Pavlov’s Bell in Plovdiv

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Europe » Bulgaria » Plovdiv Province » Plovdiv
June 21st 2018
Published: September 13th 2018
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Today were travelling southwest from Veliko Tarnovo to Plovdiv.

We woke to the sound of the church bell close to our hotel. We were leaving by train for Plovdiv, and it was an early start, so there were no cafes open for breakfast. We’d picked up some bananas and water the night before, but we would have killed for a cup of tea or coffee.

We jumped into a taxi outside our hotel and headed to the Veliko Tarnovo railway station on the outskirts of town. We ate our bananas while we waited for the train to arrive, then walked across the tracks and jumped onto the nearest carriage when it finally rolled in about half an hour behind schedule. Unluckily, every eight-seat cabin was full, and those that weren’t full were not very welcoming – old local women had their handbags on seats, and they waved us away with dismissive hand gestures when we tried to sit down. We walked through the empty first class carriage and tried our luck in the only other second class carriage. Luckily we found two seats in the last cabin, which we shared with three locals – an older woman and two young blokes. The woman looked terribly sad. Her blank resigned stare and downturned mouth suggested an immense weight lay upon her shoulders, and a shadow seemed to darken her path.

We eventually chugged out of the station and settled in our uncomfortably hot cabin, which had no air-conditioning. Our only respite was a window which was opened only a few centimetres, allowing a very slight breeze to flow through the cabin. We were told that we may miss our connecting train, so there was uncertainty about the time we would be arriving in Plovdiv.

We received confirmation that we would not be able to catch our connecting train, due to our first train arriving late into Veliko Tarnovo. However, alternative transport had been organised, and we discovered it would be meeting us at Dabovo, the next station. As the train squealed into Dabovo, we jumped off and found some shade. This really was the middle of nowhere. Apart from the station itself, no other building or structure could be seen, and the flat plains around us stretched to a mountainous horizon.

Once the local passengers who disembarked with us had disappeared (I’ve no idea where to), a calm and lonely silence fell around us. I sat on the platform and typed for about half an hour until our minibus arrived. We piled in and continued our journey to Plovdiv, but this time we were on a direct route – we didn’t have to disembark and board two more trains.

As we sped along the highway through the Bulgarian countryside, we passed field upon field of sunflowers, flat agricultural fields stretching to the horizon, windfarms on distant hills and industrial landscapes with giant concrete silos jutting into the sky. Some of the industrial towns were surrounded with endless communist-built high rise apartments, and they were not in good repair. This mass-housing solution was becoming a familiar site on our journeys through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

We arrived in Plovdiv mid-afternoon, one hour ahead of schedule – a minibus will always get you to your destination faster than two connecting trains. We checked in, dropped our packs and headed to XIX Bek, a restaurant over the road from the hotel for lunch. I ordered cold tarator soup for the first time since arriving in Eastern Europe, and it was fantastic. Chilled yoghurt with dill, cucumber and minced garlic is such a perfect lunch option in hot weather. Ren ordered chicken kavarma (slow cooked stew), which we both shared, and it too was fantastic.

We relaxed in our room for an hour, catching up on washing and generally winding down in preparation for our two and a half hour walking tour of Plovdiv in the late afternoon / early evening. Setting off around 5:30pm, we walked from the hotel to the Unification of Bulgaria Monument, wandered through the creative district of Kapana and then wound our way up into the Old Town of Plovdiv.

We trod carefully on the cobblestone streets of this intriguing place, stumbling upon a rehearsal of Madame Butterfly in the ancient Roman Amphitheatre before wandering up to the site off the former hilltop fortress of Nebet Tepe, which afforded excellent views of the outer suburban areas of Plovdiv. We wound our way back down towards the main city centre and ambled down the crowded Knyaz Aleksandar pedestrian street, passing the slightly disturbing Milyo the Idiot statue on the way.

While I was not overly impressed with the design and style of this city (compared to the places we’d visited in Hungary and Romania), I was fascinated by the graffiti on its building walls, and I was continually drawn to photograph street art at the expense of architecture.

We finished the walking tour around 8pm and headed to Restaurant Dayana for dinner. This was a chain restaurant, and on entering we were greeted with world cup soccer matches on a large screen with a rowdy customer base – not a good start. Things descended dramatically when the restaurant’s extremely overweight chef came out into the main dining room in a black singlet, grabbed a handful of serviettes from one of the tables and proceeded to wipe the sweat dripping from his underarms. When he was finished, he threw the sodden serviettes into a bin and went back into the restaurant’s open kitchen and continued cooking our pork swords (grilled pork on skewers) over an open grill… 😞

What on earth were we doing here? It was a question I continually asked, especially given the fact that the waiting staff were downright rude and continually forgot components of our order. Why here? Because Hotel Dayana was listed as one of the key restaurants to visit when in Plovdiv, and when the food finally arrived we could see why. The shopska salad was reasonable, the Arabian appetiser with hommus was pretty good, and the pork swords… well, I have to say they were amazing. I just had to eradicate the image of the chef from my mind. After numerous reminders my beer finally arrived, although our meal was virtually finished by that stage. The whole time we were eating three cats were playing around my feet and attacking my bag. Would I go back? Not in a million years. Would I recommend the place? I’d certainly recommend the pork swords – just get a table where you can’t see the chef or the open kitchen. Or just watch the soccer while you wait for your order. Everyone else was.

We finished our meal, headed out into the warm night air and wandered up the almost deserted Knyaz Aleksandar pedestrian street – it was late on a Thursday night. We made our way back to the hotel and settled with a cup of tea, ruing the lost opportunity of finding a small, local and intimate restaurant. We were, after all, half way around the world, and we didn’t travel all this way to eat in chain restaurants. It was well past midnight and we had a long day of walking planned for the following day, so we called it a night on our first day in Plovdiv.

After a great night’s sleep, we headed down to the tiny hotel dining area for breakfast. It was a very cosy little breakfast space, and we loved it. I had muesli, yoghurt, prunes, dried apricots, toast, fresh strawberry jam, tea, coffee and a small sliver of cherry tart. YUM! The extremely efficient waitress was so affable and welcoming, and she was a machine in terms of her workload, preparing teas and coffees for hotel guests and staff alike.

After a long and lazy breakfast, we headed out into the mid-morning sun to further explore the creative district of Kapana and the Old Town of Plovdiv. Using the Unification of Bulgaria Monument as our return point, we ventured into the narrow lanes of Kapana were there seemed to be a trendy bar or cafe on every corner. We wandered around the Roman Stadium Square, scouted out a restaurant (Pavaj) for lunch and then crossed into the Old Town area we’d visited the previous evening. We dropped into Balabanov House, a restored Bulgarian mansion that is currently being used as a gallery for local artists, then continued climbing up the cobblestone streets to the hilltop fortress of Nebet Tepe. With the sun in a better position for photography than the evening before, we managed to capture a few panoramas of the city before beating a hasty retreat from the midday sun to the shade and shadows of the Old Town buildings.

We dropped into the diminutive Church of Saint Constantine and Elena, Plovdiv’s oldest church, and I remembered a comment made by Mircea Constantin (our Urban Adventures guide in Bucharest) when he described the difference between large and small churches: ‘You are small, and God is close.’ This place was so calm and restful, and I could definitely see Mircea’s point. If God did exist, I’m sure you would find him in a place like this. He certainly pardoned Ren, who didn’t see the ‘No Photos’ sign on her way in, and proceeded to take numerous pictures while inside the church. 😊

We picked up a few icons from the tiny gift shop at the entrance of the church, then continued our descent from Nebet Tepe. We returned to the ancient Roman Amphitheatre where we watched the ongoing preparations for Madame Butterfly, then made a decision to walk out of the Old Town – through the Eastern Gate of Philippopolis – to the Early Christian Small Basilica.

After venturing less than a hundred metres, we found ourselves deep inside a very suburban and gritty neighbourhood, and we didn’t feel safe. A dog fight broke out in front of us – three dogs were chasing a poor black dog who looked outnumbered, but before they ran him down, a man came out of his house and hurled something at the pack, hitting one of the three attackers. The dog staggered and fell in front of us, crying in the hot sun – then lay motionless. I was convinced he was dead. We didn’t know what to do. The neighbourhood was closing in on us, and we suddenly realised we were very, very conspicuous as tourists with cameras and packs. I’d never experienced this atmosphere in any of our travels. We had to get out. We walked towards the most open space we could find, but a topless Roma guy with tattoos all over his chest and stomach was walking towards us, gesturing with his hands. This was getting worse by the minute. However, he must have seen the map in my hand, and he was actually showing us, in the friendliest of ways, how to get to the Early Christian Small Basilica. We heeded his kind advice and turned back in the direction of the dog, who had by this stage hauled himself up off the ground and was wobbling towards some shade. Whatever had hit him had only stunned him. Thankfully he was OK (for the time being at least), and so were we.

We walked along a dirt path towards a major road, finally emerging into normality. What a relief. We crossed the road and quickly realised we were lost. The Small Basilica was meant to be here, but we couldn’t see a thing. We asked a woman walking towards us, and she pointed across the road to a large red galvanised building. It was the Basilica, and we were really disappointed. We didn’t realise we had been searching for the remains of a building preserved inside a galvanised shed. We didn’t even bother paying the entrance fee. The problem we faced now, of course, was returning to the Old Town. The only way back was the way we came, which meant retracing our steps through the gritty neighbourhood streets. We walked quickly, past the resurrected dog resting in the shade, past the guy who knocked the dog out in the first place, past everything that had closed in on us only a few minutes before. When we eventually got back inside the Old Town (via the Eastern Gate), we breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The searing mid-afternoon sun was beating down upon us, so we made our way around the underwhelming Street of Crafts before descending out of the Old Town into Kapana – it was time for lunch. When we arrived at Pavaj (the restaurant we had scouted in the morning) it was full, so we put our name down and waited for a table. We didn’t have to wait long. After a walk and about 10 minutes standing on the street, we were shown upstairs to a very retro dining area, complete with old radios and cameras hanging from the walls. The place was also air-conditioned, which was a major bonus. We shared a root crop salad, meatballs Mimi Ivanova (served with Bulgarian French fries, lyutenitsa – a spicy vegetable relish – and a pickled chilli pepper), and chicken livers (served with grilled red peppers and whole-wheat bread). The food was incredible, as was the atmosphere of this amazing little place. Ren had a strawberry and basil lemonade with vodka, while I had a beer and an amazing glass of house rose. Far out – what a lunch!

Having recovered from pounding Plovdiv’s cobblestone streets for the best part of the day, we felt incredibly relaxed and happy. It had been a memorable day of adventure which we celebrated with an extraordinary lunch. We wandered back to the hotel, picking up some drinks from a nearby supermarket on the way. We showered and slept in the late afternoon, then relaxed in our comfortable fourth floor hotel room overlooking Liberators Hill, a memorial to Russian soldiers.

Today was a travel day from Veliko Tarnovo to Plovdiv, by three trains (…or so we thought).

We had to leave for the train station just after 8am, so instead of spending time looking for an early opening cafe again, we planned ahead and bought some fruit. I don’t normally eat breakfast at home, so Andrew was very surprised at my mutterings about being on a starvation diet. The fact is, my exercise levels increase enormously when we travel, so my appetite increases exponentially to compensate… 😊

When we’d arrived back from dinner the night before, one of our group had left a note at reception informing us that his alarm clock had died and asking if someone could wake him at 7:30am. His room was on our floor, so I dutifully padded over at 7:30am and knocked on his door. There was no answer. I kept going over to knock on his door every 5 or so minutes. Finally at 7:50am I noticed with relief that his door was open. When we all met at reception, I mentioned to him that I'd tried waking him for 20 minutes, and he looked at me as if I was a total nutter. I found myself having to explain that it was ONLY (!) in response to the note he’d left… to which he huffily replied that he’d woken up early and gone for a walk! I kept waiting for some sort of acknowledgement / appreciation / apology, but there was nothing of the sort. In my peripheral vision I could see Andrew grinning widely, so I guessed my facial expression wasn’t as neutral as I thought it was. We meet many weird and wonderful personalities in groups like this, and despite having rather strong first impressions about people, I always try to keep an open mind… but I could now decisively put this one in the ‘friggin weird’ basket. 😊

As we waited outside the hotel for our taxis, I said goodbye to Sandy (the neighbour’s very friendly cat) who was much loved by everyone in the street. A local man walked past us without making eye contact, but when Andrew wished him a good morning, his demeanour completely changed and he walked back and asked us where we were from. He seemed genuinely surprised that Australians would want to travel for so many hours to visit his city. He apologised for the messy road works, and went on his way to work. As I’ve already mentioned, there’s a noticeable difference in the friendliness of people in Bulgaria. It wasn’t that we found Romanians unfriendly or unhelpful, but generally speaking, they had a more stoic approach to strangers and would only engage with us if they had to… and getting a smile was a rarity.

We caught taxis to Veliko Tarnovo's small train station and waited for the first of our three trains. Normally it wouldn’t have mattered much that the train was 20 minutes late, but it was going to potentially impact our two connecting trains. There was no assigned seating, and when we boarded the first carriage we found there were no spare seats in any of the eight seat compartments. Or rather, people had put their bags on all the spare seats and wouldn’t move them for anyone. So we walked with Narelle to the other end of the train and found some scattered seats in carriages further along. It ended up being a very comfortable and enjoyable ride.

Andrew and I shared with three locals who were perfect compartment mates. The train took us through agricultural fields, heavily industrialised towns, lightly wooded forests surrounding square-housed villages, and rolling green hills which gave way to beautiful valleys and mountains with white cliff faces. At one of the smaller stations, a beefy shirtless guy boarded our carriage carrying a hefty chainsaw! He drew a few horrified stares until we realised he was with a bunch of high-vis clothed forestry management workers. At some point the train stopped in-between stations and they amused each other (and us) as they tried to negotiate the big drop from the train while carrying all their equipment.

Unfortunately, since the train had been late arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, we had almost certainly missed our second connection at Dabovo. Instead of spending six hours trying to play catch-up with the second two trains, Mattia (our group leader) made a case to Intrepid Travel to organise a minibus to take us from Dabovo directly to Plovdiv. We were sad to miss out on the additional train travel, but we were happy to not lose a whole day waiting at stations.

When we got off at Dabovo train station, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The small one-building station was surrounded by fields and mountains, a few derelict outbuildings and a handful of houses down a dusty lane. After the train left, it was just us, the station master and a local blind dog rattling around the station. We thought the dog was a stray, but we later realised that he’d come to the station to meet the train. After he’d got his share of pats from us, he wandered down the lane and into a house. We sat in the shade of one of the derelict buildings for about an hour until our minibus arrived. Andrew caught up on his notes, while I practiced the few words of Bulgarian we’d started using in Veliko Tarnovo… zdraveyte (hello), blagodaria (thank you), nazdrave (cheers), and most importantly – kade e baniata? (where is the toilet?). 😄

As much as we would have preferred to travel by train, the minibus driver was happy to stop and let us take photos of the sunflower fields in full bloom. Bonus! We’d been passing sunflower fields throughout our travels in Hungary and Romania, so we were very happy to finally step into one. The drive into Plovdiv was very beautiful, with the impressive Rhodope Mountains shadowing our entire journey. We passed many solar panel farms on the flat plains, as well as wind farms all along the ridge of the mountain range. It was very heartening to see such a large renewable energy focus in Bulgaria.

Plovdiv sits on the Thracian Plain in Central Bulgaria, and claims to be Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It’s a seriously ancient city – the Thracian tribes had a Neolithic settlement around 5000 BC, after which many invaders including the Macedonians, Romans and Ottomans stamped their mark on the place (with many others in-between those empires). As a result, the Lonely Planet guide listed many old monuments and ruins around the city.

It was a relatively comfortable two hour minibus trip. However, it was incredibly hot when we arrived at our hotel in Plovdiv. We had a quick lunch at the shady XIX Bek restaurant across the street from our hotel, and I was quite impressed with my very delicious and rich chicken kavarma (slow cooked stew in an earthenware dish called a gyuvech). Andrew tried the chilled tarator soup (cucumber, yoghurt, garlic, dill, and crushed walnuts), which was exactly like a soup version of the Greek tzatziki dip. It was very refreshing, but had enough garlic to floor a donkey! 😊

I loved our very comfortable room in Hotel Ego, but we didn’t have long to linger… we had to shower and get ready for a walking tour with a local guide. Angelina gave us a brief introduction to Bulgarian history and the Cyrillic alphabet (which was invented by the Bulgarian Saint Cyril). The walk started at our hotel and took us past the main sights in the city. We walked to the Unification of Bulgaria Monument (which celebrates the union of Eastern Rumelia and the Principality of Bulgaria in 1885), the Knyaz Aleksandar I pedestrian street (apparently the longest in Europe), the edgy Kapana district, the Old Town, the fortress on Nebet Tepe, the Roman Theatre, the Roman Stadium and the Roman Odeon. This was only a quick introduction to the city, and we fully intended to explore all the sights more leisurely the next day.

Even though many of the group liked Angelina’s animated style, Andrew and I found her over-the-top presentation a bit fake, and her attempts at misdirection when she didn’t know an answer was very annoying. Our dislike of her was further compounded by the fact that she recommended dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be a chain restaurant.

The Dayana Restaurant outlet we went to was crap (a review I read later suggested avoiding the one we were sent to because the main outlet was much better). The cliental were chain-smoking bogans, the service was rude and the sweaty chef in his sweat-stained singlet was disgusting. We nearly walked out at the start, but decided to stick it out as our drinks had already been served. Admittedly, the giant pork shish kebab skewer we shared was quite fabulous, but the rest of the salads, dips and bread were average and we certainly would never have gone if we’d known that it was a chain restaurant.

The new group hadn’t really gelled yet, and its fractured nature had started making group outings feel strained. There were pushy personalities jostling for position, and when three of the group very rudely started speaking another language at the dinner table, Andrew and I decided to absolutely keep out of the childish politics at play.

We walked back to our hotel with Chris, and even though we all had a relatively good sense of direction, navigating a town at night when you’ve only been there a couple of hours is quite interesting! Back in our room, we debriefed about the antics at dinner, did some writing and called it a night at 1:30am.

We woke at 6am but easily slept-in until 7am. The breakfast offerings at Hotel Ego were small in comparison to other hotels on this trip, but it was all very tasty and the intimate breakfast room was run by a very affable girl. In addition to the usual breakfast items I love, they also had a tasty cherry tart and Bulgarian banitsa pastries (filo pastry filled with egg and white sirene cheese). Andrew had loved the banitsas we’d had so far, but they’d been too salty and dense for my liking. However, the ones at the hotel was really, really delicious! There are probably different regional versions of the pastry… and I think I need to do a lot more research / taste testing of this nationally loved breakfast item!

Given the uncomfortable group dynamics the night before, we were glad to have a day to do our own thing. After a leisurely breakfast we wandered out just before 10am to further explore the city. We had a rough idea of about four or five places we wanted to see, but mostly we just wanted to walk around and experience the more modern area around our hotel, the edgy area of Kapana and the layers of history and different legacies of the Old Town.

We started at the gigantic Unification of Bulgaria monument, which stood in much better light than the day before. We meandered to the start of the Knyaz Aleksandar I pedestrian walkway via a very local park, sat on a bench and observed life for a while. As in any city park around the world, there were old friends chatting, young mothers pushing prams, people using the park as a short cut to work, and a local character feeding the pigeons.

Walking further along the pedestrian walkway, we visited the accessible sections of the 2nd century Roman Stadium. Vast parts of the city hold many Roman ruins, some which have only recently been discovered. The Stadium has only been excavated in particular parts because most of it runs under the main city thoroughfare that has beautiful 19th and 20th century buildings (which are protected) on it, and the 15th century red stone Dzhumaya Mosque borders the other side of it. The excavated semi-circular area we were in sat awkwardly under an overhanging restaurant balcony, and then we had to squeeze between buildings in a subterranean passage to look at another part of the excavation.

We detoured into the Kapana neighbourhood to look for a restaurant we wanted to try for lunch later on. It was rumoured to be difficult to find as it didn’t have a sign in English, but I’d copied the name in the Cyrillic script and we found it quite easily. Kapana is Plovdiv’s oldest neighborhood, and is called ‘the trap’ because the tangled little lanes are supposed to be difficult to navigate. That may have been the case back in the day when it was full of craft workshops and smiths’ forges, but it’s now a newly revived area full of vibrant arty shops, eclectic galleries, street art, and cafes and bars full of locals spilling into the lanes.

With plans to come back and explore Kapana further, we walked uphill to the Old Town. It was very enjoyable walking along narrow cobblestone streets which were lined with large colourful houses from the Bulgarian Revival period which Plovdiv is famous for. Revival era houses are built on a smaller foundation of stone than the larger upper wooden floors, so the upper floors increasingly overhang the street as they go higher. Quite a few renovated Revival era mansions have been set up as museums and galleries. We visited Balabanov House because I liked its quirky architecture, and also because it had an exhibition of modern art on one floor. The art wasn’t mind blowing, but there were a few interesting pieces. The second floor exhibited furniture and soft furnishings of the Revival era. However, what I loved most was seeing the layout and intricate interiors (like the wood carved ceilings) of these upside down looking houses.

We continued walking uphill to the ruins of the ancient fortress on Nebet Tepe hill. It was first built by the Thracians and called Eumolpias, but not much is known about it as the Thracians didn’t have an alphabet. The light was much better than the day before for views over the Old Town, and we also spent some time walking around the ruins of Eumolpias. We had a wide panorama of Plovdiv from our vantage point, and we visually followed the flow of the Maritsa River through the city, where the newer parts of town were predictably full of communist-era square apartment blocks crammed very closely together. Tourists are almost always only shown the best parts of a city, and we rarely see the gritty and less savoury aspects of a city. We usually only stumble upon them when seeking a laundry facility, or when traversing through to train and bus stations located out of the city centre.

By now the Old Town was starting to fill with tourists, but they were mostly part of two big tour groups, and it was easy enough to avoid them by walking in any other direction. As a rule they only seemed to walk along the broad well-paved roads, so the narrow (but very uneven) cobbled streets were mostly empty.

The day had already heated up, so we decided to seek shade as much as we could. The oldest Orthodox Church of Sveti Constantine and Elena had intrigued me when I read about it. It’s dedicated to a saint and his mother, and was a beautiful intimate little church covered in colourful frescoes, heavily gilded paintings and adornments. Andrew reminded me of what the Urban Adventures guide Mircea had said to me in Bucharest when I asked about orthodox churches – the churches are smaller and more intimate, because ‘you are small, and God is close’. It perfectly fitted the open and welcoming vibe this church emanated. We loved it so much we bought a couple of small wooden icons from the little stall selling candles. But on my way out, to my horror and embarrassment, I saw that I had totally missed the small ‘No Photos’ sign on the front door! Apart from my embarrassment, the only other slightly jarring aspect of this gorgeous church was its bright white bell tower… it was a physically separate structure, and also disconnected from the church in style and feel.

We had another look at the ancient 2nd century Roman Theatre, which was only accidentally discovered after a landslide exposed the site in the early 1970s. The theatre was remarkably preserved and has also been beautifully restored. It was hosting a production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and as curious as it was to watch the production setting up, we were slightly appalled at the way the props were being attached to the marble columns of the old theatre, and how metal spikes had been driven into the ground next to the marble seats to provide more wooden seating… I’m sure the guardians of the theatre know more about these things than I do, but it looked very haphazard.

By now it was very hot, and we debated if we should stop for lunch or see one more monument. We opted to start our search for a Small Basilica the local guide from the day before had told us about. Angelina had highly recommend it, but we probably hadn’t listened carefully to her explanation, and the Lonely Planet guide didn’t cover it, so we were flying a bit blind.

We left the east gate of the Old Town and walked downhill into the newer part of town. The roads were smaller and more local, and we passed a neighbourhood that I suspect was an unofficial shanty town, with cobbled-together building materials and tarp for windows in some cases. So I was naturally surprised to see an old Mercedes Benz in one of the properties!

We kept walking, not entirely sure where we were going. We crossed a sort of square that opened into a complex of high rise apartment blocks with shirtless guys sitting around drinking. Then a very savage dog fight erupted, with three street dogs converging on a dog with a tag that was walking with a family. The family kept walking while the poor dog was howling in fear. One of the guys in the area got a brick out his wheelbarrow and threw it at one of the street dogs. We didn’t see what happened next, but we came around a bend and saw the street dog collapsed in the sun in front of us, his back legs twitching, as he wailed a horrible sound. I wanted to turn around at that point, but Andrew persuaded me to keep walking. No one in the neighbourhood took any notice of the dying dog. 😱

By now we found ourselves at the foot of the apartment blocks with no church in sight… and I was suddenly very aware that there were at least four groups of guys sitting all around us. Then a ‘bad boy’ type with tattoos on his stomach started walking toward us and I really wanted to turn around for the second time. He seemed to be gesturing at us, and I realised he was indicating that we’d missed the turn to the church – he showed us a small path that curved around one of the blocks that we needed to take. Andrew thanked him and we kept walking. All my senses were on full alert as we kept walking.

I breathed a sigh of relief when we came to a main road with traffic and more people. Having had a discussion with Andrew a few hours earlier (at the fortress) about how we rarely get to engage with the really gritty parts of a city… here I was eating my words. The last time I felt this unsafe was when we found ourselves down a lonely alleyway in Delhi, and we thought a group of guys walking behind us had quickened their steps. That didn’t eventuate into anything, as it didn’t this time, but it pays to be alert and trust our instincts. Although I should note that even though Andrew was upset about the dog incident, he wasn’t as worried about the boys in the ’hood as I was.

However, we still hadn’t seen the church. It was really hot, and I was worn out from getting nervous, but we had wasted so much time looking for the church that I didn’t want to give up now. I asked a passing girl for directions and she looked puzzled as she pointed to a red structure just across the road from where we were standing. We had passed right by it as we walked along the base of the apartment block, but I had assumed it was a shed! It then dawned on us that the Small Basilica was a ruin, with a temporary structure over it. We felt stupid, but went in anyway. All that was left of the church was a couple of metres of floor mosaics! The brochure showed that the designs were quite detailed, but we had to buy a ticket and sit through a video first… so we politely declined and walked out. To say I was disappointed and annoyed was an understatement. If it hadn’t been so hot, the hour or so we had wasted on the hunt for the Small Basilica probably wouldn’t have got to me as much as it did.

We walked back uphill into the Old Town. The dying dog had dragged himself into the shade of a shop and wasn’t wailing anymore, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that he was just stunned and not mortally wounded. Back in the Old Town, we walked through the Street of Crafts where traditional potters, weavers and coppersmiths can normally be seen working. The street was deserted… most likely because they were sensible people who didn’t wish to work when it was so bloody hot.

After our little unplanned adventure, we were both more than ready for a few cold adult beverages. We walked back to the Kapana neighbourhood to have a late lunch at Pavaj (the restaurant we’d scouted earlier). The restaurant was fully booked, so we put our names down and walked around exploring Kapana some more… wishing all the while that we’d had the foresight to make a reservation.

The food and drink at Pavaj was fabulous. We started with a beer for Andrew and a strawberry and basil lemonade with a double shot of grey goose vodka for me – a most civilised way to end a long hot day of explorations. We shared a salad of root vegetables (carrot and beetroot with a dressing of horseradish and dill), and for mains Andrew had meatballs with Bulgarian style fried potatoes, lyutenitsa (roasted red pepper and eggplant relish) and a pickled chilli pepper; and I had chicken livers with grilled red peppers and bread. Every single element of all our dishes was utterly delicious! We were two very, very happily sated travellers as we waddled back to our hotel, via a supermarket to buy water and snacks.

After six hours of walking in the heat combined with alcohol in the daytime, I was forced to have a two hour nap when we got back. At one point I woke up to see that rare sight of Andrew also napping – it must have been a very good day of travel explorations! 😄

We woke up refreshed but still full, so we chose to linger in our very comfortable hotel room instead of heading out again. We enjoyed our vast collection of snacks while we caught up on our writing, and then prepared for a travel day with an early start.

We were leaving the vibrant old city of Plovdiv with full hearts, happy tummies and sore feet from all the uneven cobblestone streets. 😊

Next we travel south-west to Bansko, our gateway to the Pirin Mountains.


14th September 2018

Enjoyed your writing and photographs. We will be doing a similar trip next year and thank you for the ideas you have given me. Best Wishes, Melanie
15th September 2018

Re: Plovdiv
Thanks Melanie. I'm glad you found this blog useful. Hope you have a fabulous time in Plovdiv :)
14th September 2018
unification of bulgaria monument

This monument is not in our guide book, was it in the old town area?
15th September 2018
unification of bulgaria monument

Re: Statue
The Unification Monument is on a main road towards the river from the city centre… if you walk down the entire length of the Knyaz Aleksandar pedestrian street, and turn left on September 6 Rd, it's a block or so away. It sits on a large square across the road (that you can access via an underpass).
14th September 2018

Local transport
I took a local bus from VT to Plovdiv ...that was quite an experience but I got to see lots of the countryside including Romany encampments ...and lots of old ladies sitting on the pavement with heaps of tomatoes to sell. I was on my own and enjoyed wandering around as well as a free walking tour in Plovdiv ...never felt unsafe ...maybe I was lucky.
15th September 2018

Re: Local transport
The little stalls in that part of Bulgaria were full of berries when we visited. Apart from our little adventure while trying to find the Small Basilica, the rest of Plovdiv felt very safe to us too - even when walking around late at night. There are dodgy parts of town in every city :)
14th September 2018

A day alone
Sounds like you've enjoyed this area and I'm glad you had a break from the group. Dynamics of groups can be tedious at times.
15th September 2018

Re: A day alone
We loved Plovdiv! We are normally good at avoiding drama queens (both on trips and in life), but couldn't avoid aspects of this one. Thankfully our break from the politics in the group was very well timed, and things got better :)
14th September 2018

That got intense for a second!
Oh my Lord... the part about the gritty neighborhood had my whole body tensing up, I was even holding my breath, as if I were watching a thriller movie. You described it so well, great job! hahaha :) And those poor dogs, oh man... I am really hoping you guys have lighter experiences ahead!
15th September 2018

Re: That got intense for a second!
I still get upset when I think of those dogs - it's a hard and brutal life out there :( And 'intense' is the best word to describe what happened. Sometimes things like this can feel like an overreaction in hindsight, but we both agree that it was a knife-edge situation that could have gone either way. On a positive note, the rest of Plovdiv was great! :)
16th September 2018
kapana street art

Wish we had seen the street art
I clearly remember Plovdiv but can't remember seeing any street art. Wish we had because we would have liked it. I liked your story about having to wait for the food. We were surprised over how good the food was in Bulgaria. Everywhere we went the food was great and cheap. /Ake
16th September 2018
kapana street art

Re: Wish we had seen the street art
The street art we saw was mainly in underpasses and in the Kapana area (which had a very youthful energy to it). We loved the food too! The various empires have no doubt contributed to the beautiful flavour combinations in their dishes :)
11th October 2018

Group Dynamics
Ah yes, it can be interesting travelling with a group. We've always been lucky, though we didn't necessarily love everyone, we've never had any really difficult fellow travellers. That alarm clock guy sounds like a bit of a jerk! I hope it got better with the new group as you travelled. I am constrained in what I say in my blogs about others in the group since we all end up being facebook friends.
11th October 2018

Re: Group Dynamics
Hehe yes you've been lucky... we usually tend to have one difficult person on each trip, but it's easy enough to ignore or avoid them and their drama (and I purposefully avoid being facebook friends with them too). Things had come to a head with a couple of the group after we left dinner, but thankfully it sorted things out for the rest of the trip :)

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