Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Romania & Bulgaria has to say about ancient Plovdiv:
“Like Rome, Plovdiv straddles seven hills; but as Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, it’s far more ancient. The neighbourhood boasts Thracian, Roman, Byzantine and Bulgarian antiquities, the most impressive being the Roman amphitheatre. The modern centre features a shop-lined pedestrian mall, ul Knyaz Aleksandâr, which passes over the Roman Stadium to a square with fountains.
The remains of settlements dating to 7,000 BC have been discovered around Plovdiv. Thracians settled here around 5,000 BC, building a fortress at Nebet Tepe in the old town, calling it Eumolpias. Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) extended the settlement, humbly naming it Philippopolis in 342 BC.
He strengthened the existing fortress, making Philippopolis an important military centre. However, the ruins that survive today largely come from the Roman annexation (AD 46) and thereafter. The Romans built streets, towers and aqueducts for the new city, named Trimontium (‘three-hilled’).
Ruins of Eumolpias (Nebet Tepe)
Some 203m high in the old town, a hill with spectacular views reveals sparse ruins of Eumolpias, a Thracian settlement in 5000 BC. The fortress and surrounding town enjoyed a strategic position, later bolstered by Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians and Turks, who named it Nebet Tepe (Prayer Hill).
Stadium of Philippopolis
While the once-huge 2nd-century Roman stadium is mostly hidden under a pedestrian mall, there are stairways from different sides allowing for exploration.
Plovdiv’s magnificent 2nd-century AD amphitheatre, built during the reign of Emperor Trajan, was uncovered during a freak landslide in 1972. It once held about 6,000 spectators. Now largely restored, it’s one of Bulgaria’s most magical venues, once again hosting large-scale special events and concerts.
Unfortunately, Goths and Huns plundered and destroyed Roman Trimontium in the mid-3rd century and in AD 447 respectively, and it languished. The Bulgar Khan Krum seized it in 812 and renamed it Pupulden, making it an important strategic outpost of the First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018).”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We’d booked our lovely AirBnB apartment in Plovdiv for six nights in order to have time to get over our train journey from Sofia and not feel rushed to have a fairly thorough exploration of what appeared to be a fascinating city. In my previous journal entry, I have described our misadventures on our first evening, and then our experience shaking off a would-be local guide.
I don’t want to give the impression that we had a tough time in Plovdiv, quite the contrary once we got our bearings. After exploring many of the small cobblestone streets of the Old Town, we finally figured out the location of the Roman Amphitheatre and stood stunned at its magnificent beauty. It’s strange to think that it lay buried for almost two centuries and that generations of people of different ethnic origins must have walked over it without knowing its hidden secrets.
Today, it stands at the very edge of the rocky hill, the city of Plovdiv forming a natural backdrop for the venue. It must be an incredible experience to sit in the same seats where spectators once watched gladiators battle wild beasts or thrilled to dramatic performances by actors upon the marble stage.
We weren’t able to see a modern-day concert as this is not the season for outdoor events, but I can just imagine how wonderful it will be next year when Plovdiv celebrates its year as the European Capital of Culture. We were tempted to stop and have a cold drink at one of the tables just above the amphitheatre, but they were all full so we decided to just head back to our beautiful apartment and enjoy the evening there.
As we were walking back to the top of the long staircase that would take us back down to Petrov Street, I noticed a young woman studying a map of the Old Town, and looking very confused. Now, this was only our second day in Plovdiv, but I thought I might take a chance and offer some help. It turns out she was travelling from the Extremadura region of Spain, our favourite part of the Iberian Peninsula.
She was looking for a site that was well outside the Old Town, but she was having the same issue I had with the city map. It’s not clear which part of the city is high on the hill, and which is the area that spreads out around it. What luck, the site was a short distance from the base of the hill, and not far from the street we were taking to get back to our lodgings.
I suggested she join us, walk down the steep steps, and then once we were near the intersection where she would need to branch off, we could point her in the right direction. We chatted a little as we walked, and learned that she was an artist who had come to do a course at one of the local institutes. We told her that we had driven from southern Spain, northwards through Extremadura towards Badajoz. What a coincidence! She hails from a small town quite near Badajoz.
The reason that I mention meeting her is that once we had seen most of the major sights in the Old Town, we decided to check out the site she had been looking for. It was marked as a Basilica on the map, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting ancient ruins we saw in Plovdiv. There wasn’t a mention of it in our guidebook, and I have to wonder why.
After saying goodbye to the young Spanish artist, we stopped in at a huge supermarket we passed along the way and loaded up on fresh produce and good bread in order to eat in that evening. We were quite close to ‘home’ and were busy chatting to each other when a woman stepped out of a small shop just ahead of us, and overheard us speaking in English.
Neither of us can remember why she made the comment “It all looks the same doesn’t it?”, in response to something I’d said to Anil, but that broke the ice and we started a conversation with her. It turns out Anne lives part-time in Bulgaria and the rest of the time in England. She was in town supervising some renovation work she was having done on property she owns, and was pleased to hear someone speaking English behind her.
She was going in our direction and before long she turned to stop at an outdoor restaurant. She was meeting two English friends and invited us to join them. As tempting as it was to have a beer with them, we were really tired and needed to have a rest.
They seemed slightly disappointed, and when we learned they are there pretty much every day around 4:30pm, we said we’d stop by the following day. Before we walked away, I had the good sense to ask the women if they could recommend a good place to get my nails done. I couldn’t believe it when Hazel, Anne’s friend pointed out a modern salon almost right across the street.
I stopped in and was able to make an appointment for the following morning at 10:00am. It seems we were destined to meet these English expatriates. As an added bonus, the restaurant was less than three blocks from our apartment on Hristo Botev Street. If only we’d known about that nice eatery on our first night in the city!