Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Bulgaria and Romania has to say about modern Plovdiv:
“Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, is reason enough to explore. Its Roman ruins and revitalized arts scene combine to make it arguably the country’s most interesting city. With an easy grace, Plovdiv mingles invigorating nightlife among millennia-old ruins.
It is best loved for its romantic old town, packed with colourful and creaky 19th-century mansions that are now house-museums, galleries and guesthouses. But cobblestoned lanes are only part of the story. Bulgaria’s cosmopolitan second city has always been hot on the heels of Sofia, and a stint as European Capital of Culture 2019 seems sure to give Plovdiv the edge.
Music and art festivals draw increasing crowds, while renovations in the Kapana artistic quarter and Tsar Simeon Gardens have given the city new confidence. Once an amiable way station between Bulgaria and Greece or Turkey, the city has flowered into a destination in its own right, and one that should be firmly stamped on any itinerary through central Bulgaria.
Tsar Simeon Garden
Plovdiv’s prettiest place to stroll, Tsar Simeon Garden was sculpted by Swiss architect Lucien Chevalas in 1892; he’s now lovingly referred to as the ‘minister of flowers’. In recent years the park’s Goddess Demeter Fountain and central Viennese-style pavilion have been carefully restored.
‘Milyo the idiot’, as he’s affectionately known, was a local prankster and mimic, fondly remembered in Plovdiv’s shopping precinct in the form of a statue. Keep your voice low: Milyo cups his ear to eavesdrop on shoppers’ conversations.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I’ve organized the photos that I took in Plovdiv into four groupings, rather than my more usual way of posting them more or less chronologically. So, in this one I focused on the ancient past of the city, though our adventures on our first night and the next day had little to do with the Roman antiquities.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we arrived by train from the capital, Sofia at the height of the evening rush hour. We walked along a major thoroughfare, over very broken-up sidewalks, pulling our carry-on luggage behind us. The traffic was relentless, noisy and choking and we saw a large number of modern city buses whizzing past us.
We began to think we should have taken the time to investigate the bus system, but by the time we came to that conclusion, we were more than half way to our AirBnB apartment, so we just soldiered on. What a relief to find the address at last, and realize that it was a brand-new building, with a stunner of an apartment inside. The photos on the website didn’t do it justice, it was relatively new, beautifully furnished and the windows completely shut out the noise of the traffic six floors below.
The only unfortunate issue we faced was the fact that we hadn’t seen any inviting restaurants along the route we had walked. There was a surprising number of casinos and shady-looking bars; something we hadn’t seen much of in Sofia at all. We didn’t even come across any grocery stores, or we would have picked up a few things to have a ‘tapas’ meal that evening.
We checked for reviews on TripAdvisor, but everything that received praise was well north of us, at least one and a half kilometers away. We knew we were a little far off from the old town district, but most European cities have restaurants along major streets and we thought we would have less trouble finding somewhere to eat.
We eventually decided to make the trek into the area to the west of the old town, where there was a cluster of restaurants recommended by our guidebook. I wanted to stay away from the busy major roads, but Anil was reluctant to walk through the residential streets after dark. He had a good point. It would certainly be safer to wait until we’d explored the neighbourhood on foot in the daylight hours.
I guess I must have been really tired, because I took us in the wrong direction after leaving the apartment. I thought we needed to continue along the street that we’d previously walked, but in fact, we need to head back towards the railway station. Along the way, we spotted a lovely bakery and a vegetable/fruit stand, but they were both closed for the evening.
We turned around and passed by our apartment building before turning right onto an even busier street called Tsar Boris III Obedintinel. What a mouthful! It’s a major north-south axis through Plovdiv and to our dismay, much of the sidewalks along it have been torn up in order to lay new paving stones. There’s a tremendous amount of construction underway in preparation for the expected influx of visitors in 2019 when Plovdiv serves as the European Capital of Culture.
To make matters worse, halfway along our route, the four-lane ‘highway’ passes into a tunnel and we had to decide to move over to the western side to get to our destination. There are no traffic lights on Tsar Boris III, only infrequent pedestrian underpasses so we eventually took one and surfaced on a relatively dark street.
The GPS on my phone told me we were quite near the restaurant district, but there was no indication from our relative surroundings. A couple of blocks later we emerged into a lovely pedestrian street, bustling with people and chock-a-block with restaurants, cafés and high-end shops. Phew!
We were only too happy to stumble into one and have a good meal and a glass of wine. Now we were faced with getting back to our apartment. Anil had read that it’s not a good idea to hail a taxi on the street so we decided to return the way we’d come, on foot, despite the fact that we were tired from the long train trip and the many kilometers we’d already walked that day.
Past experiences have taught us that it’s best to stick with the route you know, rather than attempting a new route, so we just ‘sucked it up’ and made our way back along the busy streets. This was the end of our time spent on Tsar Boris III, we crossed it a few times over the course of our six days in Plovdiv, but we never walked along it again.
After a well-earned night’s sleep on a very comfortable bed, we had our morning coffee and biscuits sitting in the sun streaming through the windows of our apartment. A little later, we set off for the bakery and the vegetable stand and picked up some fantastic bread still warm from the oven. It looked and smelled so good, we decided to get a second loaf, knowing how we would demolish the first one quite quickly.
Loaded down with cucumbers, tomatoes, local cheeses and Sicilian olives, we stocked our fridge with all the goodies and then set off to explore the old town. This time, we chose to walk along the leafy residential streets, and our spirits picked up exponentially. Our route took us almost the same distance we’d walked the previous night, but it seemed so much shorter because it was so pleasant.
I’m notorious for not reading too much about a destination before I actually get there, and this time was no different. Anil is much better, but even he didn’t realize that the old town was built high on top of one of the three largest of the seven hills in the area. That meant that as we approached ancient Plovdiv we had a choice to make – take a huge flight of old stone stairs, or walk up a slightly less steep cobblestone street along the side of the hill.
We chose to take the street as we weren’t at all sure where the staircase would lead, and didn’t want to end up regretting the climb. Besides, there were some interesting-looking buildings and I could see a lovely church off in the distance.
Just before we arrived at the church, we were greeted warmly by a local man who told us that he worked as a gardener and a handy man at the church. His clothes were slightly soiled and he had a strong smell of sweat hanging over him, but he was friendly and seemed to want to show us the church. I didn’t want to completely reject his hospitality, so we went with him into the courtyard and then into the church itself.
We followed him as he took us around the beautiful interior, pointing out various features while I took a couple of photos. He then drew my attention to a particularly lovely icon, and when I raised my phone to take a photo, I heard a shout from behind us – ‘No photos allowed’. A woman who was in charge of keeping an eye on visitors had suddenly appeared and she was very cross with me.
She spoke good English and wanted to know why I had ignored the sign posted at the entrance. I apologized several times, but it didn’t seem to satisfy her. I hadn’t seen any such sign, but then I realized that I would have had we been on our own. I explained that the fellow had invited us in, and that I had been busy paying attention to him. I said I didn’t want to be disrespectful, and this seemed to placate her.
We chatted together for a short time, I told her we were from Canada, and her mood brightened when she told us she had travelled to Toronto some time ago.
I thought the workman would leave us when we carried on from the church, but he was intent on walking with us and pointing out interesting buildings along the way. I had a feeling he might be difficult to get rid of, but I didn’t want to be rude. His body-odour was terrible, but we couldn’t shake him, no matter how we tried.
We eventually made it to the tourist office and picked up a map of the old town, but he just waited outside. From there we walked to the highest point in the old town, an area developed by the Thracians over 7,000 years ago. We had a look over the city, spread out below us on the plains surrounding the rocky hills.
I spotted a nearby restaurant and suggested to Anil that we have lunch there. It would be an easy way to shake off our ‘host’, and to no surprise, he wanted money from us for all the assistance he’d provided. I was rather annoyed, because if we had wanted a local person to guide us around, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen someone with such poor personal hygiene!
We gave him a small amount of money just to get rid of him, and he wasn’t too happy at all. I told him that was all we were prepared to part with, and turned and walked into the restaurant. It’s too bad, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt; at no time did he suggest he wanted to be a paid guide. I spoke about him later to a man in a souvenir shop, and he more or less indicated that the guy wasn’t ‘all there’.
We settled into the restaurant and had lunch. It was a beautiful old town, what little we’d seen of it so far, and we weren’t going to allow our experiences of the previous night or the morning put us off. It’s par for the course when you come to a new city more than a little unprepared. We had our first taste of cold Bulgarian beer and a delicious meal of pork and roasted vegetables, in a fantastic setting in Plovdiv’s old town. Things were definitely looking up!