Plovdiv: this Bulgarian city serves up a mix of hipster cool & history
Not only has Bulgaria's second city been crowned a European Capital of Culture for 2019, it's easy on the pocket too, writes Gavin Haines
Amid the excitement, the mayor suggested killing some pigs. His logic went something like this: Bulgaria's second city is about to become a European capital of culture, so wouldn't it be neat to slay a few oinkers in the main square, just like the ol' days? A public backlash followed, resulting in the pigs being pardoned and the mayor claiming it had all been a "social experiment". That's cleared that up, then.
It's not the only time the mayor has found himself on the defensive. Without getting too drawn into parochial politics, much ire has been directed at his office lately due to the refurbishment of Plovdiv's Central Square, the scene of January's capital of culture opening ceremony. It wasn't ready in time and the locals didn't know whether to wear party hats or hard hats.
City Hall blamed the Romans. The problem, said the suits, was that as soon as you start digging up Plovdiv - Europe's oldest continuously inhabited city, according to some estimates (yes, even older than Athens) - another vestige of the old empire is unearthed. And so it was with the main square, where more Roman ruins were discovered as workers moved in.
Seems reasonable, but some locals aren't having it. Then again, they enjoy grumbling, apparently.
"Bulgarian people like to complain," says Andrey Hristev, a bartender at the Cat & Mouse pub in Plovdiv's trendy Kapana district.
"I'm tired of all the negativity," interrupts Viktoria Tashkova, a local architect. "People here are making the effort."
There is much to suggest she's right. Not only have the people of Plovdiv mustered a successful capital-of-culture bid, but they've also tried to recast their city - population 344,000 - as Bulgaria's capital of cool (much to the amusement of some Sofians).
EU membership, the arrival of low-cost airlines and cultural-capital status have helped Plovdiv find its mojo. Policy has also played a part, particularly in Kapana, where the biggest changes have taken place.
Abandoned during the communist era, Kapana's rundown lanes became a car park for the nearby high street, whose shops are to retail what Bulgaria Air's in-flight magazine is to journalism.
Nevertheless, the parade still trumps most European high streets since halfway down it there's a partially excavated Roman stadium and an Ottoman mosque.
The rest of the stadium sits beneath shops, alas, including a branch of H&M, where archaeologists were allowed in to excavate the basement. The exposed ruins now serve as a useful hook to get punters in.
Back to Kapana, though, whose fortunes changed after Plovdiv won the capital-of-culture bid. The municipality banned cars from the streets, then offered entrepreneurs free rent for a year to help them set up shop. This turbo-charged a process of gentrification that has, in a few short years, turned Kapana into hipster central.
The district's craft-beer pubs, artisanal coffee shops and concept restaurants are all faithfully on tone, with their sanctioned street art, filament lightbulbs and plywood furniture. There's even a veggie restaurant, once anathema in the Balkans, where most meals contain something's flesh.
"I don't like that they push this hipster culture, but it's cool, it works," says Mario Boychev, an opera singer, also drinking in the Cat & Mouse.
Kapana was originally intended to be an arts hub and a handful of galleries opened when rents were free. But when curators had to start making ends meet, most were replaced by bars and restaurants, which, for all their on-trend clichés, give the city a youthful energy that has long been absent.
Like the rest of Bulgaria, Plovdiv experienced a brain drain after joining the EU in 2007, with youths seeking opportunities abroad. Locals reckon the tide is turning.
"When I was growing up the city was dead," says Lina Krivoshieva, a local photographer, who herself made for Berlin. "But people are moving back - and they're bringing ideas with them." Many, it seems, make a beeline for Kapana.
You can quaff coffee with beard-stroking baristas in most cities nowadays. But only in Plovdiv can you climb the cobbled streets of the Old Town, through clowders of stray cats, to the ancient Roman theatre. Dating back to AD 90, or thereabouts, Plovdiv's landmark attraction proves the city was a capital of culture before the EU said so. Drama here is not restricted to the stage: the theatre serves up spectacular views of the city and the Rhodope mountains beyond.
Many a performer will tread the boards of the ancient theatre this year, mostly during the summer, when Plovdiv's cultural programme really kicks in (only masochists visit during the bitter winter months).
Plovdiv is affectionately known as the "City of Seven Hills", which is misleading because there are only six. The seventh was blown up and turned into road ballast, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Clinging to one of the remaining hills is the Old Town, lauded for its colourful 19th-century houses. They went up during the Bulgarian National Revival, when ideas of independence and expressionism started sprouting from cracks in the Ottoman Empire. The top-heavy buildings are magnificent and almost meet in the middle along some streets.
The revival culminated in independence for present-day Bulgaria, opening the door to Western ideas. The communist regime of the '40s soon put paid to that, though, stubbing out capitalism like the cheap cigarettes still enthusiastically smoked here.
Many Bulgarians seem to harbour little desire to cling to the past, particularly the Cold War era. There are plenty of relics from the regime days gathering dust in the Old Town's antique shops, which sit alongside art galleries, churches and souvenir stores selling ceramics and traditional clothes.
The Ethnographic Museum provides another portal into the past. Dusty exhibits showcase Bulgarian folk traditions, which are also kept alive down the nearby Street of Crafts, where embroiderers, carpenters and instrument makers ply their dying trades in time-worn workshops.
Most studios are closed when I visit, but from one crooked building I hear someone trying to coax a tune out of some bagpipes, another Bulgarian tradition. The sound is murderous, but with some practice perhaps one day it could be something beautiful. Who knows? Maybe the town square will be ready by then, too.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
There are no long-haul flights to Plovdiv so you will have to fly via Sofia, the capital. Turkish Airlines offers the quickest and cheapest route from SA to Sofia. Return flights from Joburg via Istanbul start at R7,704 for travel in June.
The Bulgarian capital is two hours by road from Plovdiv. Buses run every hour from Sofia's central bus station with one-way fares around €6 (R100).
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Evmolpia, located in the Old Town and festooned with antiques, has bags of character. Free wine and cheese served every evening. Rates from June to October are €79 (R1,280) per night for a deluxe double room (deluxe single room €69/R1,120). If you travel between now and high season, rates are €10 less per night. Pretty good value for Europe in 2019.
Bulgaria is part of the EU but does not use the euro. While prices may be quoted in euros, the unit of currency is the Bulgarian lev (1 lev = R8,28). The currency is pegged to the euro at a fixed rate of €1 to 1,95 lev. Restaurants, taxis and shops only accept payment in the local currency.
To find out more about the Capital of Culture programme, with a theme of togetherness, see plovdiv2019.eu.
Further details about the city can be found at visitplovdiv.com. - The Sunday Telegraph