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Published: August 30th 2019
Only 2 days ago we arrived in Plovdiv on a Bulgarian National Rail (BDZ) train from Sofia. Our train ride of a bit under 2 hours took us past the blue-gray outline of the Vitosha, Rila and Rhodope mountain ranges which could be seen in the distance. We had seen only small villages clustered near the train stations we passed along the way. At stations such as Vakarel and Belovo the rusting vintage railcars on siding tracks evoked images of Bulgaria's past. Though we were on a "Fast Train" to Plovidiv, we made several stops and usually a uniformed station master would appear with signal sign to give our train engineer the "all aboard." As we got closer to Plovdiv, it was clear that this was a city with not only a much larger population but was of a much larger significance. Plovidv is the second largest city in Bulgaria, very popular with tourists and is a vital economic, transportation, education, and cultural center.
Our first full day in Plovdiv was spent beyond the city limits visiting other historic places. But, this morning a walking tour of Plovdiv had been arranged by our Euromeet host, John. At the edge of
Old Town we gathered in Stefan Stambolov Square in front of the lovely Municipal Building near the beautiful Pelicans Fountain. This spot would be our compass while visiting the historic Old Town and the art district of Kapana, or “The Trap.” Here we met Velis, our guide and an affable gentleman from the 365 Association Plovdiv. His English was excellent, and with his easy-going personality and obvious love for Plovdiv’s history, he made it fun, interesting and a real education.
Plovdiv has more than its fair share of history being one of the most ancient, continuously inhabited cities in Europe. While now known as Plovdiv, over the centuries the city has had many names bestowed upon it by those who have ruled it, and there have been many rulers – Thracian tribes named it Evmolpia; Phillip II of Macedonia called it Philipoppolis; the Romans named it Trimontium; the Slavs called it Paldin; and, the Ottoman Turks named it Felibe, and made it the capital of Eastern Rumelia. Plovdiv has been influenced by all these cultures and so it seemed particularly appropriate that Plovdiv was honored as a “European Capital of Culture 2019.”
Velis lead us down the pleasant
main pedestrian shopping street, ul. Knyaz Alexander I (known as Glavnata) which stretches from the Tsar Simeon Gardens to Dzhumaya Square. Bordering each side of the street were newer shops and restaurants on ground level while remnants of old architectural details reveal their real age on the higher levels.
From this flat spot it’s difficult to perceive that Plovdiv was built on 7 hills, but as we walked on we came to the Kamenitsa Stairs which changed our perspective of the geography. Reminiscent of the Spanish Steps in Rome, the Kamenitsa Stairs rise steeply to the rocky base of Danov Hill (Sahat Tepe). Centered in the steps is a beautiful cascading water feature, one of the 7 fountains of Plovdiv. At street level is the now iconic physical logo with multicolored, block letters which read “Together Plovdiv 2019 European Capital of Culture” attached to an inclined stainless steel base. This spot is very popular with both locals and tourists alike so naturally we took a group photo there later.
Just to the right corner of the bottom steps is a curious bronze sculpture of a man, “Miljo the Crazy.” Portrayed as a strange-looking man sitting with one hand
in his pocket while the other cups his ear, Miljo supposedly was a poor man with a big appetite for hearing and sharing gossip. Said to love women, he was considered a charming idiot, and kind hearted but thought to be unstable by some while others thought not. The fact that a sculpture of Miljo now sits in such a prominent place in the city attests to the fact that he was well-known and perhaps even beloved character of Plovdiv. People love to have their photo taken with Miljo and of course I had one taken with him too.
One of the most important sites here is the ancient Roman stadium most of which actually runs beneath Knyaz Alexander I Street which we were standing on. Built in the 2nd
century during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian, a small replica display attempts to show how enormous the stadium was; it had a capacity of 30,000. The Romans used the stadium for athletic games, chariot races, and it could even be flooded to stage ship battles. We saw performances being held at the preserved semi-circular stage on this sunny day.
At the edge of Old Town we walked
past Dzhumaya Mosque with its distinctive brick and cut rock exterior. I made a mental note of Velis’ recommendation to get the best coffee in town “here.” A few steps on we found ourselves in a maze of little streets. The atmosphere was celebratory and many streets were strung with lines of colorful triangular flags fluttering above our heads. The streets were lively and full of people, music played and kiosks and tables were spread with special foods and trinkets to buy. The jubilant atmosphere here was contagious. And, as it happened June 1st
was also Children’s Day. We passed parades of happy, smiling children dressed in traditional folk garb and costumes. They seemed as pleased to have their photos taken as we were to take them.
Along with the lovely lines of the Bulgarian National Revival architecture that adds so much character to Plovdiv, street art has found a home here as well. We saw sculptures as well as murals covering the entire side of multi-story buildings signaling street art is alive and well here. Some of it I liked and some was not to my taste. At least it wasn’t just a graffiti artist’s frantic tag and
it imparted a very lively vibe.
Like Koprivshtitsa, Plovdiv is a treasure trove of National Revival architecture which dates to the early to mid-18th
century and stems from the new found wealth of that era. One of the most beautiful examples is the 1847 former home of a wealthy trader, Argir Kuyumdzhioglu, which now houses the Regional Ethnographic Museum. We admired its graceful, undulating roofline, exquisite decorative painting, and the fine wood trim. A number of similar houses have now been turned into "house museums" which can be visited for a nominal admission fee.
century Roman Theater carved deeply into the side of Taksim Tepe (hill) is a stunning site. Row upon row of semi-circular seating once accommodated 7,000 people. It’s 3-story backdrop of partially remaining pediments, supporting columns, and statuary would have faced the attendees. At the top of the seating there was a wide view over the city. This was probably the most spectacular remnant of the once mighty Roman Empire we saw here. This marvel, built by Emperor Trajan, was rediscovered in 1970 following a landslide, and was restored in the 1980s. Some say it is the world’s best preserved ancient Roman theater
and it is still used for events today as we rehearsals going on.
We made a stop at the lovely Church of St. Constantine and Helena to see murals paintings and its graceful white bell tower and surrounded by rock walls. In the surrounding lanes, I loved the look of these old rock walls, gates and passageways punctuated by gardens courtyards. One cobblestone street leads to the stone archway of the 11th
century, medieval Hisar Kapia gate. It is one of 3 entrances (Eastern, Northern, and Southern) to Plovdiv’s ancient acropolis.
Visitors will notice that 19th
century houses here in Old Town have a smaller footprint on ground level while their upper floors jut out; each upper level floor is larger than the one beneath it. The intent was to add more living space to the house while minimizing taxes -- the larger the ground-level footprint of the house, the larger the tax; so this is one example where ingenuity and engineering were used to avoid higher taxes.
One house that exemplifies this type of architecture is known as the “Lamartine House,” so called because the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine stayed there in July, 1833. There
is an humorous story attached to it. Apparently word had gotten out that Lamartine was near Plovdiv following his return from the Orient. Many in Plovdiv hoped to have him as a guest in their house, so to decide where he would stay, they would race to meet him and the first person to touch the poet would have the privilege of hosting him in Plovdiv. It’s said hundreds of men raced to reach Lamartine. Upon seeing such a horde descend upon him, Lamartine became so frighten that he tried to flee --- no one had informed Lamartine that the people that he thought had come to kill him were actually ‘admirers.’
Our tour lasted about 2 hours or so and Velis was a wonderful guide. It me left wanting to spend more time in Plovdiv. By this time we were ready for a break and some lunch. The majority of our friends broke off to find an interesting place to eat, while Rick felt the need to have some time on our own.
Since we were on Knyaz Aleksandar I Street with the remainder of the afternoon to ourselves, we did some shopping for postcards, stamps and
a few gifts which had surprisingly reasonable prices. I then remembered Velis’ recommendation for the best coffee in town to be at Dzhumaya Café. The café was attached to and run by the 15th
century Dzhumaya Mosque which may be the only remaining prominent Ottoman structure we saw. The Christian Sveta Petka Tarnovska Cathedral once stood on this spot.
We sat at an umbrella-shaded, sidewalk table and placed our orders for cappuccinos rather than Turkish coffee, a slice of Rafaello Cake for me and a Tiramisu for Rick. A favorite here is baklava. I went inside the café for a quick peek – more seating and also a few colorful Turkish banquets, mirrors and shelves with all sorts of tiny, colorful treasures and colorful glass panels.
From the opposite street corner the view of the Dzhumaya Café was especially nice – set in the side of the mosque itself, the café façade was made up of beautiful woodwork, large windows, hanging baskets full of red geraniums, gorgeous multi-color Turkish glass pendant lamps, and rising above it all the soaring minaret. The lower section of the minaret featured an exquisite staggered, crisscross pattern made of red brick design on
white plaster, a faceted white balcony above, and above that a design of red brick and white plastic bands topped by a cone-shaped roof.
Oddly enough the mosque also ran a public “bathroom” for men and women. A young boy was charging 1 lev for the use of it. Needless to say, if it hadn’t been of the utmost urgency I would have left when I saw it – a squat toilet with a bucket and running water hose off to the corner. For such facilities it helps to be very agile!
As we walked on the Glavnata, I noticed that people here must love dogs because so many people had them. One dog, a little Jack Russell I think, particularly caught my eye and that of others too – he was too cute for words.
We could have walked back to our hotel but being pretty tired at this point, we grabbed a metered taxi. Smart travelers will quickly learn to take only metered taxis
in Bulgaria as some in our group found out the hard way that unscrupulous taxi drivers are not necessarily uncommon.
For our second dinner in Plovdiv was held at “Smokini
Restaurant” which bills itself as “Plovdiv’s up-and-coming adventure restaurant.” Located in Old Town, it’s menu is considered a modern uptake on traditional Bulgarian dishes, and in line with this philosophy its décor sported a modern industrial design. Our large group was seated at several long tables and we were served family-style food platters rather than everyone ordering individual meals. The menu was lighter on meats if I recall correctly and everything was good; the only issue was that there was not very much of it at our table -- there were some heavy eaters at our very full table.
Everyone was on their own for drinks. Rick had already become fond of Bulgaria’s pale lager Zagorka beer (brewed in Stara Zagora) so no question that would be his choice. Served in a pint glass with the Zagorka logo, Rick asked our wait if he could buy the glass for his collection of pint glasses (from our travels). It really made Rick’s night to come away with a Zagorka pint glass given to him by our friendly and accommodating waiter!
Back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep and a not-too-early wakeup the next day. Tomorrow we would
drive to Assenovgrad to see Assen’s Fortress followed by a longer visit to Bachkovo Monastery which will be the subject of my next blog.
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