I have a few weird little travel habits. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Photographing all of my food before consumption;
- Looking for old, run-down stadiums; and
- Talking to myself.
I want to expand on that last point. I’m not just talking about that weird little thing that most solo travellers do, when you have nobody else to talk to and you’re pretty much reminding yourself what you’re seeing and doing, perhaps sometimes laughing at your own wittiness and writing it down for future blogging use.
Actually, that may just be me as well.
No, what I’m talking about is verbally reminding myself of where I’m located at any point in time. With my job it’s sometimes very helpful, as I can find myself in seven different countries in successive nights. I especially love when I’m somewhere completely (for lack of a better word) random. Somewhere like Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Picture that. You’re waking up, drenched in sweat like usual (hey, it’s summer in the Balkans) and you say, ‘I’m in Plovdiv.’ Plovdiv. How foreign, how far away, does that sound compared to Melbourne, Australia?
I’m not going to lie; I’d never heard of Plovdiv before I spied it on one of my tour itineraries at the beginning of the year. Uh-oh. I was supposed to take people to a city I never knew existed? This had the potential to be a massive tour guiding failure. So I hit the books and the streets, and ran around trying to find out as much about Plovdiv as humanly possible.
And let me just say it here; Plovdiv is absolutely lovely. It is so different from Sofia, almost everything the sophisticated capital is not, yet it is only two hours down the road. Most people only come here as a daytrip from either Sofia or the nearby ski slopes, but it’s so much better than that.
Plovdiv is actually one of the oldest cities in the entire world. Yes, you kind of hear that a bit in the Balkans, but you sort of expect it for places such as Athens or Belgrade. You don’t expect a city you’ve never heard of to be six thousand years old, but there you go. The city hasn’t always been known as Plovdiv, rather it’s also been called Filibe, Trimontium and Eumpolpias by its various rulers, with my my personal favourite being Philippopolis. In the latter case it was named after Alexander the Great’s daddy, Philip of Macedon.
Signs of this history are everywhere; you’ve got a Roman stadium smack bang in the centre of town, a huge, well-preserved Roman theatre commanding killer views of the city and even a spot which draws all these historical eras together; Nebet Tepe Hill. Here is where the Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and then finally the Bulgarians have set up fortresses overlooking the city and beyond. Today it’s a ruin, with bits and pieces lying around that could be anything from 100-4,000 years old.
There’s churches, mosques, a music school, museums and even a cute little statue of Milea, a gyspy traveller and town gossip who was loved by locals. There’s even street art, with a monochrome mural honouring one of Plovdiv’s favourite sons, Haristo Danov. He introduced the printing press to Bulgaria and as a result, changed the Bulgarians’ attitudes towards the pesky Ottomans. They kicked them out, with the help of the Russians, only a few years later.
My favourite part of the city however, is Old Plovdiv. This quarter is a maze of the most stupidly cobblestoned streets in Europe (the stones are like boulders and you feel like you’re in Tomb Raider just walking down the street) and home to stunning Bulgarian Renaissance architecture. The buildings reminded me of some in Istanbul, with their colourful facades and smaller bases compared to their upper levels. The streets would always be so quiet, even in the peak of the tourist season. I found it all utterly charming and, in the midst of so many go-go-go cities, very relaxing.
Just next to Nebet Tepe Hill is a beer garden, complete with gigantic meat platters, huge steins of beer and plenty of resident cats. Many an afternoon was spent kicking back here, enjoying the shade and good company. Cafes are scattered throughout Old Plovdiv and in the downtown. Shops range from touristy – but not tacky – stores in Old Plovdiv to small, independent-run shops in the downtown. I didn’t see any H&Ms or the like anywhere in Plovdiv.
Prices all over town are low by Balkan standards; we’re talking 15-20 leva (2 leva is 1 euro) for a three course meal and drinks, 2-3 leva for a ten minute taxi ride and 35 leva for an entire 750ml bottle of Smirnoff and a litre mixer in a club called Pasha. Plovdiv, I think, is the best value destination in all of the Balkans. And that’s saying something.
Not only would I say ‘I’m in Plovdiv’ a gazillion times during my stays, but I’d also throw around the word ‘Philippopolis’ a bit too. It was just so much fun to say. So when my passengers presented me one day with a life-sized teddy bear they’d won in a dance off in Pasha, I didn’t quite know what to do. I ended up naming him Phil, in honour of the city, and he ended up stealing my guide seat at the front of the coach for the rest of the year. Turns out that border guards liked him better than me.