This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
My first impression of Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, was not terribly promising. A few hours earlier, my travelling companions and I had crossed the Turkish border in an inter-city bus.
It was shortly before dawn when the bus jerked to a halt and the driver shouted: “Plovdiv! English! Plovdiv!” Nobody else got off the vehicle: just us. As the bus rolled away, we saw that we were at the entrance to an underpass, dark and forbidding. As we trudged through the puddles, a dog howled somewhere in the night.
Once we were through the underpass, however, things started to look up. As darkness became day, the city revealed itself. Plovdiv is not merely one of the oldest cities on the planet; it is, I think, one of the most handsome, most characterful and most interesting.
The first settlement on the banks of the river Maritsa on the upper Thracian plain dates from the Neolithic era. As a Thracian, Greek and Roman city, it was known first as Philippopolis, after Philip of Macedon, and then Trimontium, the city of three hills. It stood on the most important military route in the Balkans: Lucian called it “the largest and most beautiful of all cities”. And today, as part of the European Union, it is the biggest city before you get to the Turkish border. To visitors from the west that gives it a pleasingly exotic feel, though the locals would not be happy to hear you say so.
Although the city boasts some 200 archaeological sites, there is no doubt as to which is the best. The wonderfully preserved Roman amphitheatre, which dates from the reign of the Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117 AD), is probably the finest classical ruin in all Bulgaria. Uncovered by accident in 1972 following a freak landslide, the structure originally held an estimated 7,000 people, and even today it hosts concerts and competitions.
On my first visit, in 1997, signs proudly proclaimed that the city was hosting an International Folk Dancing Competition. My friends and I duly bought tickets and installed ourselves on the same stone benches where Roman bigwigs once sat to watch the entertainments of their day.
The crowd were splendidly partisan, showering abuse on the Greek and Serbian efforts, but warmly applauding their Macedonian cousins. The Latvian entry, curiously, featured a pantomime cow, which did terrible damage to the makeshift wooden stage. Even as it capered gaily around, Bulgarian officials were scuttling onto stage to clear stray bits of wood.
If a trip to the city’s amphitheatre whets your appetite for more ancient history, you could always head to the ruins of Eumolpias, situated on a hill in the old town. The remains of the Thracian settlement date from 5000 BC and the views over Plovdiv are worth the climb.
During the medieval era, Plovdiv regularly changed hands from Byzantium to Bulgaria and back again. But in 1364 it fell to the Turks, who occupied it until 1878. During the 19th century, the city became the heart of the Bulgarian National Revival, a movement that once captured the hearts of do-gooders like William Gladstone, but is now little remembered in Britain.
Indeed, Plovdiv’s old town is a jewel of 19th-century Bulgarian Revival architecture. Its tiny, winding cobbled alleys, closed to traffic, are lined with wooden houses, their upper storeys jutting out in retro-medieval style and their facades painted bright red, yellow, orange and blue. It is of course a terrible cliché, but as you stroll through the old town, it is hard to banish the feeling that you have wandered into a Balkan folk tale.
For some mysterious reason, Bulgaria is sometimes described as a rather dour, even drab place. In fact, it could hardly be more colourful, while I think its people are comfortably the friendliest in the Balkans. The city’s synagogue, which was built in 1886–7, is a striking reminder of their decency and good sense. During the Second World War, the local Orthodox Metropolitan, Cyril, worked hard to save the city’s 1,500 Jews from the Holocaust. Indeed, Bulgaria has the distinction of being the only Axis ally which did not kill or deport a single member of its Jewish population. Alas, today the synagogue is little used, most of the city’s Jews having left after the war for Israel. But it stands as a very visible reminder that not everybody succumbed to Hitler’s lust for destruction.
Plovdiv gets few western visitors. When people do come, they often use it merely as a base for visiting the nearby Bachkovo Monastery, a glorious medieval mixture of Byzantine and Bulgarian traditions. For me, though, the real joy lies in soaking up the atmosphere of a city almost untouched by western tourism. From the first taste of the local plum brandy to the sight of a pantomime cow destroying a Roman amphitheatre, Plovdiv is not a city you will quickly forget.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Summers are hot and dry, with an average temperature of 28°C, while winter can see temperatures of -6°C. May–October is the best time to visit. The Verdi festival of opera takes place in the Roman amphitheatre in June.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct to Plovdiv twice a week from London Stansted airport. Alternatively, Sofia airport is about one hour 40 minutes from Plovdiv by road.
What to pack
On my first visit I found that wearing a knock-off Bulgarian football shirt made social interactions go a lot more smoothly.
What to bring back
I returned with a suitcase full of what appeared to be genuine Bulgarian Communist memorabilia. Only when I got home did I notice the words ‘Made in China’.
Had a few days there on a working holiday – loved it. Beautiful, friendly, cheap, oozing history. What more could you want?
Worth visiting. Archaeological sites, Roman and Ottoman remnants carefully preserved, museums, cultural activities, big lively town. A must.
Doris Giselle Stricker
Dominic Sandbrook recently presented Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction on BBC Two. Read more about Dominic’s experiences in Plovdiv at historyextra.com/plovdiv