Posted by: Caroline | April 15, 2010

Night Train to Plovdiv

I once had a Bulgarian teaching assistant in an introduction to drama course, and as she was introducing herself to the class, I thought, “Wow. Bulgaria. A place I am not interested in visiting.” I imagined it as a drab, cheerless country, for no reason much more than how the name Bulgaria sounds.

But how it looks is a much different story. When we stepped off the night train from Istanbul into a vivid, sunny Plovdiv, we were stunned. Classical buildings are washed in pink and orange; historic, gingerbread-like houses watch over cobbled streets; and puppeteers manipulate marionettes to the sounds of jewelry-box music on the pedestrian promenade.

But the city is home to some structures much more ancient than these old houses–like this Roman amphitheatre, once a stage to everything from political meetings to gladiator battles.

Half the fun of traveling in Bulgaria is working with the Cyrillic alphabet. Often when traveling in a country with another language, we can at least depend on recognizing the names of cities. But in Cyrillic, Plovdiv becomes a hardly recognizable Пловдив. Can you make any sense out of this train timetable?

We lucked out on a cheap, central hostel with incredible views (is that combination even possible in Western Europe?):

There’s even a honey market.

But Plovdiv isn’t sickeningly sweet. Its gingerbread character is balanced by seedier elements. In Plovdiv, alternative culture seems to be the mainstream culture. Every woman, young or old, owns a black leather jacket; she also probably sports crimson or bleached blond hair while smoking cigarettes against the wall of a tattoo parlor. Casinos and “lingerie” shops are found wedged between bakeries and luxury clothing stores on main streets rather than dark alleys. It’s not that the people of Plovdiv seem to indulge in more vice than the rest of the world; they just don’t seem to be ashamed of it!

One thing we loved about Plovdiv’s historic houses is that many have been lovingly and tastefully transformed into usable spaces, like restaurants or museums.

For example, the Ethnographic Museum. It displays the trappings of traditional Bulgarian life, like these enormous belt buckles…

… or these outfits …

… but the real reason to go to the museum (according to me) is the beautiful building that houses it.

Oh, and of course the photo ops in the museum courtyard are unparalleled.

We visited another old house that now serves as a restaurant.

Here we met an American who now works in the burgeoning Bulgarian wine tourism industry. After helping us order (we’re not quite fluent in Bulgarian yet), he invited us to a tasting to be held in yet another gorgeous old house. I was initially nervous about attending because I don’t know anything about wine except whether I want red or white. But it was a beginner-friendly event where the focus was on enjoying one good wine, rather than tasting several. In the next few years, Bulgaria will have some really wonderful established wine trails for tourists (like South Africa does in the Cape Town area).

We couldn’t leave the country without sampling some traditional Bulgarian cuisine. Alex claims this was one of the best meals of the trip:


  1. Now you are sure those are belt buckles? I can just see a zaftig Norwegian opera singer wearing some of that elsewhere….

    You both look very nice in your courtyard wear!

    Watch out for volcanic ash. But you seem to be in a good spot to miss it.

  2. “Classical buildings are washed in pink and orange; historic, gingerbread-like houses watch over cobbled streets; and puppeteers manipulate marionettes to the sounds of jewelry-box music on the pedestrian promenade.”

    Bulgaria: Best Country Ever.

  3. […] in Jacmel is the coolest place we’ve ever stayed. We’ve stayed in some pretty cool places before (and the Hotel Oloffson in PaP is up there, too), but this one takes the […]

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