Ancient Cities of Bulgaria: Plovdiv & Veliko Tarnovo

Roman Theater, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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.

Standing atop Nebet Hill and the ruins of Eumolpias gazing down at Old Town

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 ByzantinesThe city has had ten different names with “Plovdiv” originating (and sticking) in the 15th century.

Nebet Hill provided awesome views of Old Town, Plovdiv

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.

One of the cobbled streets in Old Town

Kuyumdzhiev House, built in 1847, now home to the Ethnographic Museum

Dan was excited to be back in a Slavic country – the Bulgarian language shares many similarities with Russian including the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. Between Bulgarian, Russian, and English we were able to communicate pretty clearly with locals in most situations.

Murals in Plovdiv

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.

Roman Theater, Plovdiv

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.

Part of Roman Stadium beneath the modern-day city

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.

Asenovgrad, Bulgaria along the banks of the Asenitsa River

Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria

Asen’s Fortress and the Church of the Holy Mother of God, perched on a high, rocky ridge

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.

The Church of the Holy Mother of God

Frescoes and decorations inside the church

The church with portions of the fortress walls

One of the old fortress walls with the church in the background

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.

The ruins of the entrance to the ancient city of Philippopolis

Columns that once lined the entrance to the city

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

Old Town, Veliko Tarnovo

View from the wall of Tsarevets Fortress

Asenevci Monument, also known as The Horsemen, was built in honor of Asen’s Kings who organized an uprising to free Bulgaria from Byzantine rule.

Street in Old Town

Tsarevets Fortress

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.

View of the main gate of Tsarevets Fortress

Dan stands carefully on Execution Rock where traitors of the state were thrown into the river below

The fortress walls

Holy Forty Martyrs Church, constructed in 1230, sits at the base of the fortress

Door from the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God

Modernist paintings by Teofan Sokerov in the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, a church that sits at the top of the hill inside the fortress.

A hummingbird hawk-moth in action – an amazing example of natural mimicry seen just outside of the fortress.

View of Tsarevets Fortress from the Yantra RIver

Students from Veliko Tarnovo University were sitting up an art installation while we were there

Veliko Tarnovo at sunset

After a few days in Veliko Tarnovo we set out for our next destination – Sofia, the capital and largest city in Bulgaria.

2 thoughts on “Ancient Cities of Bulgaria: Plovdiv & Veliko Tarnovo

  1. wow- what a change of pace! Love all the attention to details here. I once spent hours in an exhibit of Russian icon paintings and got lost in the infinite brushstrokes. I regret not taking pictures (before camera phones), especially of the “touch of God” marks seen on Mary’s forehead and shoulder. Seeing your photo reminded me of all this wonder felt in front of those.


    • Hi Jocie! The change of scenery from Asia to Europe has been wonderful. We needed a travel boost and Bulgaria definitely gave it to us.
      I love icon paintings…in fact, there was an incredible icon museum in Sofia that I will post some photos from in our next post – thanks for reading our blog 🙂


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