Project Description

During my stay in Sofia, I booked a day trip to explore the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city after the capital city. It is located in the heart of the great ancient civilization of the Thracians, 150km east of Sofia and is accessible by road, train or bus. Plovdiv has a rich architectural heritage and an amazing mix of ancient cultures : Thracian, Roman, Bulgarian and Ottoman. The motto of the city’s coat of arms is “Ancient and eternal“. Yes, you read that right. Do not say Plovdiv stole it from Rome, as it is actually older than the current capital city of Italy! Plovdiv is especially famous for its Roman theater and its architectural ensemble of the 19th century called “Old Plovdiv“.

I chose to book my trip with the agency Traventuria, based in Sofia. The agency promotes responsible travel and has environmental, economic and social objectives. Also offering many other trips throughout Bulgaria, I used their service several times and have been very pleased overall. I appreciated the kindness of my driver and guide Simon and his explanations greatly facilitated my understanding of the place.

All right, let’s go! We left Sofia at 8:00 and we arrive in Plovdiv about 2 hours later. We get off directly at the entrance of Old Plovdiv. This “architectural sanctuary” is a 19th century complex perfectly preserved, which provides an opportunity for the traveler to see old buildings perfectly integrated into today’s life, and feel the atmosphere of the city at the time of the Renaissance.

 

At that time, Plovdiv is an important economic center. The city is populated by a large number of educated people travelling in Europe. From their travels, they bring back not only exotic goods, but also new cultural ideas. Wealthy merchants of Plovdiv like to spread their prosperity by erecting richly decorated mansions which have become emblematic of the Old City. Unlike mud-brick houses which were small, asymmetrical and impractical, later constructions unfolds with imagination and scope, with emphasis on the magnificence and attention to detail. The houses of the Renaissance are symmetrical (oval living room with four rooms in each corner), enriched with cantilevered porches and moucharabiehs. They are known in architecture as the “Houses of Plovdiv”. In addition to their particular style, rich houses have several appendices: marble wells, deposits for precious goods, outbuildings for domestic and even Turkish baths with laundries! Particular attention is paid to the decoration of the facade, richly ornamented, while the interior is filled with murals painting and rich wood carvings.

I must confess that I really love the style of these buildings! We continue our way and pass next to a ruin. Kapiya Hissar was part of the fortifications during the early Byzantine period (5th-6th century).

The Turkish name Kapiya Hissar (meaning “fortress gate”) is still used today, revealing the importance of this place during the late Middle Age. After a few minutes of walking, we arrive at the house of Dimitar Georgiadi. I’m going to repeating myself, but I’m really a fan of this architecture and especially the cantilevered porches!

This house was built in 1848 and is a fine example of symmetrical architectural style which was very popular at that time in Plovdiv. It is today a heritage monument. On its 3 floors are spacious living rooms around which are 4 rooms. The interior walls and facades of the house are designed with floral and geometric elements. As for the ceilings, they are developed in intricately carved wood. The house was used until the mid-20th century before becoming a museum in 1961. It has undergone two restorations: a first in early 1960 and a second in 2006-2007 (under the initiative of the Japanese government and the UNESCO). The exhibition which covers the period of the Bulgarian Revival and the struggle for liberation of Bulgaria occupies 11 rooms and two living rooms, on 825 square meters. It is seamlessly integrated into the original interior and shows the history of Plovdiv between the 15th and 20th century. On the first floor is shown economic and ethnic situation in Plovdiv during the Ottoman period. The second and third floors show the struggles for education, independent church and the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. A great visit that I recommend!

A few blocks away, we enter a small courtyard nicely decorated and we admire another wonderful house. This is the Ethnographic Museum of Plovdiv.

This museum is the second largest specialized museum of its kind in Bulgaria. It was founded in 1917 and was installed in 1938 in the house of Kuyumdzhiev. Its rich exhibition shows traditional culture of Thrace, Rhodope and Sredna gora from Bulgarian Revival period (18th-19th century). The permanent exhibition presents the agriculture and livestock as the main livelihood of people from this region. The most characteristic activities of the Renewal period are represented here: the production of wool and colored woolen cords, pottery, boilermaking and ironwork. The goldsmith workshop is exposed with all its tools. The museum has a rich collection of jewelry and church vases. A special room is reserved for traditional costumes, fabrics and carpets, musical instruments and ceremonial objects. Urban life is also represented through the inner parts of Koprivshtitsa, Rhodope and Plovdiv rooms in addition to information about the life and culture of the local population.

The art museum shows more than 100 paintings, icons, statues, panels, wood carvings and metal pieces made by artists Simeon Velkov, Kosta Forev, Georgi Bozhilov the Elephant, Dimitar Kirov and Kolyu Vitkovski. With more than 2’000 objects, the picture library of the museum is an important source of information for scientific interpretations and illustrations of the life of Plovdiv and its region: portraits, clothing, architecture, lifestyle, ceremonies and celebrations. Most photos were taken by the most famous photographers at that time, are in black and white on cardboard and are dated from the early 20th century. The exhibition includes unique canvas from Ivan Markvichka called Plovdiv Market and is dated from 1888. This is one of the first work to reflect the everyday life of a Bulgarian city after the Liberation from Ottoman Empire in 1878 . The funny story about this visit is that Simon, my guide, almost had to push me towards the exit, because after more than an hour there, I kind of lost track of time and we had to continue our visit! Not my fault, the place was so interesting, do not miss it!

After the visit, we climb on one of the six existing hills which are spead over the city (over the original seven hills).

Covered with Roman ruins, the area offers beautiful views of the city and the other hills. We then return to the old city to visit the church of St. Constantine and St. Helena.

The church of St. Constantine and St. Helena is one of the oldest Christian temples in Plovdiv and is located on a site that already housed a Christian sanctuary in the early 4th century. It is located in the center of the old town. Near the temple is the so-called Hisar Kapiya which in Roman period was the eastern gate of the old city and the route to the Far East. In 304, at the place where now stands the church, the martyrs Severian and Memnos were beheaded because of their Christian religion. Some years ago, the 38 martyrs of Plovdiv lost their lives because of their faith. Based on the research of archaeologists and historical sources, the temple next to Kapiya Hisar was built about 30 years after the death of St. Severian and St. Memnos and was called after the names of the martyrs. When the Emperor Constantine was canonized as a saint, the townspeople decided to devote the existing temple to him and his mother Helena: it was so that the church took the name of St. Constantine and St. Helena over the centuries.

During Ottoman domination, instead of the large old temple was a small wooden church, with one nave, no dome or bell and in a totally dilapidated state. This is explained by the fact that during the Ottoman domination, considerable restrictions regarding the proportions of Christian temples existed. During this period, the temple was demolished and rebuilt several times. According to sources,Todor Moravenov who was a famous carbide jackets merchant from Koprivshtitsa became a member of the church board in 1810. After a fire in the late 18th century, the adobe walls were crumbling. Moravenov then began to raise funds for its reconstruction. In 20 years, he collected 200’000 groshes, which was more that enough for the reconstruction. In 1830, Renewal activist Valko Chalakov succeeded in passing a firman from the Sultan for the reconstruction of St. Constantine and St. Helen church, as well as St. Nedelya church. This firman allowed Bulgarian Christians to build new temples. As a result, the ruins of the old temple was demolished and a new temple was erected in 1832: it is the church as we know it today.

In 1950, during excavations beneath the apse, important discoveries were made: the rectangular tower linked to the defense of the eastern gate Hisar Kapiya and the ossuary which preserved the bones of dozens of generations of illustrious people of Plovdiv. Today, they lie in a common grave in the courtyard of the temple. A tombstone with an inscription is installed on the grave. The church yard is surrounded by a solid stone wall that which is 6 to 8 meters height and crowned by a massive brick cornice. Some additional buildings in the courtyard give to the whole place a monastery aspect. Today the church is a valuable monument of religion, culture and history of Plovdiv. This is the town most popular Orthodox temple.

Towards the Roman theater, we pass the house of Georgi Mavridi, built in 1829-1830, where the famous poet and academician Alphonse de Lamartine stayed in 1833, as he returned from his famous voyage to the East.

Behold the Ancient Theater !

Built in the early second century at the time of the Emperor Trajan (98-117), the ancient theater of Plovdiv is one of the best preserved theaters in the world. It was unearthed during archaeological excavations conducted in 1968-1979 by the Archaeological Museum of Plovdiv. The Chamber for the public (the “theatron”) is constructed in an amphi-theater style and is consisting of two rows, composed of 28 terraces of marble steps. The terraces are divided into sectors by stairs which go down to the stage. The two rows are separated by a wide horizontal path (the “diazon”). On the side of the stage is erected a two-floor building called “skene”, which can be translated by “scene” (using as wings and storage for decoration elements). Inscriptions and statues discovered on the premises are included in the building’s architecture. 5’000 to 7’000 seats were available. Much of the building was destroyed in the late 4th century by a fire or an earthquake, and therefore only 20 rows are still existing today. The scene was completely destroyed, but restored following extensive archaeological researches. Nowadays, the Roman Theatre is adapted to Plovdiv modern cultural life and has 5’000 seats. This theatre represent the most emblematic monument regarding Plovdiv culture and history over the centuries.

Walking back towards the city center, we pass by the church of the Virgin Mary and a few steps further on a beautiful “art wall“.

Once back to the modern city of Plovdiv, we discover a part of the ancient stadium of Plovdiv on Dzhumaya place. The stadium is under the ground level and the entrance is in the main street Knyaz Alexander I. It is one of the 12 ancient stadiums built on the model of the stadium in Delphi which can be seen today. Stadium of Plovdiv has an impressive length of almost 200 meters. We can not access it, but only observe from the top a few rows of terraces and the northern arched gate, as well as part of the ramparts of the second to four century fortress. The site is very small and can be easily miss. In ancient times, sports competitions, gladiator and animals fights, and famous Pythian, Alexandrians and Kendrisians Games were organized there. Fragments of a hydraulic clock were discovered near the main entrance of the stadium. A plaque commemorates the Olympic torch which spent a night here on his way from Athens to Moscow in 1980. In ancient times, the stadium could hold up to 30’000 spectators and represented one of the grandest buildings of that time.

It is 3:00 p.m. and we starve! I must say that we continually postponed lunchtime to see as much as possible and we are now paying the price… It is kind of my fault, but in no time, my guide took me to a very good typical Bulgarian restaurant which is called Dayana. Onto a lovely terrace with traditional wooden furniture, we quickly consult the 30 (!) page menu, which offer a great choice of meat. The service is quite good and so was the food. Once our meal swallowed, a few words exchanged and our bill payed, we reach our car and start our trip back to Sofia.

REVIEW OF MY TRIP TO PLOVDIV

I absolutely recommend this tour of Plovdiv and especially its old town! The atmosphere and charm that emanates from these old houses totally worth the trip! And if the Old Plovdiv is not big enough to keep you busy, the modern Plovdiv with its shops, restaurants, bars and clubs will do the job. There are really a lot of thing to do, and if you have the opportunity to stay there a few days, I’d recommend it. For me, it was one of my favotire during this trip in Bulgaria, without a doubt!