“That building was owned by my grandparents,” guide Ghergana Toleva said as we walked down the main pedestrian street in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city.
Authorities seized the property during the communist years and her family has been tied up in court trying to recover it, said Toleva, who had accompanied us on a tour from the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. That is one of the few remainders of the city’s bleak past. The communist era ended in 1989, Bulgaria joined the European Union this year and this pleasant city of 320,000 on the banks of the Maritsa River about 80 miles southeast of Sofia is looking toward the future.
McDonald’s and Versace, fur shops and Salamander shoes, as well as outdoor souvenir stands selling Byzantine paintings and icons, all beckon buyers in the lively commercial hub. The city’s real charm lies a few blocks away in the Old Town. Lovely old houses owned by Plov- div’s upper-crust merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries line cobblestone streets. Some house museums, galleries and restaurants. The richly decorated large frame homes are examples of Revival Period architecture, also known as Bulgarian baroque, with bay windows, balconies and verandas with wooden pillars. Inside, baroque paintings adorn the walls and traditional wood carvings embellish the ceilings and doors.
The pretty neighborhood, once home to a large population of Armenians, is especially popular in summer when tourists come to admire the houses and enjoy the outdoor cafes. Armenians still live in the city, along with Bulgarians, Jews, Turks and Greeks. “The people in Plovdiv are very tolerant, calm and friendly because of these different ethnic societies who live peacefully together,” said Toleva.
Near the Old Town are the remains of Plovdiv’s Roman theater, dating to the second century. The Rhodope Mountains form a backdrop for the ancient site on a hill with lovely views of the city below. The theater’s 7,000 seats are often filled in the summer when concerts are held there — including a Verdi festival in May and June. Long before the Romans, Plov- div was settled by Thracian tribes, then the Greeks. The Roman era ended in the sixth century when Slavs invaded, followed by the Bulgars, who formed a military elite lording over the Slav majority. A well-organized state evolved and eventually a Slavic, Christian nation was formed.
Plovdiv changed hands between Bulgarians and Byzantines many times until it was absorbed by the Ottoman empire in the late 14th century.
Many of the town’s numerous churches were burned during the 500 years of Ottoman occupation. One that remains is a jewel, the Saints Constantine and Helena Church, built in 1832 on the site of a fourth-century church. The lavish golden décor features icons, wooden columns, chandeliers and baroque carvings. A fresco on the church’s wooden porch depicts Constantine’s dream. The emperor, regally attired, lies asleep while Christ, holding a cross, emerges in radiant light above his head.
The Jumaya Mosque is the main remnant of the Ottoman era. Sultan Murat II had the town cathedral torn down and, starting in 1421, had the mosque built in its place. It is one of the oldest Muslim houses of worship in the Balkans and one of the largest in Bulgaria.
Toleva, who moved from Plovdiv to Sofia for a job, confesses that she prefers her hometown.
“Different cultures, monuments and buildings are interwoven in Plovdiv to create a unique atmosphere,” she says. “At least twice a month I visit the city and the moment I enter town I feel at home.”
by Leah Larkin