This week’s dream: Re­dis­cov­er­ing Bul­garia and its long, long his­tory

The Week (US) - - Leisure -

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

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