So here we are in a vast valley bordered by the Balkan Mountains to the North, which we had painstakingly crossed during a snowstorm to finally land in the Valley of the Thracian Kings; and bordered by the Rhodopes to the South – that is Greece, yes 🙂 And the main city in all this cultural mayhem is Plovdiv, European Cultural Capital 2019! This is the urban chapter of our visit to Bulgaria.
Plovdiv is supposedly the oldest city in Europe, inhabited for more than 6000 years according to archaeologists. As an ancient Roman city (aka. Philippopolis), the remains are integrated everywhere in the city’s urban planning, and it is quite original to find yourself in front of a Roman theatre at the bend of a street, or to take an underground passage through the old hippodrome to cross a crossroads. That being said, from now on, and for the rest of our trip throughout the Balkans, the Roman remains will be unavoidable and will be part of the urban landscape of any city.
However, Plovdiv isn’t just an ancien Roman city, it was the hotspot of the Bulgarian national renaissance in the 19th century and where all the richest merchants of the time and the fashionable artists lived. The French poet Lamartine even had his house there 🙂 So it’s great to walk around the old town of Plovdiv with its beautifully decorated villas inside and out, and its cobbled streets. We visited Stepan Hindliyan’s house-museum out of curiosity, and not only discovered that it was super classy to have a green marble telephone and a rose water fountain in your living room, but that the Bulgarians of the time loved the alafranga decoration (meaning “à la française”) which meant to arrange pretty alcoves decorated with colourful frescoes from Venice, Rome, etc in your living rooms.
Finally, Plovdiv is obviously a Bulgarian city and thus, it has its own oversized Soviet-style statue overlooking the city from the top of Bunarzhik hill. And this is only one of the 6 or 7 hills that make up Plovdiv, so it’s not easy to walk around here! Fortunately, you can count on oriental pastry shops on every corner for energy supply 🙂
The ski break
Anyways, we loved Plovdiv but when we heard a rumour that ski resorts might be open here, we decided to go and check it out with our own eyes (and maybe skis?)! Luckily, Plovdiv is located next to the two most famous Bulgarian national parks, Pirin and Rila, where the ski stations are 🙂
So, to be fair, we skied one day in each park and have compiled this little video for you that will be worth more than a thousand words! ACTION!
Our tour of Bulgaria ends with the capital, Sofia, and its iconic St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral! This small capital can be visited very easily on foot and we liked its multicultural side: Russian Orthodox churches next to Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches, mosques and synagogues. The disproportionate Soviet architecture is evident in places, notably in the “Triangle of Power”, the central square surrounded by the government, the presidential palace and the parliament. And besides all that, Sofia was settled in this position precisely because the Roman emperors liked its thermal springs very much, so there are Turkish baths and public thermal water fountains everywhere 🙂
Now it’s time to introduce Konstantin and tell you about our little Bulgarian night adventure. Konstantin was our Bulgarian guardian angel, a friend of my parents who supervised every step of our journey from a distance and whom we finally got to meet upon arrival in Sofia. We were even lucky enough to have his son Martin as our private guide to the capital 🙂 After this beautiful day spent together, we had dinner at their place and tasted the local specialities: our first dinner-party for months! We came back to our Airbnb late at night and discovered that the car had disappeared… disappeared! Of course, all the info about street parking and the impounding of offenders was in Cyrillic and you had to call a Bulgarian number to get the car back – but fortunately Martin took care of everything. Apparently the car park was a bit more expensive than expected during the weekend and the pound decided to act very, very quickly … But luckily we were soon reunited with our beloved little Berlingo! What a scare 🙂
The political editorial
The Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boiko Borissov, is known as the “European Trump”. In the days of communist Bulgaria, he was the coach of the national karate team, and later the bodyguard of Todor Zhivkov, who governed Bulgaria during the communist period. In 1990, he founded a private security company, and became, eleven years later, Secretary General of the National Police. Since then, he has served three terms as Prime Minister, while also holding the post of mayor of Sofia – and according to his opponents, head of the Bulgarian mafia.
On the Trump side, his hobbies include stuffed wolves, football, money, black armoured SUVs, and dogs – i.e. he doesn’t talk about anything else and is incapable of making any coherent political statement! For example, photos have leaked of his personal bedroom where he is seen sleeping in bed next to his bedside table with bundles of euros and a gun on it. His live response at the press conference was “At least they didn’t find a little boy in my bed“…
The problem is that Bulgarians elect their President but the Prime Minister is appointed by Parliament and the level of corruption is far too high for Borissov to be relegated to the background any time soon even with democratically organised elections unfortunately. Perhaps the EU will one day look into this case?
See you soon! And stay tuned, we are preparing a little contest for you 🙂