Plovdiv: Glimpses of central Bulgaria and the oldest city in Europe

ploviv

I recall Bulgaria as a mosaic of snapshots.

Old men in parks betting 1 lev on each chess game.

A pimp walking through the cafe at 11 p.m. to drum up business.

Protests on the first day parliament sits.

Glimpses of horse-drawn carts on a long bus ride across the country.

The middle-aged couple on the 5-hour bus ride to Plovdiv, their pug content with a free range across their laps, breathing like an 80-year-old smoker.

Central Bulgaria became a blur of what I couldn’t visit. Low valleys with towns at the bottom, surrounded by mountains in the distance. Villages with disused rockets and tanks as war memorials. Towns with decaying factories on the outskirts, the greenery reclaiming the land and pulling down bricks.

Monuments with red stars, but most letters stolen or broken off. At one point, local speed enthusiasts were using a road parallel to the highway to race, drifting cars and pushing go-karts to their top speed.

Were I to return to Bulgaria, I’d take more time to explore the countryside that I zipped through. Robert Reid evangelizes on the charms and attractions of the country, and it’s compelling advertising.

Plovdiv is my favorite city in Bulgaria, but I only had 36 hours to explore it. Its main tourist claim is the Roman amphitheater,  and the city has a vibrancy that Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo lack. Lonely Planet and a tour guide suggested it’s the large student population.

I say it’s all the stray cats. Plovdiv was the only place in Bulgaria where they dominate the stray dogs.

Overlooking the ancient theatre of Philippopolis.

Overlooking the ancient theatre of Philippopolis.

The city has existed in various forms for about 6,000 years. Walking it and taking in the architecture is an amalgamation of Bulgarian nationalist revival houses, hideous communist concrete boxes, a Roman ruin or two, an Ottoman mosque, Orthodox churches, and the occasional modern building, all squeezed onto cobblestone streets. Seven hills encircle the city.

plovdiv

Take a walking tour around the city. Bulgaria in general can be spotty with tourist information (though Plovdiv is an exception), and the city has small points of interest that shouldn’t be overlooked. Street art, murals at the post office, farmers markets, historic houses-cum-museums, and winding, bumpy streets through the old town  are a joy to explore.

Bulgaria, like every other central and eastern European country I’ve visited, had superior quality and value for their hostels. Tourists are still more profit than annoyance, so the disdain is hidden or non-existent. It also might be from fewer stag/hen parties choosing Prague over Plovdiv for a weekend trip. Less tourist vomit helps relations.

However.

The night before my we were to head northeast for Veliko Tarnovo, sleep was interrupted. A hostel guest returned late from a night of drunken debauchery, still debauched. I drift off, and he has a strong urge for the bathroom. He then mistakes the bed of a Belgian for the bathroom. The impassioned response of the Belgian resulted in the unceremonious ejection of the drunken fool, followed by apologies from the hostel staff.

While inconvenient at times, always choose the top bunk in a hostel. Aside from the hijinks of drunken foreigners, Plovdiv can be the highlight of the country.

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