4 - 7
> 6pp: £1,500pp
< 6pp: £1,575pp
16 - 25 May 2020
Greece & Bulgaria
RWNR Volunteers' 2020 Trip
The Rhodopes mountains are full of rich biodiversity, colourful culture and ancient history, and this private tour will showcase them all.
There's a brilliant mix of habitat, from the Nestos delta and lagoons in Greece, to the 'vulture-infested' scrub of the Eastern Rhodope, then the mountain pastures in central Bulgaria, before ski-station-elevation forests south of Sofia.
And the history! The Thracians and their cities, temples and 60,000 tombs. The wonderfully atmospheric Thessaloniki and Sofia can be tagged on for city-lovers, with their fantastic archaeology museums, Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques.
The itinerary below is an overview.
Activities on Days 2-4 (Nestos) and Days 5-7 (Arda)
could get moved around to fit inclement weather.
This jaunt around Greece and Bulgaria combines sub-alpine and woodland meadows, coniferous and beech forests, Mediterranean scrubland, volcanic craters, river valleys and a colossal gorge.
For those who've enjoyed Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, rock nuthatch and the two rock thrushes around Prespa, this mix of habitat is also superb for most of Europe’s woodpeckers, Egyptian and griffon vulture, long-legged buzzard, black stork, Calandra lark, Isabelline wheatear, sombre tit, flamingo, white-tailed and imperial eagle, olive-tree and Orphean warbler, masked shrike (as well as the other three) and quite a few more!
Jackals are possible, but not guaranteed. And butterfly-wise we know May is early, but that’s not to say it’ll be totally devoid of them as mid to late May is warming up nicely by the coast and in the eastern Rhodope.
And then there’s the stupendous historical sites, from the well-known city of Philippi, to the ‘lost’ city of Perperikon. Octavian won a famous victory at the former, but how many know that Alexander the Great visited the latter before going on to conquer the known world by 33? A feat not matched for over two millennia, when Eric Bristow won his fourth world championships at only 27.
Day 1 – Arrive in Thessaloniki
Fly in. Generally a late flight from Stansted. If you've not been to Thessaloniki before, we suggest coming a day or two earlier.
Day 2 Ancient city of Philippi and an introduction to the Nestos riverine forest
Leave Thessaloniki for the ancient city of Philippi, where Octavius defeated Brutus after the death of Julius Caeser. As with all open archaeological sites in the region, there’ll be plenty of birdlife around.
Check-in to our Nestos hotel (either Kokkymelon or Filoxenia) for 3 nights
Explore the river delta, ready for sunset and, fingers crossed, jackal howling.
Day 3 – Nestos Gorge
Early morning jackal option, before breakfast (might be pushing it after flights on the first day and transfer day yesterday)
Late breakfast and then explore the Nestos Gorge (rock nuthatch and rock thrush habitat)
Lunch and siesta (let people catch up from the travelling)
Optional afternoon walk.
Day 4 – Coastal lagoons
Porto Lagos lagoons - all day out birding for waders and seabirds by fresh, mixed and saltwater. Possibly fit-in wine-tasting.
Dinner in the old town of Xanthi, once a very wealthy trading town in Ottoman times, with architecture like that seen in Ohrid’s old town (for those who've been on the Prespa/Ohrid tour).
Day 5 – Into Bulgaria
Leave the Nestos for the "Rhodope proper".
First, the Mediterranean scrubland around Krumovgrad.
On the way, we’ll have lunch at Tatul, a Thracian sanctuary atop rocks, with scrub habitat all around it, great for black-eared wheatear, shrikes, buntings and warblers
An afternoon walk by Dolna Kula volcanic landscape and river, before checking in for one night in Krumovgrad
Day 6 – Volcanic vultures
Start at the vulture feeding station near Studen Kladenets, which is inside a volcano crater, so a fantastic mix of scrubland, rock and of course interesting geology
Lunch at the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (Bulgarian Birdlife) Vulture Info Centre
Afternoon around the cliffs and rivers near Madzharovo
Check-in to ‘Complex Arda’ for 3 nights, which is metres from the river and allows early risers to explore the area at will before breakfast.
Day 7 – Ancient Perperikon
On top of an even larger hill and crag than Tatul, the ancient city of Perperikon was literally carved out of the rock. As with days five and six, we’ve another relaxed day to enjoy the wildlife in the Eastern Rhodope, as well as see this unknown city, which was only excavated properly a few years ago.
We’ll then return to the hotel for a free afternoon of feet-up, reading or walking along the river shore.
Day 8 – Imperial eagle & Koprivshtitsa
Visit a site with two breeding pairs of imperial eagle and also a lesser kestrel reintroduction project. The former are four birds, so they’re by no means guaranteed, but we should see ground squirrel, their prey, and there are dozens and dozens of lesser kestrel.
We’ll then make our way north to a unique Thracian temple complex, Starosel.
Before dinner we’ll arrive in Koprivshtitsa – a historic town in a mountain plateau, famous for the first shot being fired against the Ottomans in Bulgaria’s quest for independence. It is also the best preserved Balkan town I’ve yet seen.
One night in Koprivshtitsa
Day 9 – Koprivshtitsa & Vitosha
A walk around the beautiful town and pastures, with (for those who fancy it) a quick visit inside a house museum to see how people lived at the end of the Ottoman empire. Others can explore the pastures more.
Transfer to Mt Vitosha National Park (with a packed lunch somewhere) for forest birds. Our final, distinct habitat, here we’ve forest above 1,500m (4,900ft) so nutcrackers plus.
Hotel in or around the park, rather than in Sofia itself.
Day 10 – Vitosha, Sofia & departure
We’ll have more time in Vitosha this morning, before driving the 30 minutes to central Sofia, where we can take in its very attractive city centre and some excellent museums.
Those who don’t fancy the museums could visit the large central park, but we must all be together again for 18:00, when we depart for the airport and the 21:55 to Stansted.
Recommended reading for the tour:
Kapka Kassabova's Border: Journey to the Edge of 'Europe', winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book, 2017.