Last week work took me to Plovdiv, second city of Bulgaria. I was there for a factory tour and visit to the offices of Max Europe, one of Europe’s biggest bike manufacturers.
When the visit was over we had time for my host Evgeny to take me for a tour of the city centre which was both enjoyable and educational, especially as he is an enthusiastic guide and storyteller.
I am often a bit embarrassed when I start some of these blog posts about historic cities. My Anglo-centric education has given me plenty of references to the history of my own country and spills over into the various wars we had with the neighbours, but my knowledge is woefully thin when I get to Eastern Europe, despite some background reading. Now I have been to Bulgaria three times in the last 18 months and each time I have been exposed to a fascinating historical mix. (Previous posts about Sofia and Burgas)
Evidence suggests Plodiv has been a settlement since 6000 years BC making it one of the world’s oldest cities. The Wikipedia entry is most impressive on the list of inhabitants, invaders and rulers that have passed through including possibly Thracians, Persians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Slav-Vikings, Crusaders and Turks. It was a really important city of its time, a former capital city, and it has an impressive collection of architectural sites.
In particular the ruins include a beautifully preserved Roman amphitheatre which is set into a natural bowl high on one of the seven hills of the city. It is a stunning location, still used for open air theatre and music. I would love to have been invited to put on a show from this spot!
There is also another Roman arena in the centre, the Ancient Stadium is partially excavated from right under the main shopping streets of the city. It would have been big enough to hold chariot races like the famous scenes in Ben Hur, but see it today would mean demolishing a lot of real estate, so for now it is for the imagination (and the 3D Hologram in the museum)
A couple of hours is really only enough time to soak up the atmosphere rather than take in the history however that was plenty of time to discover that Plovdiv has made a real effort to create a liveable city and the results are paying off.
The first impression was the main central street which has been made entirely car free for nearly two kilometres. The main street is bustling with shoppers and tourists with great open spaces around the Roman Stadium, the Dzumaya Mosque and the municipal square.
Cars have also been pushed back out of the adjoining roads which creates a series of cul-de-sacs, quickly been colonised by the chairs and tables of the cafes, making each street a cool oasis.
The area has been recently extended and renovated but it seems timeless, one could never imagine returning it to cars. Every time I come to a city that has created this kind of environment I get so frustrated that all over the world politicians and activists have to fight so hard to do the same thing. Bulgaria is not exactly a world renowned centre of modern transport thinking so I can’t help but feel that if they can do here it so can any city. I want to just should “Come here, see this, these people are not green weirdos, it works everywhere!”
Overlooking the city centre is the hill that holds the Roman Theatre, the heart of the old city.
The steep cobbled slopes are a maze of historic houses and museums and because the access to traffic is limited to residents only it is a tranquil place to wander and take in the atmosphere.
Coming out of the narrow streets to the spectacular view from the theatre across the modern city to the distant mountains is a great contrast.
We had an excellent lunch in the courtyard of a restaurant in an elegantly restored Dervish Monastery (Mevlevi Hane) which is now a museum, thoroughly recommended for the succulent new seasons lamb.
A stroll back down the hill from the old city led to some sticky sweet treats and a strong coffee in the Turkish café at the mosque.
A very indulgent way to finish my trip to this historic and attractive city.