In Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Roman grandeur, 19th-century historic houses and a modern arts scene make for a vibrant destination.
On a warm day in Plovdiv (Philippopolis in Roman times, or the City of Seven Hills to those who walk them today), I took respite in a park where a chunk of ancient colonnade served as a bench on which to eat greasy, cheesy banitza, the local pastry special.
Along for the journey was my friend Mia Agova, daughter of Assen Agov, the Bulgarian politician famous for his role in the democratic movement that helped free the country from Communism. Mia had come down from Sofia hoping to find the spot where her great-grandfather had been shot and killed in 1925 by the government operatives who considered him a fascist.
Hers is not the only Bulgarian family with history in Plovdiv.
One of Europe's oldest continuously inhabited cities, Plovdiv, on the banks of the Maritsa River, was at one time or another a Neolithic settlement, a Thracian hub and a Roman cultural and economic center complete with a glittering hillside theater.
Liberated from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Plovdiv became the capital of autonomous Eastern Rumelia, before being folded into modern-day Bulgaria. Today, Plovdiv is a city of more than 400,000 people, many of whom work in tourism and the arts.
Plovdiv's residents are proud of their history, which is good: They could scarcely avoid it if they tried. Walking from dinner to drinks, you may, as Mia and I did, pass under the remnants of a Roman aqueduct and amphitheater. If you're looking for a bit of ancient Roman grandeur east of Italy's tourist hordes, you would do well to come here.
Nearly all the historical attractions are tucked into the quiet back streets in and around Old Town, a tree-lined maze of cobblestone streets, antiques stores, Roman ruins, restaurants and museums that is closed in many places to cars; it's possible to spend two or three days exploring, as we did.
Prehistoric times to now
"In 21/2 hours here, you can take a walk from the prehistoric times to now," said Antoinetta Perdikatseva, curator at the Nedkovich House.
On a sunny afternoon, she was sitting in its courtyard, under vines bearing heavy clusters of ripe green grapes.
Built in 1863 and partly restored in 1969, the house belonged to a famous local merchant, Nikola Nedkovich, who incorporated classic Bulgarian architectural touches -- particularly the ornate carved ceilings, a different pattern in every room -- and traditional European design. It's one of many handsome homes in Plovdiv that once belonged to a prominent family and have been converted into museums. Everything is on display, down to the family's silk nightgowns, dining-table sets and frescoes of the wealthy owner's travels.
Down the road, Hindlian House, the most opulent of Plovdiv's mini-museums, features the most luxurious marble bathroom anyone of that era (think of a small Turkish bath) had seen.
"You can excavate anywhere in this city, and the museum won't have a place to show everything," Perdikatseva said.
We certainly weren't her highest-profile visitors. Plovdiv is popular with royals passing through Bulgaria. Perdikatseva said she has guided Prince Charles, the queens of Spain and Denmark and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whom she escorted to dinner at a continental Old Town restaurant called Philippopolis.
A 10-minute walk later, we were climbing the steep white marble stairs at the amphitheater, one of the best-preserved testaments to the splendor of ancient Rome. Dating from A.D. 98, it's the city's biggest tourist draw, with most visitors Bulgarians looking to explore their heritage.
The theater, with rows of shiny white benches arranged in the traditional U-shape, was discovered by chance, after a mudslide in the 1970s, and restored by the Bulgarian Conservation School in what many here consider its finest hour. It's perched on a hill overlooking the concrete sprawl of today's Plovdiv, with the green backdrop of the Rodopi Mountains.
Swigging from bottles of ayran (a salty, watery yogurt drink popular in Bulgaria and neighboring Turkey), Mia and I, history fanatics, followed in the steps of ancient actors and spectators. We enjoyed the same freedoms they did -- like most historic sites in Plovdiv, security is sparse and you can run, jump and touch almost anything. The wood stage has been reconstructed, and exiting from the backstage dressing area, with columns towering above, we had a bird's-eye view of the modern city and far-off mountains, apart from the snap-happy Russian tourists doing supermodel thrusts below the statues.
If theater was the cultural staple of the old Plovdiv, art is what drives it today. There are more than 40 galleries here, most of them featuring classical and contemporary Bulgarian artists, a group rarely showcased on the international scene.
The grande dame of the art scene is the nonprofit City Gallery of Fine Arts, in the center of Old Town in a beautiful multistory building surrounded by gardens.
"Traditionally, this is a place that breeds artists; it's where artists come to live and work," said Krasimir Linkov, its director, as we sat in his office, surrounded by tall shelves stuffed with what must have been every book ever published on Bulgarian art.
"It's at a crossroads between North, South, East and West. So many people throughout history have come by for various reasons. Ethnic groups here are very tolerant of one another and always have been, so it's great grounds for culture to develop."
Delicious Mediterranean fare
Taking our leave, we headed to the city's main street, renovated three years ago and built over ruins of a Roman street. A stretch of those ruins has been beautifully restored and is easily accessible. It's steps from the Djumaya Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques I've seen outside the Middle East, surrounded by palm trees and built in the 1300s.
Instead of a lunchtime beer, we chose a combined six flavors of gelato from Affredo, a good Bulgarian chain, and more banitza, eaten outside on the grass next to a fountain where all of Plovdiv, it seemed, had come to escape the heat.
Of course, there is more to Bulgarian cuisine than gelato and heavy pastries. For the city's best and most reasonably priced food, you can try, as we did, the Hotel Alafrangite in Old Town. It was nearly empty on a hot weekday night, and we were joined in a lovely open courtyard by a fashionable local couple and a creaky violin-and-piano combo, clad in animal prints, who regaled us with show tunes and Celine Dion songs.
If the music made us smile, the food made us want to come back for more. Bulgarian cuisine is largely Mediterranean, featuring giant stuffed dolmas; a feta-like white cheese; salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers and parsley, generously doused with vinaigrette; and tarator, a soup of creamy Bulgarian yogurt, cucumber chunks, olive oil and garlic.
We ordered all of the above, weighing our table down with plates of breaded peppers and white cheese topped with a yogurt dressing, and the pièce de résistance: a polenta dish Mia insisted we try, served in a large pot with a thick layer of Bulgarian yellow cheese that melted all the way to the bottom.
The next day, on our way out, we finally found the site of Mia's ancestor's murder, on a street near the train station, commemorated by a plaque covered in thick dirt. Linkov, a fan of Mia's father, had asked a local historian friend to aid us in tracking it down. Later that week, he called, wanting to know if we had found the plaque, assuring us that he would have it restored.