was awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. Upon arrival in Skopje, break for lunch (included), before checking in to the new 5-star Skopje Marriott hotel. Rest and relax before a walking tour of “New Town.”
Evening: Free, dinner on our own
9:00 a.m.: Depart for the Beit Yaakov Synagogue – opened in the year 2000, on the top floor of Skopje’s Jewish community center. Following our visit to the community center and Synagogue, a walking tour of Skopje’s “Old Market” and 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 of Skopje.
Afternoon: Free to explore Skopje on our own and visit sites and museums of interest.
Evening: dinner (included) at Old House Restaurant. Built in 1836, it is the oldest traditional house in Macedonia and protected by the “Bureau of National Treasure.” Constructed of wood and stone, with original carved ceilings, “Old House” was home to six generations of the Jovanovich family and today is considered one of Skopje’s finest restaurants.
Early morning departure for Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece. En route, we will stop for lunch (included) and a private guided tour at the UNESCO World Heritage site tomb of Philip II of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great) and its fascinating, adjoining museum. Our special guide this morning will be Eugenia Koukoura, lecturer and historian of ancient Greek history.
Following this tour, we will visit the town of Vergina (where the apostle Paul is said to have delivered a sermon to the Jewish community) and its synagogue before proceeding to Thessaloniki. The almost completely preserved Jewish quarter, Barbouta — situated around an open courtyard, with access only through two gates that were at one time locked at night. In Thessaloniki, we will check into the 5-star Daios Luxury Living hotel, with time to rest and relax before dinner.
Evening: Dinner at our hotel (included).
Walking tour of Thessaloniki, including the synagogue, Old Market, Allatini Bank building, Jewish Museum, and new Jewish memorial that commemorates the Jewish population that never returned from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our guide in Thessaloniki will be Hella Kounio-Matalon, an expert, experienced guide who will also share her family’s story of Nazi-occupied times in Thessaloniki. Lunch on our own during the course of the day.
Evening free, dinner on our own.
Depart hotel for the old train station (where the deportations to Auschwitz took place). During our morning, we will drive past historic villas that were once home to the Jewish elite of Thessaloniki, and the Yeni Cami (new mosque) built for converted Jews; see the old city walls with a panoramic view of the harbor; a new monument on the university campus where the Jewish cemetery was once located and learn about the massive deportations to Auschwitz that took place in what was then known as Salonika. During the course of the day, lunch (included) at Hella’s favorite fish at a restaurant by the sea.
Evening: Shabbat dinner (included) with members of the Jewish community.
Morning: Free to explore Thessaloniki on our own… Or (optional) attend services at synagogue.
Afternoon: (optional) private guided tour of the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum with Eugenia Koukoura, followed by a walking tour, including the White Tower. Once used as a fort enhancing the harbor’s defenses, a garrison, and a prison, today the White Tower is a museum dedicated to the city’s history and the multicultural spirit of Thessaloniki.
Evening: Festive closing dinner at our hotel (included).
Depart on flights for home.