After enjoying Bulgaria’s coast for two weeks, it was time to head inland. Having only seen the seaside parts of the country, I wasn’t sure what to expect with my first stop in the city of Plovdiv. What I found was a place with a fascinating blend of colourful history and optimistic energy. Plovdiv truly is a city with one eye on the past and the other on the future.
Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv has at its heart – both geographically and in essence – its long and storied past. It is the in city centre where you can see remnants of the city’s different eras, but also glimpses of what its future may look like. Because the city’s history is so integral to its identity, I’m going to look through how the different periods have left their mark and then finally what its present holds.
Plovdiv’s history remained mostly uneventful for thousands of years, as just a simple Thracian settlement, until the arrival of Philip of Macedon in 342 BC. With Philips’s conquest of the town, it changed its name to Philippopolis. The town would then become part of a tug-of-war for generations between the local Thracians and the kings of Macedon, until the arrival of the Romans.
Under the Romans, Philippopolis became known as Trimontium, grew to be the main city of Thrace and thrived. This was in part because it was on the ‘Via Militaris‘, the Roman road that led through the Balkans to Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. The road was a vital trade network for the Roman Empire and the economies of cities on the route flourished.
This is the first period of Plovdiv’s history that visitors can see with their own eyes. The city has many impressive Roman ruins the can be found in the city centre. The greatest of these ruins is the mighty Roman Theatre found in Plovdiv’s old town. The theatre built in 117 AD was able to hold 6000 people and used for theatrical performances, gladiator fights and the local assembly. This ancient theatre has been impressively preserved and is a symbol of the appreciation the city has for its history.
Another interesting Roman ruin of the city is the Roman Stadium of Trimontium, found sunken under one of the city’s main pedestrian streets. This impressive marble stadium could host as many as 30,000 people and built sometime between 117 – 138 AD. With visits from Roman Emperors in 214 and 218 AD, games similar to the Olympics were held in the stadium.
Today, only the northern end of the stadium seating is visible. This ruin has only been partly excavated due to its awkward location, smack bang in the middle of a lively pedestrian area. To me it was kind of cool knowing that as you walk through Plovdiv, beneath your feet could be the remains of great Roman structures. Literally, history beneath your feet.
Much of Plovdiv’s history after the Romans revolves around the rise of the First Bulgarian Empire and repeated conflicts with the Byzantines and Crusaders over the region. For Plovdiv, the Middle Ages was a turbulent time. As such, there aren’t too many remnants found around the city from that period. One structure that has survived from the Middle Ages is the Hisar Kapia, the fortress gate.
This gate belongs to the fortifications that surrounded the area across the hilltops of Dzhambaz Hill, Nebet Hill, and Taksim Hill that now comprise Plovdiv Old Town. While this area of Plovdiv has been fortified since ancient times, the current design and structure reflects its medieval incarnation. Walking through the narrow path up under the gate, it’s hard not to be impressed by its imposing presence.
From the 14th century onwards, Plovdiv came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and saw quite some changes. The city again changed names to Filibe and found stability under the Ottoman Turks. Its focus changed from the constant turmoil of war to becoming an important economic and cultural hub. With this wealth, many citizens proceeded to build elegant houses in the area of Old Town.
Some of Old Town’s most impressive houses date back to the early to mid 19th century. These Ottoman houses were typically owned by well-to-do merchants and many have survived in a very fine state. Wandering the lumpy, cobbled streets of Plovdiv Old Town you will come across plenty of these beautiful buildings. They generally have very intricate paintwork on their upper levels, in the Ottoman style of upper floors that hang over the ground floor. If you like, there are several houses that you can enter and explore for a small fee. Two fine examples are the Hindliyan and Balabanov Houses.
Kapana, “The Trap”
To see a wildly different side to Plovdiv, you just have to venture into the Kapana neighbourhood, aka “The Trap”. This web of pedestrian streets fits snuggly between Old Town and the town centre and has sprung up recently as a local hotspot.
Historically Kapana is one of the oldest parts of the city, but you won’t find any ruins or Ottoman houses. For centuries the area was known as a home to craftsmen. Now it plays host to entrepreneurs, thriving with cafes, bars and restaurants – each more bohemian than the last. As a major university city of Bulgaria, the local student population also seems to appreciate this hipster’s paradise.
Quite a lot of effort has been poured into making The Trap the heart of Plovdiv’s selection to host as the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Hopefully with this event, the city will receive some much deserved attention. The intent of the project was to convert this neglected part of town into an artistic and creative district of the city. As such, along with the new businesses that have popped up, the area has been livened up with colourful bunting hanging over its pedestrian streets and some fun and vibrant street art.
Speaking of businesses, a quick look at Tripadvisor will show you that several of the best restaurants, cafes and dessert spots are all found within this small corner of the city. If you doubt the web, simply walk about at noon or dinner time and you’ll see very few spare seats. I recommend making reservations for dinner here as spots are seriously limited.
When it comes to seeing how the city’s history and modern life come together, the six hills throughout the city are the perfect place to do so. Plovdiv sits in a plain between the country’s two main mountain ranges, the Balkan Mountains to the north and the Rhodope Mountains to the south. The city itself is quite close to the edge of the plain and therefore has a far more hilly landscape.
Now for many ancient cities, being surrounded by seven hills was considered auspicious. You’d be surprised how many cities are built on seven hills – Rome, Athens, Jerusalem and Plovdiv – to name a few. I know what you’re thinking, first he said six, now he says seven. How many hills does Plovdiv have? While Plovdiv once had seven hills, it only has six today. Markovo Hill, the seventh, was destroyed during the early 20th century and used for raw building material. So yes, six.
Plovdiv’s six hills are scattered throughout the wider city, but several are in and near the city centre. Each has a different perspective of the city, but all are fantastic. What makes them so great to see the blend of ancient and modern is that you’ll regularly find locals using these spaces that also happen to have historical remnants.
It’s best seen in Nebet Hill, one of the hills in Old Town. Atop Nebet Hill is scattered remains of the ancient Thracian settlement that once stood there millennia ago. Nebet Hill also happens to be one of the most popular spots for locals to come and watch sunset. You find families spending time together and teenagers just hanging out, all while in the presence of the remains of ancient structures. It’s so great to see such a historical spot stay ingrained in the everyday life of the local people and I feel it perfectly sums up the city’s atmosphere. Here’s hoping Plovdiv’s youthful spirit and storied history manage to stay intertwined.
Can you think of a city you’ve been to that seamlessly blends its history with its modern self? Please share in the comments below.