This week’s dream: Rediscovering Bulgaria and its long, long history
Walking around Plovdiv, one of the oldest cities in Europe, “it’s all I can do not to cry in gratitude, wonder, and happiness,” said Dina Mishev in The Washington Post. I had never expected to be able to make a family trip with my father to Bulgaria, the country he’d fled at 14—almost 70 years ago—as the Communist Party consolidated power. What a treat, then, to return at a time when Bulgaria and its fascinating blend of ancient cultures are finally receiving international attention. Plovdiv, along with Matera, Italy, is a 2019 European Capital of Culture. Though the Communist era left its mark in large, blocky apartment buildings, some of the city’s older districts have been revitalized.
Newly excavated ruins are also drawing travelers. The city, built on six hills rising from the plains between the Balkan and Rhodope mountains, began as a Thracian settlement in the Late Bronze Age, and has changed hands many times. “It seems you cannot dig a hole in Plovdiv without hitting a ruin.” On one hill stands the Theater of Philippopolis, a first-century Roman structure that has amazing acoustics and still hosts concerts. Along a central pedestrian street, we come across cut-outs in the ground where we can climb down into sections of a stadium where crowds once cheered on chariot races. Wandering from our hotel in the Old City, a district packed with narrow 18th-century buildings, we quickly and happily get lost in the “formerly derelict, now trendy” Kapana District, a maze of winding streets lined with cafés and galleries.
Some 125 miles away, we explore another historic but vibrant city. In Veliko Tarnovo, which was Bulgaria’s capital for several hundred years, my dad regales me with stories about his childhood as we walk down Samovodska Charshiya, a street where artisans’ studios and galleries occupy many of the red-roofed, cobblestone buildings. We stop at the Gurko Tavern, a cozy place where a hearty meal costs just $6. “Here, over Bolyarka beers on a large terrace overlooking the imposing Asenevtsi Monument—and its four larger-than-life mounted horsemen—we agree this city should be Bulgaria’s next European Capital of Culture.”
At Plovdiv’s Hotel Evmolpia (hotel evmolpia.com), doubles start at $67.
Roman stadium seating under downtown Plovdiv