Built over seven hills on an otherwise wide open plain in south-central Bulgaria, the city of Plovdiv is quite possibly the most beautiful city you’ve never heard of. Let’s face it – the name alone makes it a difficult sell, to the English-speaking world at least. Plovdiv just doesn’t sound right. Yet this, apparently, is the oldest still-inhabited city in Europe, and today features what must be one of the continent’s most charming old towns, alongside Roman ruins and some truly spectacular views.
I rolled into town on a bus from the capital, Sofia, on a baking hot early Saturday afternoon. The city’s “Jug” bus station is a dusty collection of ticket offices and stalls selling cheap snacks and cold drinks, next to a busy road opposite the train station. The surrounding buildings are cracked and grubby, with peeled paint, broken pavements and that cute air of ramshackle that Bulgaria – one of Europe’s poorest countries – does in spades. A kind of sweaty lethargy engulfs you as soon as you leave the air conditioned haven of the bus.
Central Plovdiv is walkable from the bus station, but I decide to hop in a taxi anyway, on account of not really knowing where I am. (Incidentally, not really knowing where I am is one of my favourite travel experiences.) My poor driver looks at me in bafflement as I ask him to take me to “Zagreb”. I do my best to explain that I’m not asking for a lift to the capital of Croatia, and that my accommodation is much more conveniently located on Zagreb Street in central Plovdiv. It takes a while, but he gets the message. Zagreb Street is in the heart of Kapana (“The Trap“), Plovdiv’s recently-restored cultural and artsy hub that once served as home to the city’s craftsmen. The colourful streets of this district are lined by worskhops, galleries and plenty of appealing bars and restaurants painted in light hues of yellow and pink that make the area one of the most charming things about Plovdiv. Bunting flutters in the midsummer breeze. Only recently, the area had been in a state of disrepair and dereliction, much of which can still be seen on Google Street View. However, the city’s successful bid to be named European Capital of Culture for 2019 has seen Kapana transformed into what I would describe as one of my favourite city centre neighbourhoods that I’ve encountered anywhere on my travels.
The main shopping street extends from the southern edge of Kapana, past the city’s central mosque (the second-oldest in Europe), numerous eateries and bars, and the beautiful Municipal Building, before reaching the enormous Garden of Tsar Simeon. New to the city and desperate for some shade, this seems like the perfect place to while away a couple of hours among the locals and other holidaymakers enjoying the sunshine and tasty local ice cream. Numerous paths criss-cross each other under the trees, and the sparkling splish-splash of the “singing fountain” offers a welcome hint of freshness. Never underestimate how much of a shock to the system hot weather is to a blonde-haired Liverpudlian.
Plovdiv is a laid-back city with a completely different character to the frenetic, traffic-choked capital Sofia, 80-or-so miles to the northwest. (Don’t worry if you’re going to Sofia – I liked it there too). The main reason people head to this somewhat remote corner of the Balkans – and the main reason I’ve stopped by – is the picturesque old town and Roman amphitheatre. Perched high across three of the city’s seven hills (technically six, as I’m told the seventh was destroyed to provide building materials), Plovdiv’s old town is quite a demanding walk up steep streets, and the uneven cobblestones and the large gaps that separate them, require careful negotiation. Lonely Planet describes the streets as “beyond cobbled”. Fair enough. In the summer heat, you will need a drink at the top, but the area is well served by bars and restaurants offering traditional Bulgarian grub and quite simply gorgeous views over the rest of the city. And Bulgarian beer is pretty refreshing, as it happens.
The beauty of Plovdiv is its array of historic architecture, from antiquity to Ottoman and Bulgarian Revival, juxtaposed with the aforementioned views of the wider city, the plains beyond, and distant mountain ranges in all directions. During my stay, towering cumulonimbus clouds seemed to hover over the peaks to the south, threatening storms and a break in the blistering heat, but never quite reaching Plovdiv. The Roman amphitheatre was excavated as recently as 1960 and is in use for performances today. Indeed, I had the pleasure of seeing the stage hands preparing for an evening performance of Chicago. With views of Kapana and central Plovdiv in the foreground, and the Rhodope mountains punctuating the skyline in the distance and descending toward the border with Greece just beyond, it must make for a breathtaking venue for a show, just as it would have done in ancient times (although the Romans, as far as I know, missed out on Chicago).
The place at which I most fell in love with Plovdiv was Nebet Tepe, a rocky hill at the northern end of the old town surrounded by the remains of ancient walls. This is the oldest part of the city, originally settled by Thracians some 6,000 years ago. From here, you can take a vantage point and gaze out across the city in a westerly direction to the famous clock tower without a clock and the monument to Russian soldiers that liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. On the other hand, you could pick a spot that looks north, and instead watch the modern city go by, across the Maritsa River, dominated by seemingly hundreds, if not thousands, of communist-era tower blocks. For company, you’ll have other equally spellbound tourists taking photographs and babbling excitedly as they clamber about the ancient fortifications, as well as young Plovdiv folk enjoying the romance of a warm summer’s evening amidst the magic of their pleasant city. Watching the sun set from Nebet Tepe, dipping slowly behind the urban forest of concrete towers, and then ultimately the horizon, I wondered why anybody who lived in Plovdiv would ever leave. As the shadows grew, extending their reach across the ancient city, it felt good to be alive.
Plovdiv is not an off-the-beaten track destination. During my three days in the city, I spoke to travellers from the USA, Canada, Britain, France, Australia and Ukraine, as well as other parts of Bulgaria. With European Capital of Culture to come in 2019, it seems that more and more tourists will descend on Bulgaria’s second city. However, this is no Prague or Budapest. It’s not even Sofia. It’s too small to take off in the same way as these cities have done with the advent of budget air travel and the fall of the Iron Curtain. There’s still a sense of the obscure about Plovdiv. Tell a friend you’re going to Plovdiv and see what they say. Then you’ll know what I mean. The time to visit is surely now, before it does really takes off. My tour guide from my first day in the city said of Kapana that “I feel this area has a bright future”. I think she was right, but she could have said the same about the whole city. It feels modern, secure, youthful and optimistic, while at the same time preserving the gifts bestowed upon it by its long history. I loved Plovdiv, and one day, I’ll go back. I’m sure of it. Another thing I’m sure of is that it won’t remain
Bulgaria’s Europe’s best-kept secret forever.