As I said, Jeff and I knew basically nothing about Bulgaria when we decided to visit on our Balkan detour. I had a vague notion that Bulgaria is slightly Greek and slightly Turkish, and one of Jeff’s favorite soccer players, Dimitar Berbatov, is from Bulgaria. So there’s that. From Brașov, we took the very, very slow train ride south to Sofia via Bucharest. Come on, it’s not that far! I really don’t know why it took 13 hours.
We split our time in Bulgaria between Sofia and Plovdiv and I am pleased to report that both cities were surprise delights. That’s the fun part of visiting places blindly: if it sucks (ehhh, Brasov?) then you’re not really disappointed, and if it doesn’t suck you’re very pleased. The food in Bulgaria is like, 60% as good as Greece (which is a huge compliment) and the cities are pleasant, interesting, and manageable. Oh, and it’s super cheap. Bulgaria has absolutely been one of the best surprises on the trip.
Bulgaria’s capitol city Sofia was originally settled by Thracians (a Greek-ish tribe) sometime before the 6th century BC, and later flourished as a Roman city called Serdica. Serdica was a major city in the Roman Empire and Bulgarians oft quote Constantine the Great as having said “Serdica is my Rome”. You’ll find tourist tat all over the city emblazoned with this questionably accurate quote. After the Roman era, Sofia was the seat of several Bulgarian empires before coming under Ottoman rule in the 1382 AD. The country was ‘liberated’ by the Russians in 1878, and after various shifting alliances joined the Eastern Bloc of communism in 1946. Bulgaria has been slowly modernizing since the fall of communism in 1989, and joined the EU in 2007. Sadly communist architecture did leave its mark on Sofia, but it’s still a very pleasant and (somewhat) attractive city full of interesting history.
To get our bearings in Sofia we did the ‘Free Sofia Tour’, and it was our best free walking tour to date. Our tour leader Slavyan marched us around Sofia’s historic churches, the former royal palace, and the now defunct public bathhouse (damn it). He also gave us a surprisingly thorough history lesson (see above). Sofia reminded both of us slightly of Beirut in that there are excavated ruins dotting the modern city. Near our hotel was an excavation of a Roman era bath right next to a garish meat-head gym. So many antiquities were uncovered when they built the subway lines that many of the stations have in-situ displays of parts of Roman ruins and monuments – it’s like an organic museum underground. This city definitely doesn’t get credit for how interesting of a city it is, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
A highlight was the day trip we did by bus to Bachkovo Monastery, which was founded in 1083 and is one of the oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe. The monastery was founded by a Byzantine prince but was largely influenced by Georgian monks, and it’s a fascinating blend of Bulgarian, Byzantine, and Georgian decorative motifs. Like other monasteries in Bulgaria, parts of the building are decorated with unique exterior frescos, and the interior halls are some of the prettiest I’ve seen. The day we visited was rainy and misty which definitely gave the whole monastery an atmospheric and mysterious vibe.
After 5 days in Sofia we took the train to Plovdiv – a city that should consider a name change. Plov – div. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. Like Sofia, Plovdiv is an ancient city with Roman roots. It’s one of the oldest cities in all of Europe, dating back to the 6000 BC. It has a well-preserved historic center and retains a lot of Ottoman era flair. One of the most interesting sites in Plovdiv isn’t really a site yet – it’s the unexcavated ruins of the Roman era hippodrome, or chariot-racing stadium. Like the hippodrome we saw in Tyre this thing is huge, but right now only a small portion is visible in the central square of Plovdiv’s Kapana neighborhood. The length of the hippodrome runs along Plovdiv’s main shopping street, and there is understandable hesitation to destroy the center of the city. You can actually see parts of the stadium in the basements of some shops, and the H&M has a particularly good section visible.
Plovdiv was recently designated the European Capital of Culture 2019, and while everyone is really excited about this distinction no one had a satisfactory explanation for what exactly this meant. Plovdiv has a sense of excitement and optimism that is rare indeed in former communist cities, and I hope that this EU initiative does indeed bring more tourists and money to the city. Plovdiv deserves it.
But lest I paint an overly rosy picture of Plovdiv and Bulgaria, I have another gypsy story for you. Oh yes, Romania’s gypsies are more well-known but Bulgaria has quite a sizable gypsy/ Roma population as well. (side-bar: Gorat dedicated several minutes to the theme of ‘Romania’s gypsies look better than Bulgarian gypsies’. Sadly I agree with him after seeing what I’ve seen.)
Unbeknownst to me (until the incident), Plovdiv is home to Europe’s largest ‘gypsy ghetto’. On the outskirts of town, the area is called Stolipinovo and is home to around 50,000 gypsies (here’s a fun documentary about it). Stolipinovo is a collection of crumbing socialist era apartment blocks with almost no infrastructure – no water, no power, and often no sewer system. It’s a horrible place, and a few high profile public health crises have brought it international attention to the slum.
Okay, now the incident. Because we loved the Sofia Free Tour so much we did the same company’s Plovdiv Free Tour. The tour started out pleasant and uneventful, and our enthusiastic young guide walked us through the old Plovdiv’s main sights. He took our group up the narrow cobbled street leading to Nebet Tepe, the highest point of the old city and an active archeological site, where we took a break under a tree for shade. Suddenly, we heard galloping and a crazed looking horse came running wildly up the street and into the center of the hill, where he rampaged in circles and kicked his hind legs frantically. This hill is not huge, and it was difficult to avoid the deranged horse. Chaos broke out. There were about 20 adults and 4 children from all over the world on the top of a hill screaming and bolting in all directions. At one point the horse had his sights on Jeff and he thought, ‘This is how it ends’.
Eventually some very concerned construction workers ran up to the hill and told our guide that this horse had escaped from the gypsies. My ears perked up – gypsies?!? Eventually the construction workers managed to chase the horse in the opposite direction of our escape route, and our poor tour guide screamed at us to run down the hill. It was by far the most exciting free walking tour I’ve ever had, and I had a new agenda for the rest of our time in Plovdiv. Find the gypsies.
I interrogated our still rattled tour guide about these gypsies. Where do they live? Can you visit them? How do I get there? He gave me some rough directions, and said he ‘thought I could walk there’, though he never had. I researched this neighborhood later that day and found about the dystopian tragedy that is Stolipinovo. Naturally, I began convincing Jeff to visit this place.
The next morning Jeff and I set out to find the gypsies on foot. We made it like half way, but got spooked by a gypsy driven horse-cart that was tailed by a pack of angry stray dogs. I really don’t like stray dogs, and the on-foot mission was aborted. Next we went to the visitor’s center in downtown Plovdiv and asked the incredibly pleasant and eager young staff it if it was possible to visit the gypsies. Three-quarters of the staff said a definitive ‘No’, but one girl told me, ‘Oh yeah, you can easily take the number 116 bus. Get off on the last stop.’ So we’re back in business.
The ride from Plovdiv’s center was short but the starkness of the contrast can’t be overstated. We pulled off the main road onto a series of increasingly creepy lanes, and finally came to a collection of like 30 utterly post-apocalyptic ex-communist apartment blocks. These buildings were crumbing and decrepit, and each yard has about 20 guys in lawn chairs just… hanging out. The unemployment rate is estimated to be over 90% in Stolipinovo, and no one seems to have anything to do. We saw a couple of micro-markets selling soda and beer, but not much else. The streets were peppered with wild dogs, children in wagons, a bizarre number of discarded limousines, and yes, horses. Remember, this is in the middle of the second largest city in Bulgaria, not some rural village.
We only took a few photos from the bus, but here is a really great photo essay about Stolipinovo that gives you the sense of what it’s like. So there is the good with the bad. Bulgaria is a wonderful place to visit and you certainly get the sense that things are improving for most people, but there is always more to the story. Stolipinovo is obviously an extreme example, but it highlights the challenges that so many countries have with taking care of their poorest citizens.
For a completely uninformed destination, Bulgaria turned out to be a highlight. The history is fascinating and deep, it also gave us a good amount of time to relax sans tourist hordes before the next endeavor: Athens, Greece. Bring on the crowds.