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krisek Plovdiv - A travel report by Krys
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Plovdiv,  Bulgaria - flag Bulgaria -  Plovdiv
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krisek's travel reports

Plovdiv, historical gem of Bulgaria

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There are over two hundred archaeological sites in Plovdiv, the main ones from the Ancient Roman times, and a large cluster of wooden traditional houses along cobble stone narrow alleys that create what is known as the Old Town. A picturesque combination.

Plovdiv travelogue picture
I held my hopes high for Plovdiv after spending a quick night in Bulgaria’s capital. I was very pleasantly surprised with the nightlife and the quality of people. And having to travel on a rather dirty train for several hours, I was definitely hoping to be compensated with something nice.

I had a plan for Plovdiv. I was coming prepared. I read a few pages of available travel literature about it and I browsed the Internet to have a look what I should have a look at in the city. From the outset, Plovdiv was not going to get enough time to do it justice. I was on a schedule and missing my outgoing easyJet flight to Bourgas was not helping. I had to get an emergency miles flight with Lufthansa to Sofia and change my route in a heartbeat, but I lost an entire day. Anyway, the plan was to get accommodated immediately after arrival and set out on exploring the Old Town first. I had a map in my head when I drew my plan on the train. Being a total loser, I did not print it from the net, and had to work things out from memory. I had an idea where the key sights were and how they were positioned against my hotel. However, I bought a city map at the hotel anyway, just to be sure. And I did need it, indeed.

The plan was however, to take it easy. The only thing constraining me was my return flight a few days later, and since I was moving around the country by (excruciatingly slow) trains, I had some flexibility and could set my own timetable. Within reason, of course, as the trains were not terribly frequent. I wanted to explore the city but also to sit down every now and again at a bar or a cafe and wind down. Luckily, the centre was compact enough. It really took just about 6 hours to see everything I wanted. At a glacier pace!

Plovdiv did make it up to me. I mean for the lousy train trip. There was enough to see and fill up the memory card in my camera. Most of the time I was the only tourist in sight. I loved that, because there was no-one littering my exposure.

Favourite spots:
Plovdiv travelogue picture
I particularly loved this little cafe at the top of the ancient Roman theatre, although they did not serve food. Well, they had cakes and ice-cream, so I settled for a giant sundae and a large beer. I guess the frozen lard, whipped cream, fruit and beer did not mix well, but I was sitting at table with a view to stage of the Antique Theatre! I really liked the spot and would have stayed much longer, but I’ve only just started exploring the city. The rest of the monuments were still waiting to be admired and photographed. Fortunately, the theatre was very conveniently adjacent to the Old Town, so there was no need to rush. Everything I wanted so see in the vicinity was near and there was plenty of time.

What's really great:
Plovdiv, Central Square
Plovdiv, Central Square
Plovdiv took me by surprise with its mix of ancient Roman, Christian, Ottoman, Jewish, medieval and Renaissance Bulgarian and socrealism Soviet cultures, evident through architecture. It was amazing to see such variety in one compact centre of the town. Churches, mosques, the ancient Roman stadium, lovely secular structures - be it administrative or private houses and palaces, all shared literally just few hundred square yards! And there was still room for a small park, cafes, restaurants, bars and a few merchant mobile stands selling silver and plastic gifts. Probably naively I actually did not expect to see many mosques. Logically, of course it made all sense but somehow it did not occur to me. Sadly not all of the monuments were in their best condition. However, with the accession to the European Union, there should now be some more funds to bring them to their former glory and put Plovdiv solidly on the map as a fascinating destination. So far, it appears to be a hidden gem.

Plovdiv, Ancient Roman Stadium
Plovdiv, Ancient Roman Stadium
One thing fascinated me in the city. It was the 180 meters long Roman Stadium dating from 193AD, which could accommodate 30 thousand spectators. It was right in the centre running along the main pedestrianised drag, or rather beneath it, as over the centuries, a modern city grew on it. Only a tiny part of the stadium can be admired, right opposite the magnificent Jumaya Mosque dating back probably to 1365.

The Old Town perched on a small hill with its narrow stone alleys was perfect for getting lost and for wandering among the wooden and colourful Bulgarian Revival houses. All these houses were built around 1820-1860, and some were in a perfect condition. The most interesting ones were: Koyumdjioglou (Ethnographic Museum), Balabanov, Hindiliyan, Nikola Nedkovich, Lamartine, but there many more. At the end of the Old Town, there was a unique Nebet Tepe site looking for the traces of the great Romans: Marcus Trajanus and Marcus Aurelius.

Plovdiv travelogue picture
From Hotel Dafi (€35), where I stayed, I could almost see the early 13th century walled fortifications of the former Duchy of Philipopolis (Plovdiv was the capital) that once surrounded the Old Town and now large parts remain. Hotel Dafi was a three star hotel so conveniently close to both the city centre and the historical monuments. The rooms were a little claustrophobic and some had funny smell and tiny windows with no view, but the bathrooms were fine and who needs more? It’s just that it might have been slightly cheaper for what it was offering. Their restaurant downstairs offered breakfast included in the price, but it was a joke - not breakfast. What was labelled ‘juice’ was an excruciatingly syrupy coloured water. The cold cuts of supposedly meat were... I don’t want to say. And the cheese slices were even worse. Yet hotels are not the places to spend time or eat... And I didn’t. I wanted first to go out and check if Plovdiv’s nightlife was as good as Sofia’s.

Plovdiv travelogue picture
Well, it wasn’t. But perhaps my conclusion is flawed. When I was in Sofia, it was Saturday night. And my judgement on Plovdiv is based on Sunday night. That surely is not the same - with the Monday morning on the conscience of the partygoers feeling much different on Sunday than on Saturday. Anyway, there were significantly less places to boogie in Plovdiv, though. And, as the country’s economy continues to transform, so does the clubbing scene. Places go out of fashion, new places open up. Others close, change management or style. The Caligula once was just an inconspicuous club with live music (so I heard), but recently it’s become more of a gay club (so I heard). The Caramba, Morris or Dive were among the most active clubs, but without asking a local, there was no way of knowing, which one was better than another.

Plovdiv travelogue picture
The pedestrians-only avenue running from Jumaya Square to the Central Square, Knyaz Aleksander I Batemberg street, was the place where to sit down and sip coffees, local wines, drinks or even overdose on caffeine with the Red Bull. Actually, there was a drink bar on the corner of the Central Square (where once Roman Forum was), which had something to do with the name Red Bull or some other so called 'energy' drink. Knyaz Aleksander was a busy avenue and it was perfect for people watching. The Dreams cafe was one of the places to kill time, much like many others along this main drag, actually. But I also liked the Antique Theatre to hang out and the little cafe at the top. It was great to meet up and chat with young Bulgarians. They all spoke good English and were really friendly. But it would not be impossible to communicate with them in any of the eastern or southern Slavic languages.

Plovdiv travelogue picture
When it was time for dinner, I was faced with a challenge to find a decent place to grab something to eat that wasn’t McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. And I was spoiled for choice. I just wanted something rustic and authentic, that wasn’t too expensive or posh. A few restaurants above the Roman stadium around Jumaya Square, just behind the Knyaz Aleksander, offered a traditional Bulgarian fare and mixed grills. They had tables at the front of their main venues. There were three or four of them, one next to another. Their menus, conveniently depicted by photographs, was very similar. I chose the one closest to the Jumaya mosque. And the food was... alright, I guess but not too brilliant. I'm not sure what was wrong with it. Perhaps it was too much lard and the beef was too chewy, I don't know. Fortunately, I was able to wash it down with two pints of lager!

From Plovdiv, I went to Bourgas and Nassebar (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and perhaps there is a travel story coming on those, too.

Other recommendations:
The Bachkovo Monastery
The Bachkovo Monastery
After making a full circle around Plovdiv twice, I was hungry for more things to see. It was my first time in Bulgaria and curiosity was killing me. I learnt about the Bachkovo Monastery, 25km south of Plovdiv and made my decision to go there. It was rather late in the day and no public transport could take me there. I wrestled a little with my budgeting principles, checked how much a taxi ride would be, and twisted my own arm to allow for such an extravaganza (€40). Well, hardly. I often take taxis for longer distances in London, New York, Berlin or Warsaw. The Bachkovo Monastery is the second largest in the country. It was founded in 1038 by two Georgians. It was a picturesque place situated among rolling green hills. The buildings looked definitely old but in a superb condition. What a great pity that photography wasn't allowed. I really didn’t understand the reasons. Yet, after spotting people disobeying the rules, I snapped a few candid shots. It was a good decision to go there!

Published on Sunday March 23th, 2008

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Mon, Mar 31 2008 - 11:56 AM rating by eirekay

Great report on a place I had never heard of! Nicely done!

Fri, Mar 28 2008 - 05:10 AM rating by jorgesanchez

This reports and your Plovdiv pictures are a great help to travelers to Bulgaria. Thanks

Tue, Mar 25 2008 - 06:33 AM rating by rangutan

You do historic European cities too :-) Very good [4.2]

Mon, Mar 24 2008 - 06:47 AM rating by louis

Great report. I was thinking to visit Bulgaria and your report trully helped me. I really enjoyed the photos - they are marvellous.

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