FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Three highlights from Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 25, 2017

Our final day in Plovdiv gave us the opportunity to explore the many small museums, art galleries and churches to be found on a wander of the cobbled streets of the old quarter and just a little further beyond. It’s a lovely area to walk around with historic features such as the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate through the old fortress walls, amidst the former houses of the rich merchants’ class. I thought I would take a moment to share our top three sights in case it helps anyone else…

Hisar Kapia

House of Stepan Hindliyan

The symmetrical house of Stepan Hindliyan, built in 1834-35, is absolutely gorgeous with beautifully preserved original wooden ceilings, stunning wall paintings set into the alcoves (alafrangas) and a charming steam room. The owner was one of the four most distinguished Armenian families in the city and a merchant renowned for his trading connections with India. This house was just about the only property we visited where you could imagine the family life that must once have sounded within its walls.

As well as seeing the ornate family rooms we were able to take a look inside the service wing (notable for a mural of the main house above its entrance) to see a display of modern art at the time of our visit (with oddities like fish swimming in pink blancmange in an upturned umbrella and a security camera being attacked by an octopus!).

Hindliyan House

Zlatu Boyadzhiev Gallery

Since 1984 the former home of Dr Stoyan Chomakov in the old town has been home to a gallery of 70+ paintings by Zlatu Boyadzhiev (1903-1976), a Bulgarian artist that I was not at all familiar with but whose work I absolutely loved. Initially his work was neo-classical but a stroke in 1951 that paralysed the right side of his body prompted a change in style, adopting more grotesque imagery. I found much to like from both periods.

It is perhaps no surprise that I loved his painting ‘The Pernik Miners’ (1945) which brings to life a mine in a snow covered landscape, complete with black slag heaps and a mine train disappearing into a tunnel and a steaming loco in the distance ready to take loaded coal wagons away from the scene. It’s absolutely chock full of life from the line of workers climbing a snowy hill with pickaxes over their shoulders to a watchful worker leaning against a wagon. The closest I can get to describing it is a cross between Breugel and Lowry.

Klianti House

The Klianti House is one of the most stunning sights in Plovdiv, but as it only opened to the public at the end of June 2017 it is not yet featured in guide books and is currently languishing in 54th place out of 92 in the rankings of TripAdvisor. I didn’t know anything about it when we arrived in the city but was intrigued by the signs across the old town stating that the Klianti House was not included in the combined ticket. I assumed that meant it was rather special and decided to take a look!

It turns out that this two-storey house has been recognised as a building of national significance since 1949. It is said to be the oldest example of Bulgarian revival architecture in Plovdiv, dating to the mid-eighteenth century, and includes features that are not seen elsewhere. It was in particularly bad shape when the restoration efforts began 10 years ago and the works since then have cost 1.6 million lev. The results are stunning and amply demonstrate why this house is regarded as an architectural gem.

On the first floor of the property there are some incredibly ornate and surprisingly curvaceous decorative wooden ceilings with glass and gold elements. In addition to that, there are some beautiful painted alcoves (alfrangas), decorated wooden recesses (musandras) and two wonderful murals depicting Vienna and Constantinople in 1817. The decoration must surely be unrivaled in the city and it is one sight you do not want to miss…

It is well worth taking a moment to see the audio-visual presentation that shows how much effort went in to the restoration and just what a poor state the building was in, though I would suggest waiting until after you have seen the spectacular first floor rooms to avoid the spoilers. I have to confess that my pet hate is audio-visual presentations at attractions that show you everything before you get the chance to be wowed by seeing it for the first time!

One of Plovdiv’s 10,000 cats!

One other feature of our wander through the old town was the extraordinary number of cats that we encountered. You could barely walk a few paces down any street without coming across a cat tucked up asleep or a trio of playful kittens. It was a delight for us but a problem for the authorities who have 10,000 cats on their hands. One step they have taken is to fine anyone feeding the cats – no laughing matter when you consider that the fine for a second offence can exceed the minimum monthly wage in the country.

It was a pleasure to explore the old town even if the uneven cobbles did get a little more tiresome by the end of a long day of wandering! It often felt as though we were exploring a giant open air museum, particularly as most museums didn’t take that long to walk around.

Exterior decoration at Sveta Marina

I should end by saying that besides the museums, all of the churches in the old town were a delight to step into with their rich decoration. My favourite would have to be the mid-nineteenth church of Sveta Marina with its colourful decoration set against a striking blue backdrop. If you stop by don’t forget to take a look at the wooden bell tower hidden round the back!

Our old town wanderings completed our trip and we ended our day with a taxi-ride to the airport outside town for the late evening flight home to London very satisfied by the eclectic mix of sights that filled our weekend and the marvelous tastes of Bulgarian cooking that we sampled (at the restaurant at the Hotel Odeon and Hemingway respectively). Thank you for your hospitality Plovdiv!

Practicalities

The admission fees for the many museums of the old town are relatively modest, mostly 5 lev each, but the costs can soon rack up if you visit enough of them!

One way to manage the costs is to buy a combined ticket from one of the museums for 15 lev – this allows you to visit your choice of 5 of the eight sights included in this arrangement (Ancient Theatre, House of Luka Balabanov, House of Stepan Hindliyan, House of Nikola Nedkovich, Zlatu Boyadzhiev Gallery, Pharmacy Museum Hippocrates, House of Veren Stambolyan and the Early Christian Basilica). The tickets list all the sights you can choose from and a hole is punched each time you visit one.

The Klianti House is not included in the combined ticket but is well worth the 10 lev admission fee. I would go as far as to say that it is the most stunning of the small houses that you can visit.

Opening days for the buildings were a little different to those shown in our guide book so it’s worth double checking with the free guidebooks and maps on offer from the Tourist Information office in Plovdiv before planning a visit.

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The hillock of fraternity

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 25, 2017

The hillock of fraternity is probably not on the itinerary of most visitors to Plovdiv, but I have always found the sculptural legacy of the communist era strangely fascinating. This one is certainly unusual.

On an aerial image of the site it looks just as though someone has embedded a fan into the landscape. You might think that it would have more visual impact when approached from the long ceremonial avenue, given the usual desire to make a big statement, but here the monument barely breaks the surface. It’s as if a small eruption has broken through the concrete pavement and been left un-repaired.

The Bratska Mogila is most commonly translated as ‘Brotherly Mound’ or ‘Hillock of Fraternity’

The architects of the monument were Lubomir Shinkov and Vladimir Rangelov who were commissioned by the City People’s Council in 1968 after a series of failed architectural competitions. Work started in 1971 and the site was ready for opening on 9th September 1974, the thirtieth anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria.

The monument is supposed to echo the Thracian burial mounds of ancient history, hence it’s low profile. Inside the pantheon the remains of 126 partisans from the Second World War are buried. Looking through the locked gates you can see the poor state of the 19 sculptural compositions by Lyubomir Dalchev. Five years after the memorial opened the sculptor emigrated to the US and the name plate marking his work was removed from the site.

The eternal flame at its heart of the monument has long been extinguished, the bronze elements of the site have been plundered and the exterior is covered in graffiti.

Practicalities

If I’m honest it isn’t the most rewarding walk you can take from the city centre, which for me involved skirting round the Bunardzik Hill and following the pathway through the park that runs alongside bul. Svoboda. The walk is bordered by high rise apartment blocks but seemed safe enough when I visited. The site itself was fairly quiet, bar for a few local youths with their skateboards.

The gates are usually locked so it’s unlikely that you will get a chance to take a close look. However, the memorial is in such poor condition that it’s just nice to see it all – given that some memorials in Bulgaria have already fallen victim to the ravages of time!

It’s worth seeing in the mid-morning sun when the sun is high enough to illuminate the interior. I made my visit later in the day which was fine, but probably not the best light to have picked!

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Six sights from Roman Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 24, 2017

The roman city of Philippopolis, now Plovdiv, was an important urban centre in the province of Thracia and prospered for three centuries until the barbarians arrived.

A surprisingly rich array of Roman sights remains to this day, despite the repeated sacking of the city. A half day wander through the city is easily sufficient to cover most of these, though there are a few sites a little farther out (such as the aqueduct) that would take a little more time. You can follow an easy trail marked from the ‘On the roman path‘ leaflet provided by the local Tourist board.

1. The Bishop’s Basilica

The most fascinating of the Roman sites is the least accessible at present. The remains of the fifth century Bishop’s basilica, adjacent to the present day Catholic Cathedral of St Ludwig, were first discovered in the mid-1980s during work to construct an underpass but further exploration of the site only concluded a month or two back. The scale of the buiding can’t be overemphasised – this is the largest early Christian Basilica in Bulgaria and one of the largest in the entire Balkan region.

The mosaic floor at the Bishop’s Basilica

The ten month long archaeological dig to explore the northern apse came to a close this summer but during our visit it was possible to look down upon the site from the boundary fencing whilst the final clean-up and recording was taking place. You don’t often get to see such wondrous sites at this stage of their development so I relished the opportunity to observe.

The quality of the 2,000 square metres of mosaics was evident from a distance, including a stunning peacock medallion, whilst other discoveries included a fifth century stone baptismal vessel.

It is intended that a museum will be constructed over the site with the mosaics displayed in situ under a protective glass floor, presumably in a similar set-up to the nearby small basilica. I have seen reference to opening dates of 2018 and 2019 suggested in different articles. Once it is open I have no doubt that this will be a major attraction in the city.

2. The Small Basilica

In 1988 the foundations and mosaic floor of an early Christian church from the fifth century were discovered during work to build an apartment block. The finds were stunning, including mosaics of a stag and doves (or pigeons if you believe one of the labels) in the baptistery. Around half of the mosaics were put into storage but later returned to the site in 2013 after the construction of an archaeological museum over the site. Some of the mosaics are now visible under a glass floor and the rest are on open display behind barriers.

The Small Basilica

It’s probably easiest to approach the small basilica from the direction of the Post Office in the town centre rather than taking the back street route we followed from the Eastern Gate as the museum is entirely fenced in from this side (it took us a while to find a cut through onto the main road). We were the only visitors on the Sunday morning that we stopped by. Admission was relatively inexpensive at 5 lev.

A small note of caution – you might want to avoid the video presentation offered on the religious sites of Plovdiv if you are planning to visit these later and don’t want too many spoilers!

3. The Eirene Residence

The Eirene Residence, a roman villa with some marvelous mosaics, was discovered in 1983 during work to construct an underpass. The small museum, referred to on maps and signposts as ‘Trakart Mosaics’, presents 160 square metres of ancient Roman mosaic preserved in situ.

The mosaic floor at the Eirene Residence

The site takes its name from the centerpiece of the mosaic floor – a portrait of Eirene, goddess and daughter of Zeus. We came across this mosaic marvel twice – first at the Eirene Residence and later at the archaeological museum in Plovdiv (presumably the latter is the original?).

The museum is accessed from a pedestrian underpass that is interesting in its own right as it uses the exposed roman road as its floor. Admission was 5 lev.

4. Ancient theatre

The ancient Roman theatre (dating to around 108-117 AD) looks so impressive today that it is hard to imagine that this site was entirely hidden until its accidental discovery during construction work in 1968. Archaeological exploration was followed by reconstruction of the stage building (scaenae frons) from the elements that survived on site and it was re-opened to the public in 1981.

The Roman Theatre in Plovdiv from the 1st century AD

Our visit co-incided with a series of evening concerts at the venue giving us a different perspective of the site, not least the trickiness of clambering down the heavily worn steps (it’s a lovely opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the ancient citizens of Philippopolis but a health and safety nightmare too!). It’s an impressive venue for live music and the acoustics are all the more remarkable when you realise that a major road runs underneath this hill, entering a tunnel just before the site.

5. Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate was discovered in the 1970s and the foundations now lay exposed in the open, making it easy to get a good view over the entire complex. It’s one of those sites that has changed significantly over time, evolving from a triumphal arch into something a little more ordinary and then ending up a source of building material for the local population.

The road running through the Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

The Eastern Gate is easily reached from the old town and its close proximity to the delightful church of St Nedelya means that it can easily be incorporated into a walking tour of the city.

6. The Forum and Odeon of Philippopolis

The Forum and Odeon are two sites in close proximity to the modern day Post Office that give a glimpse into the heart of city life, including public buildings such as the hall in which the city council met. The pedestrian walkway here presents an easy view of the two open air sites, though it has to be said that the forum looked a rather sad sight when we visited.

The Odeon of Philippopolis

Other sights in the city centre include a section of the roman stadium and a stretch of aqueduct sandwiched between two busy roads.

In addition to all of this, you can visit a much older site at the hilltop of Nebet Tepe which has been fortified and re-fortified many times over the centuries, including during the Roman era. It is surprisingly easy to reach, just a short walk up from the heart of the old town and well worth visiting for the panoramic view as much as for the ruins themselves. It’s not hard to see why it is such a popular spot at sunset.

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Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges

Posted in Asenovgrad, Bachkovo, Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

The Bulgarian long weekend started in earnest with a day trip to see some of the most spectacular sights located a short drive away from the city – Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges.

The 13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God at Asen’s Fortress

Our first stop brought us to the ruins of Asen’s Fortress, a hilltop stronghold strategically located on a rocky crag overlooking the Chepelarska gorge. The winding road that climbs to the summit looked like quite a trek on foot and plenty were attempting that. I’m sure that has its own rewards, with time to soak up the stunning view across to the church of Sveta Bogoroditsa Petrichka, but I was glad that we were driving up with our guide.

The spectacular setting is matched by the interior of the church which includes some fragments of frescoes from the 14th century. Beyond the church you can walk up to the top of the fortress for incredibly scenic views and an even better shot of the church with the valley as a backdrop.

The refectory at Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery, the second largest monastery in the country, was our second stop and proved to be the highlight of the day. The monastery was originally founded in 1083 and bridges three cultures – Byzantine, Georgian and Bulgarian – and this rich history is helpfully recorded on its the walls through some fascinating murals.

Entering the first courtyard we immediately saw a long line of locals queueing to enter the main church of the complex, the seventeenth century Sveta Bogoroditsa, so they could pray at a 11th-12th century icon of St Mary reputed to have healing powers. We were able to enter through a rear entrance so as not to disturb the serious business of the day and spent most of our time with our necks craned upwards to admire the stunning decoration throughout the church and at the base of the bell tower.

On the day we visited the gates to the second courtyard were open so we were able to take a look at the porch of another church in the complex, Sveti Nikolai, with its striking frescoes of the last judgment. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see inside as the church doors were locked – it looked as though they were getting ready for a baptism later in the day.

The star attraction of the complex is the vaulted 17th century refectory that is entirely decorated with colourful frescoes depicting ancient philosophers and kings of Israel encircled by the holy vine, the akatis hymn of the Holy Virgin and domesday. The frescoes were restored in 1965-1971 and the monastery are justifiably proud of their unique attraction. Admission fee to the refectory cost us 6 lev each plus 6 lev for a photo permit.

Overall, I found our visit to Bachkovo Monastery much more satisfying than the trip to Rila Monastery last year. I would have to admit that the lack of tourists was a big factor in this – we only encountered one other tourist on our wanders round the site.

The Wonderful Bridges in the Rhodope Mountains

The final stop on our itinerary brought us up a long, somewhat pot-holed road, to the wonderful bridges (Chudnite Mostove). The effort was worth it as these two natural rock arches in the forests of the Rhodope Mountains are just immense whether viewed from up top or down below. Sadly, none of the photographs I have taken do them any justice – it’s one of those sights that you just have to see in person to properly appreciate.

Practicalities

The guide books indicated that it is possible to make a visit to Asen’s Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery by bus but the little information we could find online suggested that it would be easier with a guide, sparing us the steep walk up the 2.5km road to Asen’s Fortress and the hassles of finding a bus to take us back. To be honest, I appreciated the simplicity of not working all this out for myself!

Travelling with a tour guide also allowed us to visit the third site, the Wonderful Bridges, which can only be reached by car. Our guide helped to order food for us during our trip and smoothed out minor issues that might have been tricky without a smidgeon of Bulgarian – such as asking the guardian of the refectory at Bachkovo to switch the lights on so that we could see the wonderful murals!

Our day trip was booked by email through Plovdiv Trips and the tour delivered matched up to all the promises made on their website. I would certainly recommend them.

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Alyosha at 60

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

One of the most distinctive sights in Plovdiv is the 36-foot tall concrete Soviet soldier Alyosha that towers over the city from a position atop Bunarzhik Hill, looking out to the east with a Shpagin machine pistol in his hand. At the first opportunity I got I took the 15 minute walk to the top of the hill to take a closer look…

The Alyosha statue at sunrise. The base of the monument is decorated with a five-pointed star and an inscription that reads ‘Glory to the invincible Soviet Liberator Army.’

The statue, officially unveiled on 7th November 1957, was modeled on Aleksey Ivanovich Skurlatov (1922-2013), a veteran of the Great Patriotic War who fought on the Bulgarian front in 1944.

Accounts vary, but one version says that it was during his work as a signalman here (re-connecting the lines between Plovdiv and Sofia) that a picture was taken which sculptor Vasil Radoslavov later used as the basis for his monument. Aleksey returned to his home in Siberia in 1946 and only became aware of his granite doppelgänger in the 1980s, returning to a heroes welcome in 1982. He helped celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2007.

A small museum remembering the life of Aleksey Ivanovich Skurlatov can be found in Altai. Astonishingly, his mother received notification of his death twice during his military career!

The view of Alyosha from Sahat Tepe

The monument was commissioned in 1948 and the photograph of Aleksey was passed to Vasil Radoslavov by former Bulgarian resistance fighter Metodi Vitanov of Plovdiv. Construction started in 1954.

There are some historians who doubt the story, suggesting that Alyosha was actually modeled on factory worker Georgi Milenkov, whilst the daughter of the sculptor was told that a Russian actor posed for her father. It almost doesn’t matter because the sculpture has taken on a legend of its own and has somehow achieved an affection from the local population unlike any other communist era monument in Bulgaria.

One of the panels at the base of the monument

All of the photographs in this post were taken on two walks up Bunarzhik Hill (one at sunrise and the other just before sunset) and a walk up Sahat Tepe (at sunrise) for the view from the opposite hill.

Practicalities

I started my walk from the intersection of Ruski Blvd and Ulitsa Volga, roughly fifteen minutes on foot from the centre of Plovdiv.

Alyosha in the run up to sunset

From this point it is easy to get to the top of the hill and you probably won’t be alone – it is a popular place to walk dogs or take in the sunset. The easiest route up is along the gently curving road, which you can shortcut at points by taking the steeper staircases, but there are also a multitude of small paths and steps you can take around the hill which are not marked on any map that I have seen. All offer terrific views of the city along the way.

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Flight to Plovdiv

Posted in Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 22, 2017

A long weekend in Plovdiv sounded like a lovely idea many months back but for the discovery that there is only one flight in and out, three days a week. Added to this, these flights are operated by Ryanair, an airline I generally avoid unless it is the only option. On this occasion I caved in and booked a (not at all cheap) ticket and began to plot a lovely break…

Plovdiv Together: European Capital of Culture 2019

The announcement that Ryanair was to cancel 40-50 flights per day for six weeks just a week before our trip came as a nasty surprise, particularly listening to reports of the short notice that many passengers were given. Thankfully, the airline eventually published lists of all the flights they intended to cancel but for a while my stress levels really ratcheted up.

Whilst I applaud the way that Ryanair has opened up new tourist markets and connected cities that would have been a pain to reach by other this experience has been a startling reminder of the uncertainty of booking with budget airlines. I like my holidays to be an antidote to stress, not increase it!

Our near-full flight was around half an hour late out of Stansted but everything worked out pretty smoothly once we reached Plovdiv. The airport is relatively compact with just three gates but had more services than we expected given the infrequency of flights (if anyone is wondering there are cafe counters landside and airside, plus a small duty free store in airside departures).

The pick-up we arranged was waiting for us as soon as we stepped landside and delivered us to a friendly welcome at the delightful Expo Hotel. A good night’s sleep in our rather splendid room was much needed to prepare us for the full day of sightseeing that lay ahead.