Balkan Elegance

Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Travel Writer

Some of the world’s oldest known civilizations have inhabited the Eastern Balkans, where worn-down mountain ranges punctuate the vast Thracian plain.

Yet many of the region’s cities have little to show for those ancient roots. Centuries of war, imperialism, poverty and even natural disasters have left much of the area lacking in opulent architecture and quaint historic cores like those found throughout Western Europe. And visitors accustomed to those more accessible destinations can find themselves frustrated by a lack of tangible urban history.

Which is why Plovdiv, a midsize Bulgarian city most Americans have never heard of, is such a delightful surprise. Its gorgeously restored Old Town, picturesque cobblestone lanes lined with 18th-century mansions, and ancient Roman amphitheater offer a complex visual tapestry that is absent in the larger Balkan cities. Sofia’s oldest neighborhoods, for instance, date only to the city’s ascendance to capital in the 1880s, while Skopje in nearby Macedonia was largely rebuilt after a 20th-century earthquake.

Plovdiv (the first syllable rhymes with clove) was a major city long before either of those towns were on the map, with a history that dates to Paleolithic times. It is both Bulgaria’s most beautiful city and its cultural capital, with plenty of art, music and folklore to keep visitors entertained.

Spring and summer are the liveliest seasons; the Old Town’s many small art galleries open daily from April through September, and a strong classical-music tradition flourishes in concerts and festivals around town.

Plovdiv is also easier than ever to reach. For years, lack of decent roads or public transport diminished the city’s historic status as a major stop on the Europe-Asia trade route. But recent European Union investment has transformed the stretch of road between Sofia and Plovdiv into one of the best highways in the Balkans; it’s a scant 90-minute drive. Even better, the discount airline Ryanair recently launched service to Plovdiv from London, making Thrace (the southeast Balkans) a newly accessible weekend- or side-trip option from the U.K.

Here on Europe’s far eastern fringe, Plovdiv sprawls across a series of hills, with commanding views from the rocky promontories of the old center. Grimy, hulking housing blocks from the Cold War era mar the scenery around the city’s edges.

But the city center retains its prewar elegance; it is a lavish aesthetic hodgepodge of pastel 19th-century facades, Roman ruins and lively cafés, where young Bulgarians sip thimbles of strong Turkish espresso and chain-smoke the hours away. You’ll need good walking shoes to navigate the large, awkwardly round cobblestones of Plovdiv’s main boulevards like Knyaz Alexander I Street — though as you stumble along, the city’s legendarily beautiful women strut unfazed in four-inch heels.

The modern center has grand squares, stately boulevards like Sixth of September and tree-lined side streets that are pleasant enough. But the urban scenery is generic until you head uphill toward the Old Town, and what locals call the Ancient Theater comes into view.

The crown jewel of Bulgaria’s classical legacy, this 1,000-year-old amphitheater has remarkably preserved steps and graceful white columns, where Bulgarians still gather to hear concerts. The Opera and Philharmonic Society of Plovdiv, now known as the State Opera, holds the Plovdiv International Music Festival and Opera Festival here each year from late May through early July; this year’s highlights include Nabucco and Die Fledermaus, along with several concerts by the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra.

Plovdiv’s best sight is its gorgeously preserved Old Town, a sort of open-air museum, and as memorable as any place in Europe. Narrow, hilly cobblestone lanes suggest a rusticity that is in sharp contrast to the outsize grandeur of the buildings, which represent the best examples of Bulgaria’s National Revival architecture. Their style is characterized by voluptuous curves and arches, sloping dark-wood buttresses and intricate ornamentation on facades of brilliant blue, yellow and pink.

The area merits at least a half-day of exploring without an agenda: it’s small enough that you can’t really get lost, yet large enough to feel wholly distant from modern-day Europe. The vine-covered patios were made for al fresco lunches — local salads are spectacular — or a cold glass of local wine, with a breeze rustling the shady trees.

Numerous art galleries and small house museums are nestled within the streets of the Old Town, and many are worthwhile. In particular, the Plovdiv City Art Gallery has several locations to house its distinct collections, of which the icon gallery is a standout. For centuries, Plovdiv attracted Bulgaria’s finest painters, sculptors, poets and artisans, many of whom were Jewish. The Balkan art of Orthodox icon painting reached its gilded apex in this city, where you can still see some of the genre’s finest examples.

Eastern Orthodoxy remains the dominant faith, but easygoing diversity has long been a fact of life at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Graceful pink mosques and scarf-clad ethnic Turks are a reminder of the long Ottoman occupation; Armenians, Roma (known as tzigani, or gypsies), ethnic Macedonians and Jews all have long histories here as well.

The cultural mosaic reflects Plovdiv’s age-old roots, from its Bronze Age settlers and Thracian traders to its years as Phillippopolis, first a Greek and then a Roman imperial outpost, and later its endurance of Byzantine invasions and Ottoman repression. For a fuller understanding of this history, head to the Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum complex in the Old Town. Alternatively, there is a Regional Archaeological Museum just off Sixth of September, where coins, bronze artifacts, pottery and religious icons tell Plovdiv’s story in visual terms that any Westerner can understand.

Jews have been a presence at least as far back as the Roman era. The community’s numbers swelled during the mid-millennial expulsion of Jews from Spain, when arriving refugees gave Bulgaria the Sephardic character it retains to this day (some older Jews still speak Ladino).

Plovdiv’s 19th-century synagogue, while not quite as grand as Sofia’s, has a similar Oriental style and brilliantly colored interior. With an ornate sanctuary lit by huge, glittering chandeliers, the temple on Tsar Kaloyan Street reflects the ambitions of Plovdiv’s well-to-do merchant class, whose numbers swelled into the thousands.

Unlike most of its European neighbors, Bulgaria did not lose its Jews to the Holocaust — a fact that Bulgarians proudly and eagerly explain to visitors — but rather to postwar emigration to Israel, when most Plovdiv Jews made aliyah.

A poignant monument in a little park off Sixth of September commemorates both the spot where the Ottoman Jewish quarter once began and the lingering gratitude toward Plovdiv Jewry’s Christian defenders. Aided by defiant local Christians, the city’s clergymen doggedly organized a successful effort to save Jews from ordered deportations to death camps in 1943.

Since that time, Jews gather at the nearby Batchkovo Monastery to say a grateful Kaddish for those brave church leaders. Bulgaria’s Orthodox monasteries are its chief cultural treasures; amid the centuries-old icons and heavy, incensed silence of prayer, Bulgarian identity was preserved intact through waves of foreign occupation, from the Turks to the Nazis.

That one of the most storied shrines of Balkan Christendom has a strong tie to Judaism seems singularly fitting in Plovdiv. Here amid the ageless slopes of the Rhodope Mountains, history is as palpable as it is collective.

The Ancient Theater in Plovdiv, a 1,000-year-old amphitheater with preserved steps and graceful white columns. Hilary Larson

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