Ancient Plovdiv is picture perfect for a city breakJack Gleeson 16 May 2022
Ryanair’s summer schedule from Dublin Airport includes some new routes to destinations not that familiar to Irish holidaymakers.
Amongst them is Plovdiv in Bulgaria, an ancient city built around seven hills that is alive with fascinating history and culture.
The city’s small airport is at its busiest from late December to early April when winter holidaymakers pass through on their way to Bulgaria’s famous ski slopes.
Few take time to explore Plovdiv itself, and they’re missing out on what Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city has to offer.
Older than Rome, Athens and Constantinople, Plovdiv has been conquered by, amongst others, Thracians, Romans, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks, all who have left their mark.
In fact, it’s something of a problem for city planners, with the valuable remains of ancient civilizations often found during infrastructure works.
Many of these ruins are well preserved and incorporated into the cityscape and arguably the most important of these is a Roman Amphitheatre that overlooks the city and hosts live performances during the summer months.
For as little as €10 it’s possible to see live opera, dance, classical or contemporary music performances in this spectacular, historic venue that was once the setting for gladiatorial and hunting games.
Getting to the ancient theatre is a bit of a climb up steep cobblestoned streets, but the beautiful Bulgarian Revival-style wooden-frame houses dating back to 18th and 19th centuries make the walk well worthwhile.
It’s also not far from the Kapana district, a colourful area of the city dedicated to the creative industries that’s filled with wonderful cafes and trendy bars, although the local beer is mostly fairly bland larger.
However, there are now a growing number of pubs specialising in craft beers, but perhaps the best place for a non-alcoholic beverage is in the café next to the Djumaia Mosque, which dates back to 1363, where an exotic range of Turkish teas, coffee and sweet treats are served.
Both food and drink are cheap in Bulgaria. A standard coffee costs less than €1 while a regular beer in Plovdiv shouldn’t be more than €1.50.
A good dinner for two can be had for €20, drinks included, and Bulgarian cuisine has many dishes to interest foodies and adventurous diners.
Shopska salad is a national staple, and is often accompanied by a glass of rakia, a type of brandy usually made grapes and plums that many Bulgarians like to distil at home.
Meat eaters can try the wide variety of kebapche (sausage-shaped mince) and kyufte (meatball) from the grill and the Bulgarian Moussaka is deliciously different from the Greek version. Kavarma, a delicious slow cooked stew, is another wonderful dish worth checking out.
Banitsa, a greasy pastry filled with feta cheese is the local go-to snack for breakfast, and for the full Bulgarian experience, it should be combined with boza, a thick fermented wheat drink not for the faint-hearted, or light stomached.
Bulgarian cities have lots of parks and green spaces in which to relax or stroll around in and Plovdiv is no different with Tsar Simeon’s Garden, next to the Old Town, attracting students from the city’s university as well as locals and visitors.
During the summer evenings, the park has a free ‘singing fountains’ display that can be watched, accompanied by a light show, from the comfort of a nearby bar.
Plovdiv was a European City of Culture in 2019, and the city has a busy calendar of events that ensures there’s always something to interest most cultural tastes during a visit.
Sports fans are also well catered for in Plovdiv, with the city home to two A Group pro soccer clubs, Botev and Lokomotiv, with tickets for home games costing less than €10.
Volleyball and basketball are also popular in Bulgaria, with the atmosphere at big matches similar to that found in NBA games, and runners can enjoy an organised weekly timed 5km run around Plovdiv’s rowing canal that takes place on Saturday mornings.
For those staying more than a few days in Plovdiv, there are plenty of places of interest outside of the city within driving distance.
Bachkovo Monastery is 20km away and the path up is filled with stalls selling handcrafted souvenirs, local herbs picked from the mountains and delicious homemade honey or jams.
The village of Starosel is 50km away and is home to a famous winery and a fantastic spa resort, complete with mineral baths, where you can enjoy a wine tasting tour experience for around €10.
Further afield, Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, is just over an hour and half away by car and there’s also a rail link, although trains are slow and the journey takes over two and half hours.
The weather in Bulgaria is very much seasonal, with cold winters and hot summers. Plovdiv is over 250km from Bulgaria’s famous Black Sea coast so trip to the sea isn’t really feasible on a short trip.
The best times to visit for a city break are spring and autumn, when the weather is usually warm but not too hot.
Plovdiv has been shortlisted for a 2022 European Best Destination Award.
Destinations are nominated on the basis of their cultural and touristic attractions, as well as quality of life and sustainable development.
• Ryanair flights to Plovdiv from Dublin are on Mondays and Fridays. Further information on Plovdiv can be found at www.visitplovdiv.com.