11.30.2015

Last Stop in Bulgaria: Plovdiv

Revivalist Architecture
Plovdiv, the city where Europe's history began. Plovdiv is a cute, quaint city. It's huge - Bulgaria's second largest city - and it sprawls over a ton of land and is quite modern with some high rises fitting the more modern and industrial parts of the city outskirts. But central Plovdiv, where everything and everyone is at, is the perfect size. Everywhere is walkable, with many pedestrianized boulevards crisscrossing the colorful city.

Plovdiv is a city where history is buried by more history, literally. Beneath the streets sits Thracian ruins over 6,000 years old and ancient roman ruins, and atop all this sits colorful, bright architecture from the 1920s Revival period, now itself a part of history and therefore impossible to tear down to expose the older parts of the city that lay beneath.

Plovdiv was another pleasant surprise in Bulgaria, and quite unique from both Sofia and Veliko. While Sofia boasts it's colorful Byzantine and Ottoman buildings and imposing Communist-era relics, Veliko touts it's antiquated cobblestone streets and it's rolling hills and small, unassuming village charm, and then there's Plovdiv where at once you are bombarded with all of Bulgarians history, ancient and recent, in one place, along with its attempt to modernize and be a pinnacle of European culture.

There are two main parts of Plovdiv, the main pedestrianized boulevard and then "old town" which is also pedestrianized where boutique hotels and art stores line the jagged cobblestone paths.

Milo
The main pedestrianized boulevard is lined with colored Revivalist buildings from the 1920s, and the bottom floors host chic cafes and coffee shops and clothing stores. As you walk along the boulevard you can't help but notice several things: the colorful buildings, the information boards lining the street detailing the history of the area, and then Milo, a bronze statue of a friendly crouched man with features that look a bit like a caricature. Milo was Plovdivs charmer back in the day. He was a deaf man who roamed the streets and charmed the ladies. He apparently charmed a few of the wrong ladies, when a few jealous men flung him into the city fountain, after which he caught pneumonia and died. A statue was later erected to commemorate him, and now passersby rub his knee and whisper their wishes in his ear.

Roman Stadium
After a few more historic buildings down the road is the roman stadium nestled into the ground. Only one of the outer curves is exposed, and is lit by colorful lights in the evening. The stadium was only discovered in the 1970s because no historic evidence exists hinting to its existence. The stadium was built in the first century and was huge, holding 40,000 people (by comparison, Rome's stadium held 50,000). Only 12 stadiums in the world can compare into it. In its prime it hosted many events, including the Alexandrian games. The whole stadium is still perfectly preserved under layers of soil, but no more of it can be unearthed because of the historic Revivalist buildings that now sit upon it.

The Trap
Speaking of revivalist architecture, the neighborhood known as "the trap" is full of 1920s pastel buildings and is the site for encouraging art and creativity. In the early turn of the century, The Trap used to be a market during the Ottoman Empire, and it served a similar function centuries before during the Roman Empire. It was known as the The Trap because it's rumored that you could not enter the The Trap without buying something, or alternatively, you'd get lost in its winding streets and alleys. The Trap burned down in 1906 and was rebuilt in the 20s. During Communism the buildings were all nationalized and when the communist trike fell, it was difficult to determine the authenticity of various ownership of the re-privatized buildings; therefore, most remain empty. The government now wishes to convert The Trap into an artistic neighborhood, so anyone who proposes opening a shop with an artistic theme receives their rent for free. Plovdiv is set to be Europe's capital of culture in 2019, and they want The Trap to stay as the center of all the festivities, hence the decor and artsy vibe the neighborhood is now boasting.

Contrasting this up-and-coming neighborhood is the old town, a pedestrianized zone of old buildings, ruins, and cobblestone streets. The Romans originally referred to Plovdiv as the city of 3 hills (though now it has been expanded to consume 7) and the old town sits atop one of these hills. Old town is where once again ancient Thracian and Roman ruins are juxtaposed next to 1920s wooden buildings. In the 1920s, the merchants who lived in old town had a competition among themselves as to who had a more beautiful house. No consensus has yet been reached.

My personal favorite revivalist building is now the Ethnographic Museum
 Featuring prominently in the old town are various examples of Bulgarian-style architecture, which is quite peerless. Since homeowners were only charged for the square footage of the bottom floor only, they would have their houses gradually add square feet as new floors where added, making houses that are bigger on top and small of the bottom!

Also in old town is the Roman theater, which, like the stadium, was built in the 1st century. Again, no evidence existed that this theater existed, so it was only recently discovered in the 1970s. The theater used to sit around 8,000 people and were used for performances and animal and gladiator fights. Today the theater hosts nightly shows during the summer where locals preform classic and modern material.

Roman Theater
Down the road is another major site in Bulgarian history, The Church of the Holy Assumption of Mary. Way back when, Bulgarians accepted Orthodox Christianity because the Greeks alone offered to hold service in Bulgarian rather than Latin, as was the case with the Catholic Church. During the Ottoman Empire, however, it was ordered that all services be held only in Greek. Bulgarians got tired of having service in a foreign language and one particularly brave bishop decided to rebel by holding mass in Bulgarian in no other church but The Holy Assumption of Mary Church in Plovdiv. It was soon accepted in 1870 that all services could be held in Bulgarian, but Bulgarians thirst for freedom wasn't quite satiated and in 1878 Bulgarians fought and gained their independence.

Church of the Holy Assumption of Mary
Plovdiv was a wonderful end to my stay in Bulgaria. It offered a bit off everything and, like everywhere in Bulgaria, was full of pleasant surprises. Spencer and I soon packed our bags and said goodbye to Bulgaria and boarded an overnight bus to head to the former conqueror of Bulgaria and former capital of the Ottoman Empire: Istanbul. After a long bus ride and a chilly wait at the border crossing, we entered Turkey and prepared for the chaos that is Istanbul.

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