ARTICLES 
In praise of Plovdiv
Article by John Dyer, Sofia Echo Weekly, 5-12 May 2005

It was about 10 oclock in the evening. The air was warm. Below me on the street, a group of people were standing outside a bar called Pleasure.
They were smoking cigarettes and laughing. I was on the balcony of my hotel, sitting at a table with my laptop and a glass of wine. Id been in Bulgaria for four months, yet, for the first time, I felt as if I had arrived.
Plovdiv was the perfect place to finally feel at home in Bulgaria. If Sofia is a European capital, and thus a city for an entire nation and its aspirations, Plovdiv is simply a big Bulgarian town, a place for regular life where people get up and go to work in the morning.
In Plovdiv, one loses the hastiness and grasping that often marks Sofia, where Bulgarians are reminded on a daily basis about the onslaught of changes facing them, and expats are constantly sniffing out opportunities.
As a result, people are less jaded and more open. In three days in Plovdiv, more bakers, taxi drivers, phone booth attendants and pizza guys asked me where I was from and why I was there, than in the entire time Ive lived in the centre of Sofia.
Perhaps Plovdivs residents are relaxed because their city has, in a sense, made it already. It is far more ancient and beautiful than Sofia. The old town in Plovdiv, the neighbourhood of choice for Bulgarias movers and shakers in the 19th Century, exudes a self-confidence thats more valid than that of Tzum or the Party House.
My voyage to Plovdiv began at the Sofia bus station. Im told the former so-called bus station was an empty lot where buses decamped before moving on. Now it is a gleaming facility with electronic billboards listing the schedules of numerous bus companies.
Buses for Plovdiv leave every hour on the hour. The trip costs nine leva one-way and takes about two hours. Dont be late. I arrived 15 minutes early for my 2pm bus and got a seat right before they all filled up.
The bus was quite clean, but be warned: It lacked a toilet.
I had reserved a single room for 35 leva a night at the SN Hotel at 28 Hristo Dyukmedzhiev Street (032 260 135), right across from the Old Town. I neednt have done so, as I was the only guest, but Im told reservations are a must when the city plays host to trade fairs, especially in early May and late September. Call first.
My taxi from the bus station to the hotel cost five leva. Almost certainly, I was ripped off. But from other travels, I know its better to take it on the chin than risk getting lost on foot, while carrying luggage, in an unfamiliar town.
The hotel was very small, very clean and the staff very professional.
With only three rooms, it seemed to be a converted apartment building, with the top floor offering that excellent balcony. I didnt accept breakfast, but they have a shiny espresso machine and a well-lit lobby that was a nice place to sit and consult a map. I stayed three days and two nights. On the last day, they allowed me to use my room until 7pm.
The phone was a mixed blessing. It didnt work. For me, the loss was welcome. I wanted to escape people. But you might want to ask about it before booking a room. I made some international calls in a phone booth around the corner, using a pre-paid EZ card and therefore dialling a local number first. The booth charged less than a lev for a 10-minute call.
While not on the balcony writing and feeling glad to be in a new place, I walked around. The cobblestone streets of the Old Town, with its wonderfully preserved National Revival houses and ancient Roman amphitheatre, were tremendous. I walked to the top of the Old Towns hill and enjoyed wonderful views of Plovdiv.
I went to the Ethnographic Museum, which charged four leva admission. To be honest, Ive seen too many exhibitions of 19th Century farm tools and traditional Balkan outfits. The only thing that interested me in the museum was a wall-sized painting of a bazaar in Bulgaria during Ottoman rule.
I visited the Plovdiv City Art Gallery, also in the Old Town. Here curators lined up different icons treating the same theme, such as the Hold Virgin Life-Giving Source, an image of Mary atop a fountain whose waters restore the sick and bring the dead back to life. Anyone interested in the Samokov school of icon painting should visit the gallery. The cost: two leva, but on Thursday admission is free.
My time ended with friends from Sofia the band Reserve Effect who were performing in Club Marmalade, a cool venue off Knyaz Aleksandar I Street, the pedestrian walkway that runs down the center of the town. Lined with cafes and ice cream stands, the walkway is one of Plovdivs best attractions. Club Marmalade is on the end away from the large Central Square and the Tsar Simeon Garden.
Many drinks later, my ears still ringing from loud music, I awoke in the backseat of my pals car. It was early Friday morning. The stars were out.
We were heading towards a haze of light in the distance that I assumed was Sofia.
I was disoriented, but totally at ease.

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