“Don’t go to Bulgaria, you’ll hate it!” said my husband to me on his return from that same country, where he had been with our son, who was fencing in the European Championships in April.
“I never want to go back!” he added, vociferously.
Since he (son not husband) had also qualified for the World Championship to be held in the same country two months later, it was not clear how he (son again, not husband) would get there without parental accompaniment.
I imagined a barren landscape of hideous concrete communist buildings, testosterone-fueled “female” Olympic athletes and broken roads. Anyway, I like new adventures, so I decided to ignore my husband’s advice and bought the guidebook. It looked pretty interesting to me.
A month later, there Noah and I were, getting our rental car at Sofia Airport to start the 90-minute drive to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest town and the location of the fencing venue. Having dropped said kid off to be sequestered with the GB team until the event, it was time for me to explore.
Plovdiv is the sixth oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, having been founded in 4000 BC. There are two main areas to the historic district: the old hill-top town and the flatter still-old district right below it, which we shall call Flatland.
Hilltop town was built into and upon a sharply-steep and rocky hill, and is a UNESCO heritage site. And quite right, too. In the 19th century, following the departure of the Ottomans after 400 years of rule, Bulgaria experienced a cultural rebirth, known as the National Revival. The old town is filled with buildings and churches dating from the mid to late 1800s. Many of the noblemen’s houses have been converted into restaurants, hotels and museums. There’s a multitude to choose from and rather than make a plan, just walking around the town and popping in whatever church or beautifully re-painted house serves your fancy will work out just fine. Everything is so close together that you can easily wander up and down, with a great photo opp. awaiting on every corner.
However, should you want more specificity on what to do, here I go. The former house of Argir Kuyumdzhioglu, built in 1947, is now the Ethnographic Museum. Luckily, most Bulgarian names are easier to spell, let alone pronounce, than that. The best bit of the museum is not so much the exhibition of life in the old days in Bulgaria (though that is indeed quite fun, with its folk costumes and explanations of agricultural practices) but rather the amazingly intricate wooden ceilings, particularly above the parlour on the second floor.
Several other noblemen’s houses represent life in Plovdiv in the 1800s, though little of the furniture is original to any house. The Hypokrat Pharmacy is the former 1872 home of Dr. Sotir Antoniad, one of the first people with a medical degree in Plovdiv. He went off to Greece in about 1924, but the current administrators have gathered pharmaceutical bottles and cabinets from several different former pharmacies around the town. The upstairs room with 19th century surgical equipment and pill-rolling tools is quite fun although there isn’t much explanation, and the tiny back garden with a few herbs and flowering plants is quite cute.
Don’t visit the house of Hristo Danov. Not because it’s no good, but because it is “under repair”. I snuck in the yard and looked through the windows. This will be helpful if I ever do come back, as I have a strong suspicion that much of Bulgarian restoration is more aptly termed “creation”. Does it matter when it looks so good? Why yes, I think it probably does.
Right in front of Danov’s house, in Dimitar Karlov Square, is the Church of St Nikola, also closed, but less severely as it opens Fridays to Sundays.
The house belonging to Dr. Stoyan Chomakov (1860) has little furniture but a permanent exhibition on the Bulgarian artist, Zlatyu Boyadzhiev. Nope, I’d never heard of him either, but his paintings of Bulgarian life seemed pretty good to me. He died in the 1970s, famous at home, unknown abroad.
The former Gregory Mazali School is now the State Art Gallery and has a large permanent exhibition of Bulgarian art. Some of it, particularly pre-1900, is quite good and it’s a shame that not a single Bulgarian artist – aside from building-wrapping celebrity Christo – is known outside the country. Almost every painting shows a strong influence from a European master- “after Matisse”, “after Renoir”, “after Picasso” – which is perhaps to be expected, but I found I preferred the folk-art style of some of the earlier paintings. The contemporary art exhibits on the third floor are quite strange.
The Phillipopolis Art Gallery and Museum is in the former 1865 home of Hadji Aleko and has been beautifully restored by its new owners. It houses a small but impressive collection of 19th century Belgian paintings on both floors, some of which are for sale, and at prices much lower than the same items would cost in Western Europe. In fact, Bulgaria is pretty cheap. Entry fees to most places of interest are 3-5 lev (two lev to a dollar) and even taxis are only about 4 lev for a 15-minute journey. Don’t miss the amazing oval ceiling in the main parlour upstairs. I think I just started to visit most of these 19th century houses for their amazing woodwork ceilings. That alone is worth the trip.
As for churches, one hardly knows where to start – one on practically every block in all parts of town. This city is like a mini-Rome in more ways than one – and we’ll come to the more shortly, as Plovdiv’s new old town (the 19th century party) is built right on top of the Roman city of the 5th century, with the same exact patterns of roads, squares and open spaces, laid out precisely on top of each other. Every excavation yields a new find of Roman houses, basilicas, amphitheatres and other aspects of life 2000 years ago. If you can only handle one church, go inside the St. Konstantin and St. Helena Church (1832) on Ulitsa Tsanko Lavrenov. Many of the icons are painted by Zhari Zograf, a household name if you are Bulgarian. The gloriously-decorated portico does not even prepare you for the richness of the decoration inside the church. The gilded frescoes go from floor to ceiling and all over the ceiling. There is hardly an inch of space that is not painted with a figure, image, or intricate pattern. What’s even better is that you can often hear a service therein, with Greek orthodox chanting by the black-robed monks with their long white beards reminiscent of the prayers of the Benedictines. A very celestial experience. A Museum of Icons is right next door with an excellent collection, ranging from the 15th through 20th century, taken from churches in the vicinity. Great works by renowned artist Zaphor Zaphari (because to be famous in Bulgaria, it helps if your first and last name both start with Z apparently).
St. Nedelya (1829) is another good church to pop in. It has a wooden altarpiece, unusual because it is painted black.
Right in the centre of the old town is the Roman amphitheatre, which is almost completely intact, and where music shows and plays are still performed today. You can climb right onto the stage and give you rendering of “To be or not to be” to the invisible multitude in the raked semicircle of seats opposite, or perhaps a work by the noted Bulgarian poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev (1848-76) would be more appropriate material.
That pretty much covers the hilltop town, which could easily take a full day or more to enjoy, especially if you stop in one of the several restaurants and cafes for a coffee or meal.
Flatland down below has its own collection of treasures. Here, you see so much of the 5th century Roman city. Every attempt at new construction is thwarted as it quickly reveals a Roman mosaic floor or forum or amphitheatre. When the university wanted to expand the site of its university’s football stadium, construction work revealed a massive Roman forum beneath the grass. Not only did the university not get to expand its sporting facilities, it lost those it had to archaeological research. An entire Bishop’s Palace is currently being investigated nearby. The huge Roman stadium (running right underneath the city), that once seated 30,000 spectators to watch chariot races and the like, has been partially excavated and a tiny portion can be seen centrally. Many other tiny portions can be seen in surprising places – such as in the basement of department stores, where constructions crews hitting against something solid and stone regularly discover yet more of the old seating plan.
Museum TrakArt is the actual original mosaic floor of a Roman merchant’s house, discovered during construction of a subway station in the 1980s. Once discovered, they built a roof over this 1700-year-old mosaic, leaving it in its original location. There are glass walkways on top of the floor to allow close-up views. The recently-restored floor of the Small Basilica (discovered in 1988 during construction) has just opened and showcases several gorgeous floor mosaics, especially of deer and birds at the base of the former baptistery.
The Archaeological Museum has many items that have been dug up over the years – including, of course, huge mosaics. One showed a menorah, but before getting excited about an unknown Jewish community, I should point out that Romans traditionally used this symbol in their art as well. There was, however, a not-insignificant Muslim community. The Dzhumaya Mosque (14th century) with its floral walls and patterned arches has been perfectly restored, even including its wooden gratings. It is located right by the excavations of the stadium and its tall minaret towers over the old district. In just one photo, you can have the unique experience of covering two thousand years (1C – 19C), and you can do this in several parts of Plovdiv.
The Immaret Mosque, built in 1444 has not yet been restored but the old frescoes are still visible in places. No doubt this is also on the list for creative restoration sometime soon – which is a good thing. In the 1980s, it was used as a rubbish dump. Hurray for anything attractive instead of that.
To get a close-up look over the city, make the ten-minute climb up Neper Tepe hill (Prayer Hill).
As you stand among the ruins of a Roman fortress looking at random piles of bricks and stones, you will wonder what once stood beneath your feet. There will be no answers – no signs, explanatory placards or guides in sight. However, the view over a sea of tiled roofs and brightly-painted buildings makes the experience worthwhile. On a sunny day, you can see well in all directions. Turning 180 degrees from old town gives you a view over hideous new town. The tall cubist black glass Hotel Maritsa, where my son was staying with the British fencing team, is an eyesore ruining the vista and explains everything that is wrong with 1960s architecture without having to say a word. My kid told me the functionality of the inside goes with its exterior.
For really amazing views, that being 100 miles in every direction, over Plovdiv and beyond to the snow-capped peaks of the Stara Planina and Rhodopes mountains, climb the much bigger Liberator Hill, on the west side of town. It’s only about a 20-minute walk. At least, it was for me. Allow yourselves three-quarters of an hour and take plenty of water. At the top is the monument to the Russian Liberators of 1908 and that of the Soviet soldier, known locally as the “Alyoshy monument”. It’s amazing they still have those statues up, given the years of tribute payments to Russia the Bulgarian nation was required to pay, but on the other hand, the Russians did liberate them from years of Ottoman Rule, so perhaps it wasn’t “better the devil you know” after all.
As I stood in Plovdiv City central square, beside the forum, I really wish I had been wondering how far away from home I was because, as I looked up, I saw one of those poles with signs pointing in all directions. Each country had one city represented. Even Macedonia was on it. For the U.S., the one city they chose was Columbia, South Carolina, just an hour from our home in Greenville (but 8600 km from Plovdiv, for any South Carolinians happening to read this). No one has been able to tell me why, of all the towns in America (including a few slightly more famous ones like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco to name but a few), they chose to pick Columbia as the one US representative.
For a nice garden walk, go through Tsar St. Simeon’s park, created in 1892, where there are puppet shows for the kids, fountains and a lake, and statues of Soviet-era Bulgarian heroes amongst the trees and shrubs.
Food in Plovdiv is, even by Western standards, generally pretty good and, by those same standards, it’s not even expensive – typically less than twenty bucks for a three-course meal (not including alcohol).
Dreams Cafe is a perfect location for breakfast, situated in the lovely 19th century Stefan Stombolov square. What better way to enjoy the sunshine? However, although the coffee was nice, the breakfast waffles come so smothered in sugar, whipped cream and jam that you will find you have the energy for many climbs up Liberator hill afterwards, should you so desire it and subject to your ability not to vomit.
For dinner, the unquestionable winner is the restaurant, located in the basement of the old Phllippopolis house. Typical Bulgarian dishes abound as well as the best grilled sea bass I have had in a lifetime of eating sea bass – not to mention the chocolate soufflé which, in fact, really must be mentioned: yum.
Le Petit Paris, a short cab ride out of the city centre, has fairly decent food (apart from the stringy and over-cooked vegetables) – and more chocolate soufflé, almost a staple item in a Bulgarian restaurant, I was quickly discovering.
The manager of the restaurant Hemingway, opposite the Roman Odeon, took one look at me as a lone diner and stuck me in the back room by the loo. I determinedly ate my nice salad but the crappy sea bass means I am never going back – and I didn’t even check to see if they had soufflé, that’s how bad it was.
If you want a great Italian meal, go to Gusto in Flatland, which offers delicious food for a very reasonable price. Bruschetta with arugula, fresh tomato and cheese; salad nicoise and, of course, a choc soufflé – though the best of those are definitely at the Phillippopolis. If you want a terrible Italian meal, you can go to Maramao.
For a different experience, there’s a Thai massage parlour opposite the Archaeological Museum and the massages are given by real Thai ladies. They can go as deep as you want. I told my massage therapist that I could take any pain. She took testing that theory out to extreme measures. It was great. At the end of the massage, she said, astonished, “You are number one strong woman for massage in Bulgaria!” Best thirty bucks that I have ever spent over one hour.
You could spend a happy week exploring Plovdiv, but why would you, when there is so much else of the country awaiting you? You just have to be willing to rent a manual car and drive through some very winding and very narrow mountain roads. It’s worth it. Just an hour outside Plovdiv, Asen’s Fortress (Assenova Krepost) sits on a massive rock and looms over the valley below. All that is left is a small 13th century chapel but not only are some frescoes on the walls intact, the views over the surrounding countryside are spectacular. Why this was not even in my guidebook remains a mystery. Another hour down the road is the Bachkovo Monastery. This is a truly amazing visit. Yeah, I know, I say that a lot about places in Bulgaria. Several richly-decorated perfectly-restored churches gilded with icons await you inside the grounds, as well as the restored refectory for the monks with its medieval mosaics. I would say the latter have been beautifully restored as they have indeed been just a few years ago, but they are already sadly showing the signs of water and sun damage. Shut the blinds and repair the ceiling, people!
Further through the winding Rhodpes mountains, passing dark blue lakes, pine trees, and even a little snow in June in the winter ski resorts, and then further through the valleys, you arrive at the Yagodino Caves. These are not much to speak of and the tour guide was pretty rubbish, but for the excuse of the mountain drive and to see a few stalactites and stalagmites, it’s not a bad excursion. Pack biscuits and bring a pullover.
For the best day out ever, go to the capital city, Sofia. It’s only about an hour and a half away and the motorway takes you directly there. There is loads of parking right in front of the famous and iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and, on a Sunday, it’s all free. Even better, you can walk from there to all the major tourist attractions, some just a stone’s throw away. The cathedral is everything you would expect from Bulgaria’s most famous edifice – beautiful, impressive, colourful and imposing. The display of icons in the crypt is massive and all-encompassing, dating from a thousand years old right through to contemporary items. Not to be missed. Across the road is the Church of Sveta Sofia, which has red brick tombs from the 3rd century in the crypt as well as the obligatory well-preserved, colourful and highly-detailed mosaics of the same time period. The one of birds in the forest is particularly striking. Down the street, the Russian Orthodox Church (1907) has also been beautifully restored. Once again, we see intricate patterns on every column where there is not already a fully-formed painting or icon. The tiny side tomb is often packed with locals paying their respects to the much-loved Archbishop who died in 1950, as well as tourists paying little respect.
The National Gallery of Art has a huge collection of Bulgarian artists both older and contemporary, all completely unknown outside of Bulgaria, shame. Post-visit would be a good time to take a break in the City Café in the central square opposite, and have a coffee or cool drink and watch the world go by. To the side of the square, in the courtyard of a group of early 20th century government buildings, is the 6th century Rotunda of Sveta Georgi, with its beautiful exposed brick walls and the usual exquisite frescoes inside.
There are mosques here too. As I walked inside the Banya Bashi mosque, I was handed a thin green hooded coat of questionable cleanliness. The floral designs inside are pretty, so it was worth the risk, assuming I don’t get head lice. The female tour guide inside was very keen to practice her English with me, and possibly convert me, but fortunately the language barrier prevented me from being sure and I said a happy goodbye. I did try to visit the Sofia Synagogue, which should have been open according to all guidebooks, but, alas, was not. It’s the largest one in Europe – but possibly the least open.
Time for a snack? The Victorian-era Central Market has a multitude of fresh food, including baked goods. My pretzel-shaped croissant was soft and fresh, as I scarfed it down in front of the gilded 19th century grandfather clock.
Just enough time to walk by Party House, “a fine example of Stalinist-era architecture” (guidebook) and then visit the 1930s-created Monument to Tsar Alexander II of Russia (who was actually around in the late 1800s), before it’s time to end the day. I would require stronger representation from Bulgarians above Soviets in public squares if I was Bulgarian, but perhaps they don’t want to tempt another invasion – sorry, liberation.
For dinner, I recommend Chefs. You’d have to take a cab but the food is quite wonderful – from “calamari with a bunch of leaves” (as written on menu) to my dessert of pineapple crème brulée actually IN a pineapple, the dishes are interesting and tasty.
Of course, as I’ve said many a time, no holiday is complete without the purchase of some small piece of jewellery – for the memory obviously and not so I can say pretentiously, “Oh, see my earrings? Yeah, I got them in Bulgaria!” Luckily, I ticked that bucket in the small jewellery shop not far from the Dzhumaya Mosque. Glass cabinet on the left has zirconium; the one on the right has gold and real diamonds. The choice is yours. You can always go elsewhere and settle for a kitschy souvenir ceramic mug, plate or bowl decorated in the loopy swirl that is native to this land and for which Bulgaria is supposedly famous (what?). Small tourist shops abound and include little dolls, the embroidered clothes and tablecloths for which Bulgaria is, in fact, famous; and hundreds of hastily-painted icons, still almost wet to the touch but most certainly from 1850, I am assured.
To cap it all off, you can go to Retro Photo Polvdiv in the Old Town (Chetvarti yanuari 3) and get your photo taken wearing traditional folk costumes from the 19th century, so you can really say “been there, done that” afterwards.
So, after a week’s fascinating and fabulous exploration, I return home to my 20-year marriage wondering how this chap who knows me better than anyone else in the world can actually know me so little.