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 A slice of true Bulgaria - "Times" for Plovdiv

A slice of true Bulgaria - "Times" for Plovdiv

07.12.2007 16:54:40

Escaping the Black Sea resorts and heading north towards Sofia, Karen McIntyre stopped off in Bulgaria's second largest city

At last I had found something truly Bulgarian. Having come from the Black Sea Coast, saturated with package tourism, I was beginning to wonder what Bulgaria was all about. Then I headed inland to Plovdiv. A colourful mix of charming Old Town, museums and trendy cafes, all set in the cusp of the Rodopi Mountains, Plovdiv is an undiscovered treat. There’s no budget airline base nearby, meaning the city is free of the mass tourism that has enveloped much of Europe.

Plovdiv sits just 90 miles southeast of the country’s capital, Sofia, and is easily accessible by bus or train. I caught a bus from the coast, passing through the medieval capital of Veliko Tarnovo, and arrived in the city on a warm summer’s evening. I found myself in the wonderful Old Town and spent plenty of time admiring the rustic charm of the well-preserved buildings, which looked almost Tudor. The official term for the architectural style of the town is National Revival, alluding to the period following Bulgaria's independence in the late 19th century.

The city’s major tourist draw is its Roman theatre, nestled down some back streets in the Old Town. It takes a bit of finding, particularly when you have the Cyrillic alphabet to contend with, but you when you do finally comes across it is quite breathtaking. Built in the 2nd century AD it is one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the Balkans. Amazingly, it was only uncovered in 1972 during a freak landslide. I had hoped to catch the annual Verdi Festival here, a mix of opera and ballet, held over a few days in the spectacular surrounds of the theatre. Alas, I was too early, or it was too late – the event had been postponed.

One of the most charming features of the town is the fascinating mix of 19th century, baroque-style house museums, once home to wealthy trade merchants. The most impressive I visited was the fully restored Hindlian House (ul Artin Gidikov 4), which was full of exquisite period furniture. Walls are painted with landscapes of Venice, Alexandria and Constantinople and illustrated the original owner’s extensive overseas trading links and wealth. Under the Turks the city thrived as an important commercial centre and it still has some of the largest international trade fairs in the Balkans. The city might even have been Bulgaria’s capital if it hadn’t been decided at the Congress of Berlin, in 1878, that it would remain in the Ottoman Empire. Plovdiv had to wait a few more years, until 1885, before it joined the new state - a fact that you feel still rankles with the proud inhabitants of the city.

No trip to Plovdiv would be complete without a peek into one of the many Orthodox churches in the town. A couple of days into my stay, on a Sunday morning, I managed to catch an early service at one of Plovdiv’s largest and most traditional venues – Sveta Nedelya Church (ul Slaveikov 40). The church was in a bad state of repair and pillars looked ready to crumble any moment, but the service was both magical and touching. I joined locals in lighting candles and was sprayed with holy water by the priest, who looked almost as old as the building itself.

Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s largest university town, and as you edge out of the Old Town towards the central thoroughfare, ul Knyaz Aleksander, you can soak up some of its youthful energy. Here trendy youngsters can be spotted almost everywhere, strutting their stuff and lazing around in cafes sipping cocktails.

Although tourist accommodation isn’t too widespread, things are picking up and there are a few modern hotels and numerous guesthouses to choose from. Being a hard up backpacker nearing the end of a 3-month tour of Eastern Europe, I settled for a rather ramshackle, but pleasant guesthouse in the Old Town, which seemed to be mostly inhabited by cats. The friendly owner, who lived there with her family, said she was opening another guesthouse in the town to keep up with the increasing demand (of people, or cats – I couldn’t work out which).

If you’re on your way to Bulgaria anytime soon, I would say forget the coast, or the capital, and catch a train to Plovdiv to capture a slice of true Bulgaria without any hype and very few tourists.

Getting there

British Airways flies from Heathrow to Sophia and Wizz Air from London Luton to Sophia. There are regular buses from Sophia to Plovdiv, which take a couple of hours.

Where to stay

The newly opened Hikers Hostel is an excellent budget option. See also www.plovdivhotels.com and www.plovdivguest.com.

Where to eat and drink

There’s also no shortage of great places to eat in Plovdiv. The free Plovdiv Guide is full of many wonderful, traditional restaurants. A favourite was Restaurant Kambanata (26 Saborna Street, telephone + 359 32 260 665) in the Old Town, where you can enjoy a local speciality, such as grilled chicken, potatoes and peppers baked in an earthenware pot, washed down with a tantalizing Bulgarian wine. There are several outdoor restaurants in Plovdiv set in the style of a traditional Bulgarian village. Evrika (1 Bryast St, +359 32 642 396) serves traditional dishes in an old-fashioned atmosphere, while Rio (10 Spartak St), with its trademark Rhodopean cuisine, has a garden with water cascades and is decorated insight and out with authentic farming tools and antiques.

For some nightlife head to Gallardo (3 Maria Luiza Blvd, +359 887 699 899), one of the newest clubs in Plovdiv.

What to see

The Ethnographical Museum (ul Dr Chomakov 2), housed in one of the most renowned Bulgarian national revival period style homes in Plovdiv, is definitely worth a look. The museum has some 40,000 exhibits, including fascinating displays of folk art, jewellery and traditional crafts.

For a taste of Bulgarian art, the Philippopolis Art Gallery (ul Saborna 29) is a must see. The bright collection of paintings, mostly 19th century works, is contained within the splendidly restored Hadzhi Aleko House, dating back to 1865. It is an intimate and cozy setting for an art gallery and the owner didn’t seem to mind me clicking away with my camera to my heart’s content. Just outside, in the garden of the gallery, there is a stylish art cafe where you can take a rest and sip one of the many cocktails on offer.

Around Plovdiv

About 30km south of Plovdiv, just past the picturesque hill-top village of Bachkovo, is the magnificent Bachkovo monastery. You can catch a bus from the central bus station in Plovdiv, which takes around 40 minutes. It is Bulgaria’s second largest monastery after Rila and you can even stay overnight here, for a small charge. There’s no booking in advance, just ask one of the monks when you get there.

More information

Plovdiv Tourist Information, 80 Bulgaria blvd; rhra@rodopi-bg.com

For further general information visit www.plovdiv.org

 


Source of the article:  TimesOnline



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