Now, we had arrived in Plovdiv in southern Bulgaria early in the morning by train from İstanbul. So far this trip was feeling familiar for us -- little sleep, lots of excitement and not really knowing what we were doing. Adding spice was the fact that my husband, Lütfü, doesn’t speak Bulgarian, and of course neither do the rest of us, so we were all in this together without Lute’s being able to come to our linguistic rescue as he has in the past.
Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, like several other countries do, including Russia. What is somewhat confusing (somewhat?!) is that in many ways it resembles the Latin alphabet, but most of the letters that are similar to the Latin alphabet don’t have the same sound. Lute and I had been in Bosnia and Herzegovina; Bosnian officially uses both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, but almost everything in public is written out in Latin script, and the sounds pretty much correspond, so we could muddle through reading maps, etc. In Bulgaria, though, almost all public signage is in Cyrillic, and we can’t sound it out like we can in, say, Turkey. One letter Chantel and I really liked is pronounced “shch,” as in “fresh cheese.” How economical is that? We kept listening for it when people talked (not that we could exactly eavesdrop!). It was all quite humbling to us middle-aged travelers in a very positive way: Being in a European country that uses its own language in a “different” alphabet was refreshing, and, as I said, humbling. Not to mention an intriguing beginning to our latest adventure!
Having gotten ahead of myself a bit, let me take you back to the train station in Plovdiv. As we gathered our backpacks and scanty luggage and disembarked, I mentally reviewed the small map of Plovdiv from the 2002 Lonely Planet; down the platform and that-a-way to approach town. Our progress as well as my psychic navigation was slightly stalled when we had our first “never-seen-this-before” experience, Bulgaria-style: We had to climb down off the train to the tracks and over the next sort-of-platform, then down and over another set of tracks to get to the REAL platform. That was pretty neat, although it would have been hard in a wheelchair or with really heavy luggage. Maybe it isn’t always like that, but everyone on our (by then) two-car train got off the same way. We went through the little station where Lütfü got information about the train to Sofia the next morning, and Chantel and I studied the lighted train notices and compared them with the alphabet list thoughtfully provided by Lonely Planet, counting how many destinations had our favorite letter in them. (This type of extreme entertainment exercise is not recommended for young children or adults with heart problems.) Bev and Craig made sure Bev’s shoes were tied.
After leaving the train station, we went down into a very familiar-looking tunnel shopping area. Sorry to say, Bev noticed immediately that it was much tidier than the one in Eminönü (I was hoping she wouldn’t have noticed). Aside from that and the lack of impenetrable crowds, the two shopping areas are remarkably alike. There were a few branch-offs, but people very courteously directed our sorry bunch to the correct passage to the city. As we went up the last set of stairs to get out of the tunnel, I for one expected some dreary cityscape typical of areas around most train stations, especially given the stereotypes I had been dragging around regarding former SSRs: utilitarian, rusty and drab. Once again, humility time -- what met our delighted early-morning gaze was a pretty sycamore-lined street with shops and homes built in the National Revival style. This is the old city center, planned and built over and over during and between the various occupations and wars that the entire Balkan Peninsula has tragically been heir to. Plovdiv was actually the capital of the Principality of Bulgaria formed in March, 1878, after the Russians “liberated” Bulgaria from the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish War, but only for four months; all was changed by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin (and if I go down THAT road, I won’t finish before next week). Much of the old town was built during the 19th century, so it is not all that old, except for the ancient historical places. The residents seem house-proud, and even without many tourists, it seems like the place has on its best face all the time.
Getting acquainted with the city
We found our guest lodgings easily (thanks, Lonely Planet!), were delighted with our landlord and our rooms and hit the city at about 9 a.m. I don’t want to sound gushy, but the city was such a beautiful place! With about 350,000 people -- about the same as Gebze without its villages -- it is big enough to be a real city but small enough to be very accessible. During our short stay we stuck to the city center, so I don’t know about the whole city (it looked like the industrial and “modern” Soviet apartment buildings were mostly built across the Maritsa River to the north of the city), but everywhere we went the city looked like a movie set, with wide squares open to the skies, huge green parks in the downtown, cafes and restaurants everywhere and busy but not frenetic people going about their business. In the more ancient part of town, the lanes got a little more narrow but all beautifully paved with cobblestones that all matched, and somehow sunlight penetrated generously even the most narrow alley. My companions refused to cater to my controlling self (I had planned this part of the trip), and we got very lost, but there was no problem with that; everywhere we went there was something else cool to see. We saw a nicely restored, rather spectacular Roman amphitheater right in a pedestrian shopping and dining area, which is used now for civic cultural functions. Several rows of semicircular seating look down on a stage, with remnants of columns behind. Another even more ornate Roman ruin is tucked under an overpass but completely and freely accessible from the pedestrian area. There is a big Ottoman mosque in very good shape and of course magnificent Orthodox churches. That all this lovely baroque architecture, Roman marble and even a little Ottomania survived all the wars and invasions and occupations hurled at this lovely little corner of the world is a testament to the hardiness of the people and their love of this place.
A trek up Nebet Tepe
After wending our way in a generally up direction, me lagging and whining with my Lonely Planet suggestions and maps, the rest zooming around corners and in and out of dead-end alleys (Lute and Chantel) or looking at antique stores and checking for untied shoelaces (Bev and Craig), we saw real artists sell real art in the strangest little twists and turns and ran into a gang of Turkish-speaking teenagers that could have been from Erzurum. We finally ended up, amazingly, where we should have -- at Nebet Tepe, which, I am told, means “Fortified Hill” or “Hill of Prayer” in Turkish (You’d think it would be one or the other!).
Nebet Tepe is a testament to Plovdiv’s crazy past, providing evidence of a 3,000-year-old Thracian settlement/fortress as well as (mostly) Roman and medieval layers. The actual ruins are raw, and only restored to make sure they don’t roll over on enthusiastic tourists. They are powerful, though, and provide a truly stunning view of Plovdiv and its lovely setting astride the Maritsa River, surrounded by sown fields, low hills and distant mountains.
In spite of being one of the newest members of the EU, no stainless steel twisty needle buildings or Galleria malls are there, at least not yet, or at least not that we saw. The red-tiled rooftops roll and dip over Plovdiv’s famous hills like they should -- civilized and unmarred by the excesses of globalization. Things look like they might not be as pretty north of the Maritsa, but most of the visible city is out of a dream.
And back to the ruins -- the Thracians were here for a few thousand years before Phillip of Macedonia conquered the area in the fourth century B.C. Greeks, Thracians and Romans all occupied the strategic and rich valley, then the Byzantines and the Ottomans. The Slavs came at some point and left a big thumbprint. Knowing some of this while looking over the city as the sun sets is as enriching to the imagination as, say, sitting in Gülhane Park and dreaming of old Byzantium, and knowing what came next.
What came next for our little posse was the accidental discovery of a wonderful outdoor restaurant that had all the markings of a beer garden, right next to Nebet Tepe. We dug into some of the best fried chicken legs these Californians had ever eaten, washed down with a little of Bulgaria’s wonderful beer (just for the cultural experience, of course) while congratulating ourselves on having had a terrific day, as the sun set over pretty little Plovdiv.
Next stop: Sofia
* Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.