Culture amid the cobblestones

Culture amid the cobblestones

A view overlooking Plovdiv.
A view overlooking Plovdiv.

The first thing you notice about Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s 2019 European Capital of Culture, are the so-called cobblestones. These are no genteel cobblestones; the downtown streets are paved with small, rounded boulders that severely test the equilibrium of out-of-town ankles.

Plovdiv’s cobblestones, and the resulting sprains, are legendary. So is the agility of Plovdiv women, a stylish lot that strut nonchalantly in stiletto heels … while texting, no less.

From the streets to the steeples, everything is just a little amplified in Plovdiv. Spread across seven hills, Bulgaria’s most historic city has been a strategic stop on the trade route (known as the so-called “Spice Road”) from Asia via Istanbul to Europe for millennia.

In the mid-19th century — when cows grazed in the center of Sofia, the modern capital — Plovdiv was already a bustling seat of commerce with a Sephardic Jewish quarter, a Turkish merchant community, and elegant villas lining its streets.

Today, more visitors come for the National Revival architecture and folklore museums than for spices or silk. With nonstop flights from London, it’s easier than ever. Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, is Bulgaria’s very first European Capital of Culture (ECC); all summer long, the Roman amphitheater and Old Town alleys will resound with open-air concerts, festivals, and cultural happenings.

Plovdiv has been inhabited since Neolithic times — a staggering 8,000 years — and was known as Philippopolis for much of its history, having been conquered by Philip II of Macedonia during the 4th century B.C.E. Its seven hills rise over the Maritsa River and the Plain of Thrace, proving an irresistible outpost for successive invaders: Persians, Huns, Goths, Celts, Turks, and so on.

Towering minarets alongside Orthodox churches reveal this hybrid legacy — and remind us that Bulgaria is a remarkably polyglot place, home to the European Union’s largest Muslim minority outside Cyprus.

The Plovdiv Jewish community is among Bulgaria’s largest even today, though most Jews emigrated to Israel after World War II. The 1880s Zion Plovdiv Synagogue, in sporadic use, boasts a beautifully restored interior; a cut-glass chandelier illuminates an azure ceiling studded with stars, and walls are painted in geometric motifs.

Nearby is a menorah-shaped monument erected in the 1990s by the Jews of Plovdiv, a proud and well-integrated community. In Hebrew, English, and Bulgarian, the inscription offers gratitude for World War II rescuers.

Most of Plovdiv’s key sights, as well as the ECC activities slated for 2019, take place in a few central neighborhoods: Old Town, a kind of open-air museum of 19th-century architecture; Kapana, a quaint, cobblestoned district full of cafes and art galleries; and the boulevards surrounding the amphitheater (also called the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis), just to the south.

Plovdiv’s Roman amphitheater

Throughout the hot, dry Bulgarian summer, concerts and plays take place in the Roman-era Ancient Theater, a columned relict that is among Europe’s most impressive. 2019 highlights include an English-subtitled, modern rendition of “Medea,” the Euripides classic (co-sponsored by the Shalom Organisation of the Jews in Bulgaria); folkloric singers and dancers at the Puldin Festival of Ethnic Culture (Puldin is another of the city’s historic names); and WorldFest, a July concert series fusing Balkan rhythms with jazz and Latin artists. 

Plovdiv’s Puppet Theatre, founded in 1946, is considered one of the finest examples of the genre worldwide. For non-Bulgarian speakers, it’s also an accessible window into a rich Balkan tradition, with special ECC 2019 performances scheduled throughout the year.

Apart from the Roman amphitheater, Old Town Plovdiv is the city’s crown touristic jewel. Its car-free alleys are lined with wood-timbered National Revival mansions in red, blue, and green. Many have been converted into house museums, preserving period art and furnishings from Plovdiv’s 19th-century merchant heyday.

Buy a combination ticket and stroll at leisure in and out of the villas of Ottoman-era merchants, admiring the lavishly patterned Turkish textiles and grapevine-draped courtyards. The Icon Gallery showcases this Orthodox Christian genre of brilliant-hued, primitivist painting, a Plovdiv specialty.

The privately-run Art Gallery of Philippopolis is not included in the combination ticket, but for sheer atmosphere alone, it’s worth the price of admission. With its wrought-iron balconies and rooms full of elaborately carved woodwork, the gallery is an escape into bygone Ottoman aristocracy; the shady terrace restaurant is among Plovdiv’s most romantic spots. And while Bulgarian painting is a fairly weak tradition, the Art Gallery’s eclectic collection stands out for its depictions of Balkan peasant life.

After nightfall, Plovdiv’s energy rises, and the wild riffs of Balkan folk-pop waft from bars and nightclubs. Join the crowds milling out of the amphitheater, or wandering Old Town lanes by moonlight.

Just don’t forget to wear flats.

Hilary Danailova is a travel writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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