Plovdiv has just been inaugurated as the European Capital of Culture for 2019.
As I walk down its pretty main thoroughfare, I feel embarrassed that just weeks ago I’d never heard of Plovdiv. I mean, this city has only been here for some 6000 years, making it one of Europe’s oldest cities.
Bulgaria’s second-biggest city has spent a long, long time being overlooked but finally it’s been placed firmly on the map for it is now the European Capital of Culture for 2019, an honour which brings with it a significant increase in international media exposure.
Similarly unknown cities such as Wroclaw in Poland, Plzen in the Czech Republic and Umea in Sweden have reported surges in tourism as a result of their recent stints as European Capital of Culture. Plovdiv surely will experience the same given its generous appeal as a travel destination. One of its great strengths is that fact that it is undiscovered and so does not have the drawbacks of the many touristy cities of Europe. There are no pesky touts, few cheesy tourist-targeted businesses and an absence of overinflated prices (it’s incredibly cheap).
Home to about 350,000 people, Plovdiv is also a great size – big enough to offer plenty of sights, but compact enough to be easy to navigate on foot. This is just what my mother and I do after alighting at Plovdiv Railway Station after an enjoyable three-hour train trip from Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. We walk along the grandly named Tsar Boris III Obedinitel Boulevard towards the Old Town.
Tourists who don’t wish to hire a local tour guide can simply follow this thoroughfare which passes several of the city’s key sites. First we reach the Garden of Tsar Simeon, a gorgeous park designed in 1892 and recently renovated to restore it to its original grandeur. Our visit is badly timed as we miss out on the light and sound show at the park’s singing fountains. Never mind, for soon we’re besotted by the commanding Ancient Theatre, which dates back almost 2000 years. This Roman style performance space is one of the best-preserved ancient theatres in the world, such that it regularly holds concerts attended by up to 3000 people.
Not so intact, but every bit as fascinating are the remains of the nearby Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis, also from the ancient Roman period. In its heyday 1900 years ago it was a massive facility which could accommodate more than 20,000 spectators. These days one section of the stadium remains in decent condition and, quite charmingly, it sits below street level in what is now the city’s main shopping precinct.
Later we look down on this precinct from the hilltop Old Town area, a labyrinthine neighbourhood lined with a curious mix of baroque architecture from the 1800s. From the outside many of these mansions have an eerie appearance, as though they would be the perfect setting for a children’s horror story. On the inside they are no less creepy – dark, stuffy spaces heavy with wood. They are evocative spaces, buildings you won’t soon forget.
Plovdiv, itself, hopes that 2019 is the year it also earns an unforgettable reputation.
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