An energy emanates from Plovdiv, Bulgaria. In one word, the place is â€˜coolâ€™ or â€˜energeticâ€™ or â€˜creativeâ€™ or â€˜ancientâ€™. One word is not sufficient to encapsulate Plovdiv.
Plovdiv is no place I had heard of before February 2017. On a free walking tour in Bulgariaâ€™s capital city Sofia last winter, the guide encouraged anyone in Bulgaria to make an effort to see Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country.
Plovdiv will be 2019 European Capital of Culture.
An Ancient Place for Humans
Plovdiv is old. Evidence of continuous settlement in Plovdiv, Bulgaria since the 4th millennium BC means 6,000 years of human continuity through this geographic location. By some accounts Plovdiv is the oldest city in Europe. By other surveys Plovdiv ranks third oldest in Europe for continuously inhabited towns and cities and 6th oldest worldwide.
Only Athens and Argos, Greece are contenders for older European cities with estimates at 7,000 years of continuous habitation.
Damascus and Aleppo, Syria and Jericho, West Bank show signs of habitation dating back 11,000 to 13,000 years and rank as top 3 oldest cities on Earth with continuous settlement.
Plovdiv is old and has been known by several different names over the millennia. Philippopolis is a long time name for the city conquered in the 4th century B.C. by Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. Trimontium, “â€œthe three hillsâ€ is the name Romans used for Plovdiv.
Train travel from Sofia to Plovdiv
Sofia Central Station was the first issue I encountered with language difficulties in Bulgaria. Main signs were in English, such as train departures and arrivals, but the main railway schedule only listed city names in Cyrillic.
I queued in the line for the ticket window. The woman at the window would not sell me a train ticket. She pointed downstairs. At an information window several windows away, I asked a woman why I canâ€™t buy a ticket to Plovdiv at the window.
â€œThose are advance tickets. If you want to travel today, you must buy your ticket at the windows on the lower level.â€ She writes out the name Plovdiv and departure time for the next train. It is 90 minutes before the next train to Plovdiv.
Downstairs I queue at another window and purchase a 9 BGN ticket Sofia to Plovdiv ($5.46 USD).
80 minutes wait means pub time. Across the street from the train station there is a cute beer garden pub area between the bus and train stations. Pints of Kamenitza are 2 BGN ($1.21 USD).
The train ride itself was experiential with local flavorings. I took a seat in a carriage compartment with 3 other people. The overhead racks held my backpack and roller bag. By the time we had rolled 30 minutes along the track, enough people had boarded to occupy all 8 seats in our compartment. Fortunately I got the petite mom and her 4 year old daughter next to me and not the two large men who took the remaining two seats across from me. We rode in a full carriage for the next 90 minutes.
The carriage walkway was mostly occupied with standing passengers on a Friday night heading out of Sofia.
By the time the train rolled into Plovdiv around 8pm, after 2hr 40 min in transit, only one other passenger remained in the carriage.
In the darkness, I headed out of the train station in search of the Ramada Trimontium Plovdiv, a 4-star decently rated hotel for the city about 15 minutes walk from the train station. The $80 paid hotel night would earn 8,500 Wyndham Rewards points. This was my second stay of the week to earn 7,500 bonus points in Wyndham Rewards for a stay paid using Masterpass.
After checking in and checking out my room, I headed out the door with Plovdiv map in hand to find out where I was in Bulgaria on a Friday night.
Turned out I had landed in a very cool place to be on a Friday night. The Ramada was less than five minutes walk from the main city action as far as I could tell.Â At the very least, there was enough happening within ten minutes walk of the hotel that I did not need to venture any further looking for a fun evening in Plovdiv.
A pedestrian street opened into a square with a colorful fountain. One side of the square was filled with outdoor seating for restaurants and pubs and hundreds of people were out and about, walking, dining and drinking.
A few minutes later walking along the Plovdiv pedestrian shopping mall, I came across a Roman amphitheater from the 1st century smack dab in the middle of the street in an excavated site about 25 feet deep below the street level.
Even more amazing was an open stairway near a lower level cafe. Not only did I view the Roman amphitheater, I actually walked on the ancient stones.
Through the Roman tunnel I photographed my first cat of Plovdiv, one of hundreds of cats I saw in the city over the next two days.
Hungry at 9pm I continued down the pedestrian street and came across a Turkish doner takeway. Many people were eating on circular benches surrounding the planted trees. Having been about 7 hours since lunch in Sofia, I ordered a chicken doner (basically a Turkish burrito wrap) for 6BGN ($3.64 USD).
People watching was fantastic as hundreds of pedestrians, including families, couples clutching, groups of teens, even a couple of tourists, walked north and south along the open air mall.
A busker played Bulgarian folk music on an accordion under a nearby tree as a group teens and pre-teen boys and girls, perhaps 12 to 15 years old, danced in a fashion I describe as hip-hop belly dancing style. They had some great moves and took turns taking phone video of each otherâ€™s dances.
Less than one hour after arriving in Plovdiv on the train, I was in love with the place. So vibrant, energetic and peaceful.
Pubs of Plovdiv
On side streets I found a couple of happening pubs with people sitting outside in the low 60s night air of October. Beer pints were 3 BGN ($1.82) at one pub and 2.50 BGN ($1.52) at a second.
I was on my way back to the Ramada after one beer when I heard live music and followed the sound to a street pub where I listened to Bulgarian gaida bagpipes.
After my fill of music, beer, dance, and architecture, I headed back to the Ramada to rest up for a big Saturday of walking around Plovdiv, 2019 European Capital of Culture.
Next: Old Town Plovdiv