Summertime Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo - Ups and Downs
Summer vacation is traditionally devoted, at least in Bulgaria, to seaside fun or hiking/chilling in the mountains, but why not venture some city tourism? A trip to Bulgaria’s greats Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo is always an advisable choice – with some qualification regarding the summer months.
Just for orientation: Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s (officially) second-largest city, founded in ancient times (6000 BC?), boasting Roman ruins, medieval walls, Bulgarian Revival houses, later 19th century European architecture and communist-era blocks. Veliko Tarnovo – Medieval capital of Bulgaria (1185-1396), built on steep rocky hills, boasting a royal castle, churches, and again a quaint old town; the place where the Bulgarian Parliament convened for the first time after liberation in 1878 and where the first Bulgarian Constitution was adopted.
The plan was to make a quick but substantial jaunt to both places within the limits of three days total in the beginning of August. Starting point: Sofia. Plovdiv is 2.30 h away by train. It greets us with scorching sun at 10 am – a taste of what’s to follow. My Plovdiv friends’ concern that we have air conditioning in our hotel rooms starts to make sense.
A stroll through the central city park and you can get refreshed by sprinklers that sometimes do not aim exactly at the grass. The central pedestrian street is welcoming as always with its many cafés. Then on to the Old Town up hill to our hostel.
Plovdiv, in distinction with Veliko Tarnovo, seems to provide few options for budget accommodation, apart from two or three good hostels downtown. Hotels are nevertheless abundant. The Plovdiv Fair district although it might have some fine hotels, is comparatively far away from the main places of tourist interest.
Highlights of this trip were the Plovdiv Ethnographic Museum and the Ancient Theater, both in the Old Town. The Ethnographic Museum is worth it even for the building alone. A sumptuous wealthy (chorbadzhi) house from mid 19th c., built in a mix of Ottoman style, Bulgarian Revival flourishes and strong Western (French?) influence, on the back side menacingly perched on the medieval city walls, on the front side graced by a pleasant garden. Come in and you’ll be awed by the dancing hall, the traditional Bulgarian wooden ceilings and by the rooms galore. The over 130 windows of the house make for superb lighting. A feast. The 19th c. owner of the house was aptly called Argir Kuyumcuoglu.
What with the heat – we’re talking around 35 Centigrade with punishing humidity – we almost spaced out when we reached the Ancient Theatre at the other side of the Old Town. It was built during the reign of Trajan and is quite preserved. It turns out it was somehow accidentally discovered after a landslide in the 1960s. It gives you the opportunity of a loop back in time – and some spectacular views of other parts of Plovdiv. The way the Theater is huddled on the steep slope of Dzhambaz Tepe hill makes you muse about how architecture once flowed more seamlessly out of and into what surrounded humans. Anyway, the Ancient Theater is a must.
Dinner time. Why not try out the famed Armenian restaurant Erevan downtown in St. Paisiy Str. just parallel to the main pedestrian? (You should know Plovdiv is a center for the Armenian community in Bulgaria.) Bummer – the restaurant closes at 10 pm, at 9.30 it was already closing. Nevertheless it looked promisingly old-school and authentic, with Armenian guys lingering for small talk inside. Next time!
After some wandering, we ended up in Balgarska Kashta restaurant on the main Saborna Str. in the Old Town. In spite of the kind service, the köfte (kyofte), a test-case for Bulgarian restaurants, was kind of hard. Not nice! Not to mention the soft chalga played on TV and the crackling of dying insects in some ingenious pest control device.
On to Naylona bar for drinks. This is a great venue in the Kapanite neighborhood downhill from Dzhumaya Square on the main street, a melting spot for foreign tourists, artsy people, plain weirdos and regular folk, with a somewhat hard rock orientation musicwise. Now with the midnight heat you’re not up for many drinks, so off to bed.
The following day is still hotter, but at least the humidity has subsided. To confess, after I came back some friends were commenting at my trip: “But one does not go to Plovdiv and Tarnovo in the summer!” Well, we were not the only tourists there, and definitely there were folks from Central and Western Europe, Russia and its close neighborhood, Asia.
There were no tourists at the Alyosha monument though. Climbing up the Bunardzhika Hill is nice, in the intersecting shady alleys in what is a fine park that can be maintained a little better. On the top you’re greeted by a scorching sun and two nicely arranged monuments – one of the Russian Liberator Army that freed Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878, the other of another Russian army that helped rid the world of the Nazi outrage. The controversy about Soviet Army monuments in Bulgaria is ridiculous. You should look at the way Germans keep their Soviet Army monuments and learn. At any rate, even the earlier Russian Army monument is not in top shape. A shame!
On to Plovdiv’s North Bus Station in the Filipovo neighborhood, a traditional round-1980s socialist panel blocks quarter. The bus station in nicer than the central one downtown, all refurbished and air-conditioned. The Veliko Tarnovo bus turns out to be a van, decently comfortable. The 200 km trip is scheduled to last 4 h – ouch! Here reflection goes to the quality of Bulgarian roads and transport communications. 4 h between two of Bulgaria’s most important cities, which are even not that far away! The road is fine, passing through sun-scorched Stara Zagora and beautiful Hain Boaz pass in the Stara Planina mountains, but the van is lingering here and there to drop off and collect people. In the end, the ride turns out just little over 3 h, which is a pleasant surprise.
Tarnovo, beloved as always, is like Plovdiv located on and around a couple of hills, though more dramatic. The narrow winding cobbled streets of the Old Town are bustling with life, hidden spots and unexpected views. Here you better just stroll imbibing on the atmosphere. For dinner, we headed to happily notorious Shtastliveca Restaurant on Stambolov Str., called after the nickname of Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov (1863-1897). “Shtastlivetsa” means “the Happy One”: Aleko sported a deep-witted light-heartedness – and never had any money. His face now graces the BGN 100 bill. At Shtastlivetsa Restaurant you won’t need to draw that bill out as prices are reasonable. But the fare is sumptuous – a mix of Bulgarian and Italian cuisine with a modern twist. You should try their vlashka salad or any of their staroplaninska salad varieties. Pizzas and pastas are great, and so is the traditional Bulgarian grilled meet. Again, the restaurant is filled with the sounds of all kinds of foreign tongues, as are the Old Town streets. Evidently there are people who have braved Tarnovo summer. Nevertheless the heat accumulated over the day did not let us feast for long.
On to the Tsarevets Hill crowned by the Bulgarian Medieval royal fortress, for a night of the Stage of the Ages festival. Of course, the performance did not live up to the fest’s bombastic name, but it was a great experience to hear Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and walk by Tsarevets’ walls in the dark. The ballet on the next peace, Ravel’s “Bolero,” was decidedly better. Dance was by Bulgaria’s Ballet Arabesque, music was on playback. After that, the dramatic and stirring "Sound and Light" show on Tsarevets. Altogether, a nightly experience at the medieval fortress that you can’t always get.
Just for the record, night bars in Tarnovo’s Old Town are kind of hard to find. Maybe head to the center of the new town?
Next morning we stroll on the Samovodska Charshiya street in the heart of the Old Town, with its traditional workshops and quaint houses. A novelty – the old inn of Hadzhi Nikoli is now restored and opened for visits; it hosts a restaurant with low-key live music at night. Highlights from the Samovodska Charshiya shops – the toys workshop and the old Turkish/Bulgarian-style café, where you can get coffee boiled on hot sand and eat old-fashioned candy that also has some aesthetic value to the eye.
Before the bus to Sofia, a jaunt to Tarnovo’s great monument – the statue of the first four great tsars of the Second Bulgarian Kindgom: Asen I, Petar I, Kaloyan, Ivan Asen II. Located downhill near the Yantra river, the imposing metal statue, with its great sword in the midst of the four tsars, can be viewed from almost anywhere in the Old Town, and going to it you get an almost theatrical view of old Tarnovo. Again, maintenance of this monument of kings could be decidedly better. Sometimes you think Bulgarians don’t genuinely take care in their history – they just brandish names, bones and ancient origins.
Well, on to the air-conditioned bus to Sofia. To sum it up, a trip to Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo is always worth it. In the sultry summer months you might brace up for some real challenge, and if you are against air-conditioning, you might as well leave it for the fall.
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