Last week I got the best 30th birthday present I could possibly have wanted: a week off work. So i decided to do a little bit of sightseeing around classic Bulgaria, by travelling to Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo, two of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Europe.
My first stop was Plovdiv. I took the train from Sofia. I like travelling by train; I find it more relaxing than a bus, and I can do stuff like read, write or sleep comfortably on the train. Plus, the views are better. Three hours on the bus is three hours wasted, a slice of time you’ll never get back. Three hours on the train, by contrast, allows for three hours of contemplation, meditation, intellectual exploration. Or failing that, you can just work your way through a 2.5 litre pitcher of Pirinsko beer (the finest in Bulgaria) – they don’t let you do that on the bus.
Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities anywhere in the world. I joined the Free Plovdiv walking tour, whose guide, Anton, told us that it has been continually inhabited for over 6000 years. Or since 6000 BC, I’m not sure which. The tour starts outside the Plovdiv Central Post Office, which is also the first stop on the tour. We walked through the post office, which Anton explained was like a social hangout back in the Communist days, a place where everyone came to meet. He pointed out a counter where there were still one or two telephones, and explained that under Communism few people had phones in their homes, and if they wanted to call someone, they had to book a 15 minute time slot at the post office two weeks in advance. I wonder if, in those days, one often had the embarassing experience of waking up one morning to find out last night, in a drunken haze, you had made an appointment to call your ex a fortnight from now?
Next Anton took us through the city gardens and up the main street of Plovdiv, all the while keeping up a lively commentary, and being continually questioned by a Turkish gentleman who was part of our group, and who was anxious nobody get the wrong idea about the positive effects of Ottoman rule on the country. Anton was knowledgeable about Plovdiv, but unsure in the face of the Turkish Inquisition, and maybe a little perplexed that his jokes weren’t getting the generous reception they usually did. Our group was a bit quiet – maybe it was the cold, or maybe we were just a bad audience.
I won’t tell you all of Anton’s stories, in case you are thinking of visiting Plovdiv soon. I will mention though the Roman stadium, which you come across without warning, at the top of the main street. A sign and diagrams show you how big it was, and it’s quite surprising to think that it was underground and completely unknown until the 1950s. One end of the stadium, around 30 metres across, is now uncovered, with rest lying beneath the shops and offices of Plovdiv’s main shopping street, meaning it will probably stay there for some time yet.
From the stadium, we climbed uphill to Plovdiv’s old town. Plovdiv is known as the town of the seven hills, because in the city, located on the wide flat Thracian plain by the Maritsa river, are seven small hills which sit perched on top of the plain commanding a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. None more so than the view from Plovdiv’s Roman theatre, still largely in one piece and a popular location for underage drinking in summer. The theatre is imaginatively located on the side of one of the hills, with the stage in a dip and the seats banked on the slopes above, looking out at the stage and the plains beyond to the towering Rodoppi mountains in the distance. It’s a magnificent view, and must have looked even more so in Roman times, when the view was unspoilt by roads, chimney stacks and apartment blocks. It certainly made me wish I hadn’t left my camera in Sofia…
From the theatre, we continued walking along the stone streets of the old town, past delightful old houses, restaurants and several dance schools. Plovdiv regards itself as the cultural capital of Bulgaria (make your own yoghurt joke here) and the city is home to several art colleges. There was also an old stone arch gate, about which Anton had a rather charming local legend to relate which was immediately disputed by the Turkish fellow. The tour concluded at the top of Nebet Hill, from where there is a good view out over the city. Having spent the last half an hour walking through quiet stone streets from another age, it was slightly jarring to look out from the hill and see a sprawling, grim-looking industrial city crowding out Old Plovdiv. Plovdiv is like Bulgaria in a nutshell. The good bits are magnificent, things you cannot get anywhere else you go, and you wish you could call this place home. The bad parts are dismal and ugly, and just make you want to leave as soon as you can. Plovdiv is either an historic, beautiful and charming city that has stood the test of time, or else (especially north of the Maritsa) it can be summed up by its football team, Lokomotiv Plovdiv. The name is functional, unimaginative, utilitarian and perfunctory, and frequently mediocre. Which one is the real Plovdiv? You decide. But really, anyone who will remember the chimney stacks longer than the Roman theatre has something wrong with them.
After the tour, Anton pointed out to me a good hostel, the Old Plovdiv hostel, and I went there to drop my bags en route to post-tour drinks. I was warmly greeted by the owner, Hristo, who enquired where I was from. When I replied, “Ireland” he burst into smiles, and effusively announced that I was the first Irish guest at the hostel and therefore he would like to offer me an upgrade to a private room for free. Apologies to any Irish people planning to stay there, I beat you to it! You’ll just have to pretend to be from Tuvalu instead. The private room was very spacious and nice, with a bed, a grand old wooden floor and a huge wireless radio set mounted on the wall, one of those old ones with the different bands and frequencies marked on it, and names of cities written in as well, so for example if you wanted to get Radio Moscow, you knew where to tune to. Interestingly, the three English cities I could find on it were London, Droitwich and Daventry. Between the wooden floor and the radio and the space, the room had a grand old-fashioned air, and I liked it straightaway. The bed turned out to be very comfortable as well.
A Belgian, an Irishman, two Lithuanians and two Bulgarians walk into a bar. This was our tour group, or the half of it that went to the pub afterwards at least. The Lithuanians are taciturn, no-one questions the Irishman’s ability to drink, while the Belgian has to assert his. No-one questions the Belgian’s fondness for women, though he asserts it anyway. The Bulgarians are on home ground, and they proclaim their fondness for drink and women too. The group is unanimous in expressing their fondness for Bulgarian women, leading the Belgian to propose a mission to find some that very evening. The others, mostly having girlfriends, demur. The Belgian, having but three girlfriends, announces his intention to enact his proposal regardless. The Irishman is pressed for some examples of Irish humour and can only come up with two of the most tasteless jokes he knows, which will NOT be printed here. They meet with strong approval – even the Lithuanians laugh – prompting the discussion to move on to the alleged fondness of Belgian men for underage girls, a stereotype the one Belgian present does absolutely nothing to dispel. The Bulgarians, however, seem not to want to be outdone for bravado and general manliness, and joke along with stories about the terrors of teenaged Bulgarian girls. I helpfully point out that I used to live in Pleven, which prompts sundry further examples in their minds of their irrepressible and insatiable ways. It seems to be a contest to see who can be persuaded to confess to the wrongest wrong, the winner of which will be subject to increasingly tenuous and predictable one-liners for the rest of the evening. Such is the face of male bonding.
Oooh! He nearly typed bondage! He must be thinking about those Pleven schoolgirls!
They weren’t in school! It was the summer holidays!
Fortunately the contest broke up without a winner – though let me put it on record: I could never have won that contest – and I went back to the hostel. Partly to check I could find my way back, as it’s better to find you’re lost before you’ve gone out for a skinful than after, and partly to see if they could recommend somewhere for dinner. They could: Hristo’s brother owned a restaurant just up the road, so I went there. Being by now used to Sofia prices, everything on the menu looked such a bargain, I wanted to order it all. In the end, I settled for a plate of sach. This is a Bulgarian dish of meat and vegetables, cooked and served on a hot metal plate. It’s a big meal for one person, but needless to say I didn’t mind. The service was impressively laidback though, to the point where I gave up on trying to order desert, and went back to the hostel. There I was greeted by the night porter, Nikolai.
“Ah, you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you!”
I was surprised. “Really? Am I the only guest or something?”
“Yes, you are,” he admitted.
“Well, sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“Are you going out again?” Nikolai asked.
“No, probably not. I’ll just stay here, have a beer and read.”
“Ok. I’ll get you a beer. Are you staying in the big room?”
“Yes, they gave me an upgrade. They said I was the first Irish guest they’d had.”
“Really? I don’t think so.” Nikolai frowned. “There were two Irish guys last week. Nice guys, but they stay out very late.”
“Don’t worry, I’m staying in, as long as there’s beer.”
“Of course.” Nikolai produced a Kamenitza, then went to his duties, whatever they were. I suspected his job was long and dull, and he welcomed any distraction. Later, after I went to my room, the sound of house music seeping up from reception confirmed this.
When I was halfway through my second bottle of Kamenitza, he suggested a game of chess. He was a good player: the first game he won, after I failed to spot a diagonal checkmate move in the corner. The second, I gave away my queen with a silly mistake – I blame the beer, of course. The third game, he gifted me a little too easily – I think he felt it was time I won one, or perhaps he was worried I would go to bed if I kept losing. The fourth, I won more convincingly. The fifth, which we agreed was the last game, he won. He played as white every time, and I kept getting into bad positions, ceding the centre of the board to him with weak openings. He was good enough to see this, and suggested I learn some openings. He was complimentary about my play otherwise, and felt we were fairly well matched. Perhaps I could have beaten him sober!
The next morning was a Bulgarian breakfast at the hotel – tomatoes, cucumber, salami and cheese, with toast, jam and honey on the side. After that, I took my bags and took a walk around the old town again, before following the tour route back down the main street and towards the railway station, to catch a train to Veliko Tarnovo. There was the usual charade at the ticket office. I found that although Bulgarian Railways’s website will tell you all the trains serving a particular route, including connections, if there is a direct train the ticketing system will only find tickets for that train, i.e. It will only look for connecting tickets when there is no direct train at all. Not very convenient when there is only one direct train a day to where you want to go! The ticket machine wanted me to wait an extra two hours for my train, to avoid a five minute change at Dubovo. Somehow, despite my shamefully limited Bulgarian, and the railway staff’s limited English (which is not really shameful, but in a city of so many tourists, would it be so unreasonable to expect at least one person to speak English, or even French or German?), I managed to avoid the wait and so, after a thoroughly bad coffee (five cafés in the station, and I’m sure I picked the worst one) and a carton of chips I was ready to leave Plovdiv behind, coincidentally on the same train I’d arrived on the day before. I was there only a day, and no doubt I’ve missed plenty, but ask any traveller: sometimes he will have enough money, but there is never enough time. It was off to Tarnovo for me, four hours on a train armed with just a book, a pen and a notebook. And a piece of advice: if you come to Bulgaria, spend a day in Plovdiv.