From Sofia to Salonika:
Jewish Gems of the Balkans

BULGARIA, MACEDONIA & NORTHERN GREECE

June 22—July 3, 2022

Thessaloniki White Tower | jhtravel.org

Traveling with You...

In Sofia…

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 Postcommunist Europe (University of Nebraska Press).

In Thessoliniki…

 

Hella Kounio-Matalon was born in Thessaloniki. Both her parents are Holocaust survivors – her mother being a “hidden child” during the Nazi occupation in Greece, and her father a concentration camps survivor, who was in in Auschwitz and two other camps in Austria, for over two years from the age of 14.

Hella’s interest in local Jewish history has always been a passion. Because she is a child of Holocaust survivors, it led her to study the Holocaust and especially the Holocaust in Thessaloniki, where prior to the Holocaust Jews over half the population of the city (known in Jewish history as Salonika) but lost more than 96% of its Jewish population to the Holocaust. For the past five years, she has been leading tours of the Jewish sites of Thessaloniki, welcomed hundreds of visitors from all over the world and educating them about the rich cultural history of the Jews in Thessaloniki throughout the centuries. Additionally, Hella is an active member of the local Jewish Community and where she is an active participant on its various projects and committees.

Eugenia Koukoura, tourist guide and former lecturer in Thessaloniki, is fluent in eight languages- among them English, Turkish, Bulgarian, Spanish, Italian and French.
Eugenia is a writer and a historical show producer, including documentaries and more than 350 films that she has scripted and produced. The themes of many of her films focus on byzantine art, mythology, and history Greek history- from ancient to contemporary times.

She has written eleven books about Alexander the Great and her film “Alexander the Great and women,” was chosen by UNESCO to be shown at the festival for women of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Program Overview

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!
 

 

Tentative Daily Itinerary*

Wednesday, June 22 | Sofia, Bulgaria

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).

Thursday, June 23 | Sofia

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.

Friday, June 24 | Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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).

Saturday, June 25 | Sofia

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.”

Sunday, June 26 | Sofia

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

Monday, June 27 | Kyustendil, Bulgaria to Skopje, Macedonia

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

Tuesday, June 28 | Skopje, Macedonia

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.

Wednesday, June 29 | Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece

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).

Thursday, June 30 | Thessaloniki

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.

Friday, July 1 | Thessaloniki

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.

Saturday, July 2 | Thessaloniki

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).

Sunday, July 3 | Thessaloniki

Depart on flights for home.

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

Accommodations

 
 
Hyatt Regency, Sofia, Bulgaria
Located within the heart of the city on Vasil Levski Square, the Hyatt Regency in Sofia is an ideal location for exploring the city – a city containing within it centuries of Eastern European history. Set within walking distance of many of Sofia’s cultural institutions and tourist attractions, each guestroom has floor-to-ceiling windows, a king size bed, a generous workspace with a cozy chair and charging station, and a well-appointed bathroom with walk-in rain shower.

 
 
Skopje Marriott Hotel, Skopje Macedonia
The new 5-star Skopje Marriott hotel is in the heart of the city on Macedonia Square and boasts incredible views of the Vardar River and its 500-year-old Stone Bridge. Well located, the hotel’s spa features a state-of-the-art gym, treatment rooms, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and four different types of saunas.

 
 
Daios Luxury Living Hotel, Thessaloniki, Greece
Situated on Thessaloniki’s seafront, the urban chic Daios Luxury Living includes a Mediterranean bar/restaurant, with splendid panoramas of Thermaikos Gulf and the White Tower. With its stylish rooms and a superb location, the Daios Luxury Living is just few steps away from the city’s landmarks — including the White Tower, and Aristotelous Square. In addition, a large variety of restaurants, museums, cultural centers, bookstores, and smaller shops are within walking distance of the hotel.

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Accommodations

Travel in comfort. We stay at deluxe hotels with fine amenities. Accommodations for this trip listed below.

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Program Details

Program Cost: $5,500 (plus $54 Museum of Jewish Heritage fee for nonmembers)

Includes:

  • 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 ($975) and gratuities ($165) additional.

To reserve your place, please complete the registration form and submit with a nonrefundable deposit of $1,500 per person
(Payable to the Jewish Heritage Travel Program). Balance is due in full by February 22, 2022

Cancellation

All cancellations must be received by The Jewish Heritage Travel Program in writing. Cancellations received up to 120 days prior to departure: full refund less non-refundable deposits, per person; 119-90 days prior to departure: 50% refund per person after non-refundable deposits. No refunds after this date.

Participation

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, and have been vaccinated against Covid-19. 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.