Descending the steps into the ancient amphitheatre of Philippopolis I paused to look out over the dusty panorama, under which a city with thousands of years of history laid. As one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2019, I came to Plovdiv with little to no knowledge of the city but high expectations. What I was about to learn did not disappoint.
When I met my tour guide, Kiril, I was intrigued to find out why he thought the city deserved this award. "For starters we have a long history," he answered "Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe, it was first settled just after the ice age."
Dating back over eight millennia, the history of Plovdiv is varied. Neolithic settlements were expanded by the Thracians, until the Romans conquered. Ottoman rule followed with many others attempting to reign, including the Persians, Greeks and Huns. "Throughout all this, Plovdiv remained Bulgarian. We never lost our core values and traditions," he continued.
The semicircular amphitheatre before me had the crumbling remains of what was once a grand stage; the three-tiered stone wall background was punctuated with openings and pillared terraces where intricate statures would have once been displayed.
Built between two of Plovdiv’s hills, Dzhambaz and Taksim, the amphitheatre was the first major building constructed by the Romans here, in the 1st century AD. The foundations incorporate the large stone remains of a Thracian structure which stood on this spot before the Romans took over the city.
Throughout the summer the theatre still stages shows, plays and musical concerts for up to 5,000 visitors at a time. Performances here are enhanced by the natural acoustics of the surrounding hills.
Leaving the theatre we headed towards the old town, where the narrow cobbled streets seemed almost deserted. Ochre, mossy orange and gunmetal grey paint decorated the traditional houses with their wooden beams and overhanging upper storeys. Builders were hard at work restoring some of the more dilapidated structures, but other than us the streets were empty.
We headed next to St Constantine and Helena Church. Set on what seemed like an insignificant corner, Kiril explained that the church was built on the spot where several Christian martyrs were executed before Roman Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity an accepted religion in the 4th century AD. A grey stone wall with a tiled top – a traditional Bulgarian feature – hid the dark grey exterior of the church, the upper level overhanging the lower tier, which was supported by dark wood beams and painted plaster panels.
Ornate orthodox frescos and icons laced the interior, the gold and bright colour surprising after the plain exterior. The frescoes were accompanied by Greek letters, another reminder of the many different cultures that have influenced the city. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion in the country, and is closely related to Greek Orthodox tradition. Mosques, synagogues and protestant churches also have their home in the city with their decorative minarets and stark, ornate bell towers piercing the bright blue sky.
As we continued walking the roads became narrower and twisted and the buildings more decrepit. I realised we were moving into the Kapana district, also known as the Trap. Graffiti and murals brightened crumbling plaster walls; one symbolic street painting depicted a young woman surrounded by hills, brightly coloured wild flowers and historic buildings, inviting visitors into the creative centre of Plovdiv.
Café tables spilled onto the haphazard streets where locals relaxed, soaking up the warm sunshine and enjoying a lingering lunch in this picturesque, if crumbling, district. ‘The Trap is now the trendy area of Plovdiv, with a quite different feel to the old town," Kiril remarked as we continued to Knyaz Alexander Street, the longest pedestrian street in the world. Strolling along the newly paved, tree-lined boulevard I noticed how Mediterranean the buildings had become, and the increase in number of people strolling the streets and congregating in the open squares. Modern Plovdiv centres around this street, with a buzzier, more enticing atmosphere than that in the Old Town.
As we walked I noticed a series of stepped stone ruins unearthed in a hollow. "It’s the Roman stadium," explained Kiril, "This is just a small section that has been excavated. I’ll show you how big it was!" he continued, sweeping his arm in a wide arc to highlight how the stadium and the forum would have taken up the space as far as the eye could see.
On the border of Europe and the Middle East, with traces visible from so many countries and different eras, it feels inevitable this diverse city would one day be recognised as a European Capital of Culture. The energy felt here still has links to the days when trade between east and west passed through the city, creating a unique fusion between two continents.
As our tour neared its end we headed up Nebet Tepe, the hill were this city was founded, and where remains of a fortress, built, extended and repaired by many different inhabitants still stand. I looked over the city once more, its green hills interrupting and mass of red-tiled roofs. The warming sun beat down as the hum of the city, the only sound reaching up here, was interrupted by the words "ancient and eternal." I turned to Kiril, "Sorry?"
"Ancient and eternal. That’s the motto on the flag of Plovdiv. That’s my city."
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Top image: Saint Marina Church in Plovdiv The St Marina church was built in the first half of the 16th century © meunierd/Shutterstock