If Another Visit to Plovdiv Happens…
… It will be for one particular reason
Bulgaria was always on my travelling wishlist. My maiden trip to the country as part of the year-end vacations has ensured Sofia and the surrounding areas have now been taken care of.
The Black Sea resort of Varna will happen at another time. Till then, it will remain the main reason, one that keeps me reminding that I want to visit Bulgaria again. However, these are places that I have always wanted to visit. But there is one city that was never exactly on the agenda but slowly made its way into my wishlist.
A Bulgarian family helped in sowing the seeds. I met them during a trip to Bangkok, and we struck a chord. Considering I had been to the Thai capital before, I was able to help them finalize their itinerary. During the conversation, I was told they hailed from Plovdiv.
After they became aware that Bulgaria is on my wishlist, they encouraged me to visit their city. I was given a crash course in regards to Plovdiv and its culture. To be honest, I knew little about the city before that. Following that meeting, I made sure to know more about Plovdiv.
My favorite travel show host, Rick Steves, helped water the desire of visiting Bulgaria’s second-largest city. As mentioned in a previous submission, it was Jillian Amatt — Artistic Voyages’ piece that ensured a good harvest, thereby ensuring the decision. I had to visit Plovdiv.
One beautiful morning…
The most important thing is to make up your mind. Once the mind is made up, things tend to happen. As such, after traversing through the western part of Bulgaria there was enough time left to head south, towards the region of Thrace, wherein lies the historic city of Plovdiv.
At the breakfast table a kind staff member, who I had impressed with my immaculate Bulgarian (pun intended) told me that public transport will be time-consuming, and driving is the best option. I wasted no time in going ahead with a booking confirmation. It turned out to be a masterstroke, as the driver’s hometown happened to be… well, no points for guessing.
It was on a beautiful morning that the journey began. Traversing various landscapes and enjoying bright sunlight on a cold day is the best thing a traveler can hope for. To be honest, this was another case of a journey being more interesting than the destination.
As the vehicle entered Plovdiv, the first thing to take note of were a slew of Soviet-era apartments. The driver was pragmatic in his assessment. Even though those from the city weren’t exactly proud of these ‘similar looking’ structures, these apartments could be acquired on the cheap. In fact, they are a lot cheaper when compared to many other parts of Europe.
Soon the vehicle was crossing the Maritsa river — Plovdiv rests on its banks, and heading towards the historic old town. By this point, the driver had assumed the mantle of a self-appointed guide. I wasn’t complaining.
A city with several sobriquets
I was aware that, like Rome, Plovdiv is also called the city of seven hills. I knew that at present there are actually only six hills now, the seventh one having been quarried for materials to construct the city. I was also aware that Plovdiv had been designated as the European Capital of Culture in 2019, alongside the Italian city of Matera.
My self-appointed guide ensured that I was able to add considerably to my knowledge base. I was told that Bulgaria’s second-largest city, and cultural capital, has acquired many sobriquets over the years. I was a bit surprised when told Plovdiv had been awarded the title of European Best Cultural Destination for the year.
A quick search on the internet confirmed what my guide had just said. Plovdiv had not only won fourth place in the European Best Destinations 2022 rankings but also had taken first place in three other categories (Best Wine Destinations, Best Cultural Destinations and Best Romantic Destinations) for the said year.
Even though I was aware of this, I was told again and again that Plovdiv is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe, and that locals joke wherever the authorities dig they end up finding some ruins. I was indeed visiting a city of sobriquets.
Kapana, Glavnata and…
The stay at Plovdiv was divided into parts. I was told besides the area surrounding the centre, there is little else to see. As such, I spent a lot of time in Kapana, the city’s creative quarter. It literally translates as the Trap, and true to its name, there’s a lot of artistic excellence trapped in it. In fact, the influence of modern art is all the more palpable while taking a stroll.
There are tiny pedestrian streets, that contain a lot many buildings full of graffiti. Amid all the street art are a slew of cafes and restaurants. I found Kapana to be a compact district bustling with life, thanks to a largely young crowd, until late at night.
Entirely renovated a few years back — Kapana was formed as a trade quarter more than five centuries ago, the neighborhood plays host to a number of artistic events. Kapana Fest, an elaborate annual extravaganza that includes cinema, discussions, music and a lot of cultural stuff, has been the flagship feature of Plovdiv in recent years.
Next on my agenda was the Main Street (Glavnata), located right next to the Kapana. Expectedly, there are a number of cafeterias, restaurants and shops along the street, some of them pretty old. It is a nice area to walk around for a while, and that is precisely what I did. That being said, a bulk of this trip was targeted at exploring the best.
… The Old Town
Ever since I began to know (and discover more) about Plovdiv, there was one common element in all of those discussions, studies, and viewings. It pertained to the city’s historic Old Town.
So when the day came, I was all the more excited. It was a beautiful day again, and I enjoyed walking around in the cobbled streets and steep stairs of the Old Town, taking photographs and trying to know more about the history of the place.
Of the many queer buildings, my favorite happened to be the Regional Ethnographic Museum (Kuyumdzhioglu House) and the Balabanov House — that displayed the flags of Bulgaria, the European Union and the City of Plovdiv.
There’s a lot of architecture, history and culture in this area, but if I am allowed to be honest, then let me admit that Plovdiv’s Old Town was a bit of a disappointment. To me, it seemed too much of the same thing, and a tad over-hyped.
Before you jump the gun, let me admit it is entirely my fault. Maybe I expected a bit too much. I should have gone there without any expectations. That being said, I will refrain from calling it a total disappointment. There’s one major reason for that.
The reason for an intended return
I had seen it in photographs and videos, but witnessing it from close quarters was a different experience altogether.
The Roman theatre of Philippopolis (Plovdiv’s former name) is a sight to behold. During my travels, I have been fortunate to see a few other Roman theatres, and they happen to be something of a personal favorite. As such, the moment I reached the outer gate of this splendid monument, I knew I had to get in. A small fee (5 BGN) ensured a ticket and a piece of advice.
“Be careful with the stairs,” said the friendly man at the counter. I am not sure I heeded to the advice. That being said, despite all my excitement, I didn’t slip and fall. So I believe I did well, especially considering the fact that went up and down those steep stairs on multiple occasions.
The imposing structure, constructed in 1st century AD and restored between 1968 and 1984, is bifurcated into two parts with 14 rows, each divided with a horizontal lane — that is 28 concentric rows of seats. It has an impressive stage, and the capacity to seat a few thousand people around it. I have no qualms in admitting it is by far the best thing in Plovdiv, and an absolute must-see.
Even as I was busy clicking photographs from each vantage point, and from all possible angles, I was told the theater still hosts live performances. Having witnessed live concerts in packed stadiums, it would be a different kind of experience to see one in a Roman theatre. Suffice to say, I have found a reason to head back to Plovdiv.
More importantly, whenever I go to Plovdiv next, I’m at least certain of something, that there would be no more disappointments. I know exactly what to do on my second trip to Bulgaria’s second-largest city.