Saturday 22 April 2017

A Few Days In Plovdiv

Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in the world. Its long history includes being conquered by Philip of Macedon in 341 BC, capture by the Romans in 46 AD, attacks by the Goths and Huns and five centuries of Turkish rule under the Ottomans.  Evidence of its long history is everywhere with Roman remains, Byzantine churches, two mosques, a synagogue, superb Bulgarian Revival architecture and some wonderful modernist buildings from the 1930's. This long history together with a vibrant contemporary cultural scene has resulted in Plovdiv being selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019. I recently spent a few days there. Here are some of the highlights.

Bulgarian Revival architecture - The Ethnographical Museum, Old Town
Bulgarian Revival Museum, Old Town
The old town is a treasure house of Bulgarian Revival architecture much of which has been restored in recent years. Several of the buildings are now museums including the Museum of the Bulgarian Revival housed in the former home of wealthy merchant Dimitur Georgiadi. The museum details Bulgaria's struggle to free itself from 500 years of Turkish rule via a number of small exhibitions spread across the museum's three floors. Paintings, artefacts, maps and other documents are used to tell this harrowing story but the building itself is possibly the main attraction with its symmetrical and ornamented red facade, beautiful wood carved ceilings and huge reception room at first floor level. There is also a pleasant garden at the rear of the building.

The Hindliyan House, Old Town
Ceiling, Hindliyan House, Old Town
Alfranga, Hindliyan House, Old Town
Several other Revival style houses are open to the public. The Hindliyan House, completed in 1835 for Stephen Hindliyan, an Armenian merchant, is arranged over two levels. It has beautiful carved ceilings, intricate wall decorations that make use of geometrical and floral motifs and a collection of paintings depicting different cities. Decorative alcoves called alfrangas are key features of many of the Bulgarian revival houses. They are intended to create the illusion of a window with gardens, landscapes and other views painted on to them. The house has several exquisitely decorated alfrangas whilst the first floor also has a Turkish bath and steam room, emphasising the wealth and prominence of the Handliyan family. You can buy a single ticket at most of the houses in the Old Town and use it to visit five buildings of your choice from a list of several. 

Old Town Street Scene
Books for sale, Old Town
Traditional carriage holding items in antique shop, Old Town
The Old Town also has many craft and antique shops. I especially liked the shops around Saborna and Tsanko Lavronov streets where there are on treasure troves of books, ephemera and Bulgariana. I was very tempted by a number of items and came away with a 1930's postcard promoting a Bulgarian brand of shoe polish (!) and some colourful advertising works on paper. There are artists' workshops lining the steep, narrow, cobbled lane leading to the peak of the Old Town. These include the ceramics workshop of Tsvetana Videva who will demonstrate her work to visitors as do neighbouring weavers whilst opposite I came across another find - the tiny antique shop of musician "Peter Pan". Peter will play you a tune on a variety of instruments whilst you browse the wooden items, vintage toys and other items in his eclectic collection. Continuing along the lane to the top, you will be afforded views across the city, making the climb all the more worthwhile.

Tsvetana Videva, ceramicist, Old Town
Roman Theatre with views of the city and hills
Roman Theatre - The Stage
The Roman theatre is perhaps Plovdiv's star attraction. Built into the hillside with 4,000 seats it is still in use with an extensive programme of opera and classical music. Built in the First Century AD during the reign of Emperor Trajan, it originally seated 7,000. Some sympathetic restoration work has been undertaken to ensure the safe use of the theatre which was rediscovered and excavated in 1972.  Anyone performing here will have to be good because they are in competition with spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills. 

Plovdiv also boasts another significant Roman site - the former stadium in the commercial heart of the city which is easily accessible from the street. This is the city's main shopping and entertainment area with many shops, cafes, restaurants, theatres and galleries. Busy night and day, it also draws aspiring musicians and strolling along the main drag you can hear music of various genres including traditional music played on the Bulgarian bagpipe. Excavation and restoration work is currently being undertaken on a third ancient site - an enormous 5th Century Basilica where exquisite early Christian mosaics have been uncovered. It is anticipated that the works will be complete by the end of 2018.

Bulgarian Bagpipe player
Street art, Kapana
Kapana street scene and the Dzhumaya Mosque
The Kapana quarter, adjacent to the commercial centre and a short walk from the Old Town is Plovdiv's edgy, artsy quarter filled with cafes, bars, independent shops and contemporary art galleries. Kapana itself is a huge art gallery, with interesting and sometimes challenging street art covering many of the walls or shop shutters.

Established in the 16th century during the Ottoman period, Kapana was originally home to merchants and craftsmen and this is reflected in some of the street names - Zhelezarska Street (Blacksmiths' Street), Zlatarska Street (Gold Street) and Kozhuharska Street (Furriers' Street). The neighbourhood was redeveloped in the 1920's as a residential area, evidenced by the late art nouveau, neo-classicist and occasional modernist buildings in Kapana's network of streets. In later years, the area declined and many shops and homes stood vacant before the Municipality, recognising the area's potential began a programme of restoration and encouraged small businesses to move in. Today it is a busy area especially popular with young people who fill the tables of the street-side cafes on sunny days and come to enjoy the upbeat atmosphere in the evenings.

Street art, Kapana
Cafe, Kapana
Street scene, Kapana
I have already written here about Plovdiv's superb collection of modernist architecture from the 1930's but can't resist adding a couple of pictures in this post to illustrate the city's architectural diversity. And because I love modernist architecture!

9 Archimandit Damaskin Street, 1937, architect- Svetoslav Grozev
Modernist building, central Plovdiv, details unknown.
Plovdiv boasts many good quality restaurants and I had no problem in finding places serving good vegetarian dishes. The restaurant of the Hebros Hotel in the Old Town was recently voted Bulgaria's best. It serves traditional Bulgarian food and has very good soups and desserts. The hotel is in a Bulgarian Revival building which adds to the atmosphere of dining there.  Atlas in the commercial centre is a modern restaurant offering a good list of pastas, salads and more substantial dishes. I enjoyed a delicious (and filling) pasta dish at one of the alfresco tables. The service here was very good too. The third place I ate at was Pizza Verdi in Nayden Gorev Street where the food is simple but tasty and here there are also outside tables. Again, the service was good with friendly and attentive staff. It is possible to eat well for comparatively little cost in all of Bulgaria.

It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Sofia to Plovdiv and there are also trains and buses that link the two cities. It is a great, compact city, easy to navigate and packed with interesting and unusual things to see and do. It is also a great location from which to explore the surrounding countryside and the Rhodope mountains with their many monasteries and villages. Plovdiv's well-deserved selection for European Capital of Culture 2019 will showcase the city's many attractions as well as a special programme of high profile concerts, exhibitions and sports events and offer the chance to experience the more local, "cosy" Plovdiv, its arts, crafts and cuisine. But you don't have to wait until then to go...

You might also like Bulgarian Modernism - A Well Kept Secret or Novi Sad - Another Serbian Surprise

A series of Plovdiv walking routes have been published under the "Alternative Plovdiv" heading. You can use them online or download hard copies here.

You can see more pictures from Bulgaria here


  1. Hello, Plovdiv is the most wonderful city in Bulgaria! Thanks for the good words! Are you by any chance Mr. Adrian Whittle? If yes, I arranged your accommodation in BG :)

    1. Hello Silvia. I am indeed Adrian Whittle! Thank you very much for your help during my stay in Bulgaria.

  2. You're very welcome! How small is the world and internet :)
    I wouldn't have expected to come upon this article but it was a nice surprise! Thanks again for your good words and hope you enjoyed!