For our morning tour of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, we checked out of the Radisson and then ate breakfast at the hotel buffet, which featured a tremendous dessert spread, and giant cupcakes. We did not partake, as it was too early for that amount of sweets, but we ate then with our eyes.
A quick bus ride brought us to the northeast corner of Staria Grad, or the old town on the hill. This particular hill was 1 of the 7 hills of Plovdiv, which was now actually 6 hills, because one of them had been demolished for a mall. Not sure that was a great choice for the city given the historical significance of the previously 7 hill dotted cityscape, but the locals had apparently made their peace with it.
A light rain fell as we joined our guide Toma on a quick uphill walk into the old town Plovdiv area, exploring what in ancient times was known as the city of Philipopolis, named after Alexander the Great’s father Philip.
The Ottoman styled cobbled streets were full of cats, which we loved seeing. Anjana (who is allergic to cats) ended up getting her fair share of a black kitty who wanted very little to do with us, the actual cat people.
And, here we learned that citizens were only taxed on the size of their plot of land for a home, so many buildings grew larger above their first floors, often almost touching over the street, to easily share food or share gossip as Toma quipped. This all had to do with the tax structure of taxing only the land footprint during the times of the Ottoman Empire. We would see this again later on in the tour in Ohrid, North Macedonia.
The history of Plovdiv centered around being the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, seeing layer upon layer of civilization dating bath to the Neanderthals and the Stone Age, to the Greeks, then Romans, then Christians, then Ottomans, to modern times. We enjoyed the mishmash of architecture and found that it was a city of well-fed cats to boot!
We went inside a traditional Ottoman house of a wealthy family that was well preserved and restored, offering a glimpse into life back then. It was the first split level concept I had seen so far in historical architectural tours I have taken. After stepping inside this Klianti House Museum, we were asked to put on special booties to protect the ancient wood floors and rugs. I managed to traipse all over the rug in the welcome room, thinking that it was the floor I was trying to protect. We then watched a short video explaining the extensive restoration that had gone into the 18th century home, and were then able to explore the upstairs of the house. The ornamentation and decoration of the rooms is extremely rich with amazing murals of Constantinople of that period.
After leaving the home we walked up a slight incline to see a panorama of the modern city of Plovdiv and many of the hills. Along the way we saw some more interesting architecture, remnants of a fortress wall, as well as enough Cyrillic for Toma to teach us a little – Pectopah for instance means “Restoran” – once you know the alphabet you can sound out the words and many of the words are familiar to speakers of romance languages.
Heading down from the vista we then stopped at the Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis, built in the 2nd century AD, it once sat 30,000 spectators, and had been rediscovered in 1923. The theater was still used for concerts, but did not look nearly big enough to sit 30,000 people, although we later learned it was only one end and connected to a longer portion of the stadium, which was more of an elongated oval, we saw other portions in the modern part of Plovdiv, and used for events like chariot races.
You could catch glimpses of the stadium interspersed with modern times here and there. The layers of civilization in Plovdiv made for quite a unique city, propelling Plovdiv most definitely onto our list of favorite potentially livable cities, with Brasov, in this region. Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Sofia (which we would visit later) were also on our list.
Everyone in the group commented on the boulders precariously perched above a major highway below, somehow rested perfectly balanced and not falling. Brendan also spotted a preying mantis on one of the lights.
Leaving the Plovdiv theater, we continued heading down and out of the old town, passing statues of prominent Bulgarian artists and seeing some beautiful street art along the way as well, some from the communist era. The words in the garden say “Plovdiv” in Cyrillic.
Finishing up on the pedestrian road of Knyaz Alexander, we said goodbye to Toma and then had some free time to ourselves for the afternoon. From there we used the time to walk the entire length of the pedestrian zone (it was actually quite large) and attempt to buy some more art. Along the way, we found plenty of interesting street art and picturesque spots throughout the city.
We walked to a red covered bridge over the Maritsa River, and then turned around heading back the other way. Seeing no art worth buying on the main thoroughfare, we decided to expand out to the side streets and soon noticed a nice ink and color pencil picture of Staria Grad area that was also somewhat stylized.
The manager at the art gallery we stumbled into was an older lady who unfortunately did not speak English, so we had to do a lot of hand gesturing and broken words to determine whether the piece we liked (and ended up buying) was actually handmade or a print. She mentioned “original” a few times, and also performed the requisite number of charades that led us to believe it was hand drawn with ink, then colored in with pencil. Unfortunately, she only accepted cash, so we would have to make a brief trip to an ATM to withdraw some Bulgarian Lev, which we were trying to avoid. We walked around a bit more, hemming and hawing on if we should get the art, but ultimately pulled out money from the ATM, went back to the gallery and made the purchase.
Art in hand we then looked for a place to grab a glass of Mavrud wine. Toma had told us about the Mavrud grape grown in the Plovdiv area since ancient times and speculated to be related to Mourvedre, which was brought to Bulgaria by the Romans, and produced the highly esteemed locally loved Mavrud wine. Unfortunately, while every place had Mavrud as Toma had said they would, none of them offered it by the glass and we weren’t quite ready to commit to a whole bottle, especially with Brendan not drinking much wine due to his allergies.
No Mavrud, and not finding any quick food options that piqued our interest, we headed to the meeting point of the Ramada via a nearby park, and more ruins interspersed with modern Plovdiv.
We then stopped into their Grand Victoria Restaurant for a beer and lunch. I enjoyed a shopska salad, my first introduction to the local salad made famous by Bulgaria during Communist times throughout the region (it was basically a chopped lettuce, vegetable, and cheese salad that was fresh and delicious, dressed as you liked with olive oil and vinegar). This salad showed up again for dinner and periodically again throughout the trip and was one of my favorite food items. Nida the guide said she also ordered it regularly.
We boarded the bus at the Plovdiv Ramada as planned to Sofia, and once more the Gate 1 tour bus driver Dragan was waiting for us with a smile on his face, making sure the bus was immaculate and keeping it stocked with plenty of waters. We came to appreciate his service enormously throughout the trip, and eventually had dinner with him and learned more about his bus driving family and ambition to own a few buses himself.
From Plovdiv we drove to Sofia, Bulgaria, and learned to say it SO-fia with the emphasis on the first syllables versus the way the name is pronounced. It took about an hour and a half longer than expected due to a huge accident right in our path. Everyone seemed to make the best of it though, and people didn’t get upset even though it did cut into the time we had planned to have upon first entering the city.
Once in Sofia, we arrived at the Grand Hotel Sofia, an old stately hotel right on the city garden and with easy access to the old town. The room was huge but dated. We enjoyed having the couches to lounge on, and ultimately it was a comfortable room. Although we did notice that the shower and bathtub appeared to be leaking, which as property owners ourselves was a sign of possible issues, but thankfully something we don’t have to worry about when we are the guests. There was also a nice welcome message on the TV, welcoming the Mrs. Mrs. Jacobs.
We went down into the hotel for dinner, and got to sit with Jayne and Sharon and talk to them a bit more. Both were enjoyable to talk to and Jayne especially was a hoot, and we were impressed how well traveled and worldly our fellow Gate 1 travelers happened to be. That night I believe was the second time that she shared with us the story of how she had tased herself in the leg in Guatemala with her own flashlight taser, not realizing it was anything more than a flashlight as her brother had given it to her (it was still funny the second time!). We also enjoyed hearing Shetty and Rose’s time living in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.
Dinner that night we knew was pork (the choice for anyone who selected “meat” prior to the trip was either pork or pork), but it came looking a bit more like a mystery meat and many people thought it was chicken. Sharon was supposed to get chicken since she was kosher, but only got the pork, and didn’t get her proper meal until everyone else was essentially done. Jayne thought she got Sharon’s chicken, but who really knows. The meal was ultimately pretty lackluster and was one of the ones we liked least on the Gate 1 portion of the trip.
After dinner we didn’t feel like going out, but we were hoping to still have a nightcap. The “bar” at the hotel was out in the open of the lobby and not a great space to enjoy a drink, but we figured we’d give it a try and could at least take the drinks back to our room. The bar was also in the middle of an art exhibit, which was quite lovely, and we enjoyed perusing the art before engaging the bartender.
The “bartender”, if you can call her that, was leaning behind the bar scrolling on her phone and looking supremely disinterested in helping anyone, but we approached her anyway. We had reviewed their cocktail menu, didn’t love anything we were seeing, so we decided to go with the one drink that every bar the world over at fancy British styled hotels can make, an Old Fashioned. Nope!
The bartender half looked up from her phone when we approached her, with a look like we were bothering her, and when we inquired about an Old Fashioned, she quickly and emphatically explained that they couldn’t make one. She didn’t offer to make something else or something similar, didn’t offer to look up the recipe, one of the most basic drinks in the world, and ultimately, she couldn’t/wouldn’t make it. After the great Old Fashioneds we had recently had in Bucharest, this was very disappointing.
We walked away frustrated, but then remembered our quest to find Mavrud wine when we were in Plovdiv earlier in the day. We debated about testing the wrath of the bartender again, but also got a bit of joy in “poking the bear” and making her life harder by you know, trying to get her to do her job. We asked about Mavrud, but were again thwarted as she brought out a Merlot and offered it up. As we were not really interested in the options presented, we went back up to our room unsatisfied and thirsty.