Plovdiv, Bulgaria : 8,000 Years in 2 Hours
As I spent the summer slow traveling through the Balkans nearly everyone I met had one question: Was I going to visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria? They told me strange stories of the Thracians, who mourned birth, celebrated death and cherished afterlife, leaving behind tombs of treasure that have given us clues about the mysterious ancient society.
As I started to research Bulgaria’s second largest city I learned that it had also been under the rule of the Romans, Macedonians, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks. It didn’t take much research to realize that I needed to add the oldest continuously inhabited society in Europe to my travel plans. At 8,000 years old, Plovdiv is even older than Athens and Rome. I was excited to see the 2,000 year old Roman Theater and massive stadium that could seat 30,000 spectators!
I arrived to the land of seven hills just in time to make the 11 AM Free Plovdiv Walking Tour organized by the 365 Association. The tour was led by Doni, a young Bulgarian law student whose passion for her country and culture were infectious. I was pleased to learn that a percentage of the revenue from the tour is used to give aid to children from the Home for Children Deprived of Parental Care in Doganovo, Bulgaria.
We strolled down the city’s main boulevard and approached a statue of what looked to me like a news reporter from the 1950s . I couldn’t have been more wrong! The statue is of local legend and ladies’ man, Miljo. Miljo was a little bit quirky, just like the city he called home, and had a tendency to fall in love with every woman he saw. The town felt such a loss when Miljo passed away that they raised enough funds to erect this statue and demanded that the government place it on the main boulevard where Miljo would often wait to crack a joke and make a passerby smile. Locals believe that if you rub his leg you’ll find luck in love and that any wish you whisper in his ear is sure to come true. As you can see, the statue has already seen major wear and tear by all those who’ve seeked fortune from Miljo! I never miss a chance to make a wish, so I leaned in and told him a secret wish. Do you think it will come true? Only time will tell!
Being a street art aficionado I was amazed by Sahat Tepe Hill. The cliff side is covered in dozens of portraits of famous Bulgarians. Doni was confident that she could tell us about each and every one of them. One of the guests asked why there were only men on the hill and Doni was quick to point out their error. There is indeed a woman painted amongst the men, however the portrait is a bit hidden behind a boulder. Baba Vanga was born in the early 20th century and lost her vision after suffering an injury as a child. With her sight gone, she was blessed with the ability to see the destinies of others. These portraits were just the beginning of the city’s beautiful murals and colorful graffiti. Across from Sahat Tepe Hill there are massive paintings that cover entire buildings with colorful murals that commemorate the local theater. Nearby, the eclectic Kapana district has just as many wall paintings as it does darling cafes.
As we were heading towards the old town, the streets started to transform from pastel art nouveau beauties into the splendid revival period houses. I started to notice strangely placed singular rooms protruding off of the corners of central walls of the various properties. Doni told us that the annexes were gossip rooms. They were built separately from the main home, sometimes as far as 50 meters away. The homeowner would place the gossip room on whichever part of their property had the best view of the street below, usually in a corner. Plovdivian ladies of leisure had nothing to do to pass their days, so they would linger over coffee while watching commoners pass by all the while taking note of where they were going, what they were wearing and who they were with. Elderly Bulgarian women still follow this custom today, yet now it’s on benches outside their homes! They’ll stare at you and frown as you pass by and then turn to each other in a loud ruckus to discuss whatever it is they think they’ve observed about you.
As our tour came to an end I felt that I had a better understanding of Bulgaria’s turbulent past and bustling future. It’s no surprise that Plovdiv has been selected as the 2019 European Capital of Culture, in fact I believe it is an honor that is significantly overdue. I loved learning how the array of leadership lingers in the city’s culture, customs and cuisine. I only had time to spend the afternoon in Plovdiv, but I was fortunate enough to have spent a few more days exploring Bulgaria in the capital city of Sofia, the stunning Rila Monastery and I went wine tasting in the Milnek region.