Older than Athens and Rome

Next year Plovdiv will add a rare jewel to its crown of a millennia-old settlement.  In 1915 the South-Central Bulgarian city was designated to be the 1919 European Capital of Culture, alongside the Italian city of Matera. The Together Concept, with which Plovdiv has won the selection process in the EU Council’s initiative, has a motto that fully fits in with reality. The peaceful coexistence of Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians and Jews here over the centuries has made a mark not only on the architecture but also on the mentality of the locals – they are more laid-back and negotiable compared to the inhabitants of other settlements in Bulgaria. They have even coined the word ‘ailyak’ to describe their happy-go-lucky attitude to life.

Eumolpias, as the Thracians named their settlement on three hills along the Maritsa River, dates back to 4000 BC, thus making Plovdiv older than Athens and Rome. It ranks sixth in The Daily Telegraph list of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited cities, immediately after the Palestinian Jericho, the Lebanese Byblos, the Syrian Aleppo and Damascus, and the Iranian Susa. It sounds like a cliché, but Antiquity and Modernity are blended in Plovdiv, offering opportunities for practicing different types of tourism: cultural and historical (Revival Period houses, churches and antique heritage), festival (Kapana Fest, Hills of Rock, Sounds of the Ages), business (Vinaria - International Exhibition of Vine-Growing and Wine Producing, International Technical Fair), to mention but a few.

No matter what the purpose of their visit is, there is a spot that draws tourists like a magnet. This is Ancient Plovdiv Architectural and Historical Reserve, simply known as the Old Town. The easiest way to get there is to leave the central Knyaz Alexander I street and head up by the Turkish Dzhumaya Mosque built in 1363. You will pass right by the partially excavated remains of the Stadium Trimontium, one of the largest ancient Roman structures in the Balkans.

Horse hoofs have once echoed in the winding cobblestone streets of the Old Town, but today it is most convenient to traverse it on foot. Do not make plans where to go, just hang around, try hot, handmade bread with leaven, or paint a clay pitcher on the Street of Crafts, enter the Revival Period houses with galleries, museums, cafes and restaurants, sit in their yards abounding in fig trees and ivy, and spotted with flowers and dried wells. If you are short on time, however, better join the free Plovdiv walking tour offered by Association 365, an NGO for tourism and culture. Most hotels will have information on tour times.

One of the most beautiful buildings in the Old Town, which today is transformed into an Ethnographic Museum, can be found on Doctor Stoyan Chomakov street, next to the Tourist information centre. The house of merchant Argir Kuyumdzhioglu was erected by the Rhodope master builder Georgi Hadzhiyski in 1847. It is an eye-catcher with its blue façade, its protruding elliptical portal with wooden columns and curved cornices inviting a comparison to the lustful curves of a woman’s body. It is also worth visiting the House of the Georgiadis’ (currently the National Liberation Warfare Museum), the Chomakovs’ House (hosting the gallery of late painter Zlatyu Boyadzhiev, famous for his explosive colourful, naive style, developed as a result of a stroke), the Balabanovs’ House (organized as a gallery for contemporary painting and a concert hall) and the House of Georgi Mavridi, better known as Lamartine’s House, in which the great French poet, traveler and supporter of the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire Alphonse de Lamartine had stayed during his diplomatic mission in the Orient in the 19th century.

Lamartine’s House rises at the end of a street that after a sharp turn will abruptly catapult you from the Revival Period back to Antiquity. What lies in store for you is a white-stone 2nd-century Roman theatre hewn in the steep rocks above a car tunnel. Road builders came across the amazing structure by chance while digging for the highway below in 1968. Subsequently, archaeologists revealed 14 rows of stone benches with cut-out names of the neighborhoods whose inhabitants were entitled to reserved seats. A three-level stage (proscenium) with a colonnade crowned with friezes, cornices and marble sculptures rises below the semi-circular central platform for 3500 spectators. There used to be bronze sculptures there as well, but today only the pedestals with the names of the noble Romans had remained. In the 5th century Atilla’s hordes plundered everything precious, but the main part of the theatre remained intact. Nowadays its stage welcomes world-renowned musicians: from Goran Bregovic to Sting and Marillion, who take advantage of its magnificent acoustics.

Do not overlook the churches in the Old Town, the most spectacular of which is the Cathedral Church of Virgin Mary. In 1859, the first worship in the Bulgarian language was performed in this temple and in 1872 the Bulgarian Exarchate prelates welcomed there its first bishop, Metropolitan Panaret.

More inconspicuous is the Church of St Constantine and St Helen. It was erected in 1832 over the remains of an Early Christian sanctuary devoted to 38 martyrs, whom the Romans beheaded here in AD 304. The temple boasts a unique wood-carved iconostasis and old-time frescoes, one of which, on the portico itself, depicts the dream of its patron, Constantine the Great (AD 274–337), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, declaring toleration to this religion.

Plovdiv can be thoroughly tramped, but its story can never be fully told. So keep up with what is happening in the City under the Hills and follow the calendar of cultural events at;