Travels in Bulgaria: Plovdiv

For our six-hour train ride from Veliko Tarnovo we lucked into a private train cabin (no one booked the other seats) but, alas, no fellow travelers to talk to, which kinda stinks because its been fun to talk to other people and learn their stories and talk travel. On the other hand, it is to have the compartment to ourselves as well. It was Soon we reached Plovdiv station; we booked a hotel right next to the train station. We took the very short walk, walked through the glass automatic doors, and a woman came from behind the desk to tell us “the hotel is not working.”

We said, “what do you mean? Is the computer down?” “No,” she said, and repeated a few times, “I’m sorry, the hotel is not working.” “Do you mean closed?” we asked. A man who was sitting in one of the lounge chairs in the lobby, watching TV and drinking a beer, came over to us and said, “Yes, closed.” We told them we had a reservation, and she repeated herself. We said, “Ok,” kind of stunned, and they shooed us out the automatic doors, back in front of the train station.

We found a place to sit nearby, and, after searching (the internet comes in handy once again), booked another hotel about ten minutes away. We got in a taxi, and took the short ride; it was located near Old Town Plovdiv, and that meant up a hill on cobblestone streets. The taxi driver huffed and puffed, and we did not totally understand why, but he dropped us off, doubled the fair on the meter (from 5 to 10 Bulgarian Lev, which is from $2.50 to $5), and helped us unload our bags.

The hotel staff let us drop off our bags as they prepared our room, so we went walking nearby. Plovdiv was called Philipopolis in antiquity (a good sign) and there are lots of ruins that are quartered off with nice glass railings, as well as many buildings built in Byzantine times (see the partial one of the right below).

The neighborhood we were in was called Kapana, known as the creative and arts district, where most of the streets are cobblestone, the restaurants and cafes are quirky and unique, and there is a lot of street art and small galleries abound. We were hungry, so found a restaurant where we had a very friendly waiter who served us some excellent food. Being full, we wanted to walk, so we headed for the tower in the middle of the above picture.

We reached the Clock Tower up a winding path. Built in 1809, and it rings twice a day, at noon and midnight. It also provides a good place to see much of the city.

We could see our hotel from the Clock Tower (it is on the left side of the second picture above), so we followed a path down until we saw our hotel. After much needed showers we walked back to Kapana and found the grocery store Billa (which we visited a few times here and in Sofia as well). They had a hot food case in their deli, so we bought some cheap dinner, along with other supplies, before heading back just before sunset to the hotel. Our hotel had a huge, two floor roof terrace, which was set up, or was once used, as a bar and maybe a restaurant; but now it wasn’t used for anything, except providing us a nice view right after sunset (we made it to the statue on the lefthand side if the picture below later in our visit), which capped off an interesting first day in Plovdiv.

The next morning we walked to the Tsar Simeon Garden, originally from 1892, which is well manicured, has a big pool (though not for swimming), lots of pretty flowers and benches to sit, and a fountain (The fountain to the Fertility Goddess Demetra) that dated back to 1892.

1892 was an important year in the history of Bulgaria and Plovdiv. It was in that year that the first Bulgarian Agricultural and Industrial Fair was held, put on by the wealthy industrialists and merchants of Plovdiv, to introduce the world to the Economical power of Bulgaria. Over two and a half months, 167,000 people visited the Fair, and helped put Bulgaria on the map as an economic player. The park has an exhibition (with translations in English) about the history of the Fair. Here are a few signs from the fair and later ones and the plans for the fountain.

At one end of the park is a the Ancient Roman Forum from Philipopolis, dating back to the 1st-4th century AD.

If you look closely at the upper left, you may notice what appears to be a large dinosaur bone skull. Well, it actually is a dragon’s skull, as when we were in Plovdiv the new Game of Thrones show had just come out, and more people were taking pictures with the dragon skull than the Roman Forum (and it’s hard to blame them, the dragon skull is well done).

Nearby by the Ancient Roman Agora, with colorful newer homes surrounding the ruins and columns.

We were on our way to the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis, which we had read had the best mosaics (and after all our travels, Jesse and I have come to love a good mosaic). The museum is on the right below; the church in the middle and it’s tower are actually a Catholic Church (which are pretty rare in Eastern Orthodox territory), named the Cathedral of St. Louis, the main Catholic Church in Bulgaria. Though the exterior was under construction, the inside looked like the familiar Catholic Churches found in Italy and Spain, for example.

The museum is really special, as it sits on land with a lot of history. Originally it was a Pagan church dedicated to the deified Roman Emperor from the 2nd century. A couple hundred years later, when Christianity was the dominant religion, a huge Bishop’s Basilica was built; a few hundred years later, in the middle ages, the Basilica was abandoned and medieval people built homes on the site; and a few hundred years after that the grounds were a cemetery. Truly an amazing ground for history.

The restorers of the mosaics did an excellent job; the pictures above do not do justice to the vibrant colors still present; but the patterns and detail of the original makers still shine through. If you look closely at the next group of pictures, you can see the top layer of Christian mosaic and the bottom layer of the Pagan one.

Note that this museum floor is quite large, and we had to put on shoe covers because it is mostly glass floors above to see the mosaics. There is also a second floor with a full mosaic of a great many birds, which was removed, restored, and returned to the museum. It is absolutely worth a visit while in Plovdiv; I have never seen better mosaics anywhere else.

The woman working the cash desk at the museum was really friendly and welcoming, and she told us about an Old Town tour; or rather, there are homes that have been restored in the Old Town (along with a pharmacy from the early 1900s and a couple of ancient sites) that can be toured as part of a package; five for 15 Lev (about $7.50), or 5 Lev each. We decided we would do it, as we had researched a couple of these homes and they looked really cool. She recommended the Pharmacy, so we headed off to Old Town in search of our first historical house. The next post will be all about the historical homes, and you won’t want to miss that, I promise!

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

%d bloggers like this: