A flight from Bangkok to Istanbul (via a layover in Kiev) and a seven hour bus ride brought us to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. After five months in SE Asia, Bulgaria was a bit of a culture shock, but we instantly loved it. For starters, Bulgaria has two things that we had missed dearly – good coffee and cheese. Coffee shops and espresso machines are on every block and we happily partook in several espressos per day. Cheese seems to be in every meal whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner and we eagerly devoured every bit.
Plovdiv, Bulgaria is one of Europe’s oldest cities with artifacts dating back to the Neolithic Period. Throughout its 8,000 year history, the city has been ruled by the Thracians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, and Byzantines. The city has had ten different names with “Plovdiv” originating (and sticking) in the 15th century.
Plovdiv is often referred to as “The City of the Seven Hills,” but only six hills remain since Markovo Tepe was destroyed and used for contstruction material. We climbed Nebet Hill which contains ruins of a fortress from Eumolpias (one of Plovdiv’s former names), a Thracian settlement dated to 5,000 B.C.
In the middle of Old Town lies the Roman Theater, built during the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD). It was only discovered after a landslide unearthed it in the 1970s. Today, the 5,000 seat theater is still in use for performances during the summer.
Under the main shopping street in town lies the Stadium of Trimontium, built in the beginning of 2nd century AD by Emperor Hadrian. The stadium is largely still buried under today’s city center with no future excavations planned but portions of the 30,000 seat stadium can still be seen around Djumaya Square.
We took a day trip to visit Asen’s Fortress, a medieval fortress perched in the Rhodope Mountains just outside of Asenovgrad. After taking a local bus to Asenovgrad, we walked the three kilometers up from town into the mountains to reach the fortress. The fortress was built in the 5th century BC by the Thracians and later rebuilt during the 9th, 11th, and 13th centuries.
Located within the fortress walls, the Church of the Holy Mother of God was built in the 12th century. The Eastern Orthodox church still displays fragments of colorfully painted frescoes.
Our Airbnb residence was located on the cusp of Old Town and across the street from the entrance to the ancient city of Philippopolis. In 432 B.C. the town was conquered by Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) and he gave the city his own name, Philippopolis.
From Plovdiv, we headed to another ancient city – Veliko Tarnovo. Nestled in the hills above the Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo was the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire which existed in the 12-14th centuries.
Tsarevets Fortress is a medieval stronghold built in the 12th century and protected on three sides by the Yantra River. The fortress contained over 400 dwellings, a royal palace, and several churches and monasteries.
After a few days in Veliko Tarnovo we set out for our next destination – Sofia, the capital and largest city in Bulgaria.