Like old towns all across Europe, your first impression of Plovdiv will be navigating the mismatched and oddly shaped cobble stone streets. One you gain your footing and look up and down the narrow historic streets, you will come face to face with what makes Plovdiv unique. Large wooden houses, painted in bright colours, wooden shutters open to allow the morning sun into the home. Chimneys expel the smoke from fires within, chasing away the chill of the winter night. Looking up, the houses appear to swallow you from above – and they do – the houses get wider with each successive level.
Plovdiv is recognized as Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city. It is a tentative on the UNESCO world heritage list, and showcases a plethora of architectural styles from throughout history all within it’s narrow cobbled streets. The most striking being the Roman theater and the incredible houses from the National Revival period.
The Roman Amphitheatre is one of the most visited architectural attractions in Plovdiv. Dating from around 100 AD, the theatre is located on the hill on the Southern edge if the old town. Relax on the wide stone seats as the sun warms you from above and look out over the city of Plovdiv. The theater has been extensively restored and in the summer the theater hosts plays and musical shows – like it may have done almost 2,000 years ago. (Less gladiator fights though)
Moving into the center of the old town, the first things you are confronted with are the National Revival houses. Okay, so you may not have heard of the National Revival style before. Well that’s because it only exists in Bulgaria. The style blossomed during the 18th century when the Bulgarian population began to regain their own particular identity while underneath Ottoman rule.
A combination of East and West
The preserved National Revival houses are one of the best ways to get an understanding of what was happening in Bulgaria during this time period. The houses visually represent the clashing and complimenting of Eastern and Western cultures. Beautiful geometric patterns carved out of wood adorn the ceilings of almost every room, giving the house an Ottoman feel. But the brightly painted walls, murals and wall niches give a well of Western Europe, and are known as the ‘alafrangi’ style, which literally means “in the French way.” In fact, many of the wall murals represent Western European cities.
The houses are more than just houses – they are mansions. When you first enter a house, the first thing you will notice is just how high the ceilings are. As your eye is drawn upward, the next thing you will notice is the intricate woodwork on the ceiling. The ceiling woodwork was my favourite feature of these houses – every room was different. Some had simple zig zagging patterns, others had complex symmetrical designs, while others had intricate artworks representing both the sun and the bounty of the fields. But why stop at just incredibly intricate wood work design, why not add some detailed painting to the ceiling as well? Well, why not?
Once you stop staring at the ceilings, you will notice the brightly painted walls, the murals, the painted designs. Each wall is it’s own work of art. From there you can focus on the beautiful furniture, another example of the blend of Eastern and Western cultures during this time.
There are several museum houses in Plovdiv. We visited the Balabanov House Museum and Hindlyan houses, and our favourite was the Balabanov.
Art in the Oldtown of Plovdiv
The Plovdiv city art gallery has several galleries close together in the city of Plovdiv. We only had time to visit one so we one of the galleries that is conveniently located in the old town. We wanted to visit something a little bit different – something that we can not easily see back home.
We chose to visit the Icon Collection in the old town. An Icon is a type of religious artwork, most typically a painting on wood, that is a typical part of the Orthodox religion. The icon’s are usually large and brightly painted, with the heavy use of gold leaf.
The icon gallery in the old town has brought together some of the best examples of icons from the 15th century onwards from all around Bulgaria. The gallery is small and easy to navigate with many of the icons featuring lengthy and in depth descriptions in English.
Need to know:
- Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second largest town
- Plovdiv’s old town is tentatively listed on the UNESCO list
- There are frequent connections between Plovdiv and many other Bulgarian towns and cities
- The old town has a few hotels and hostels, but if you are traveling with a car you will want to stay elsewhere as there is very limited parking in the old town
- To see the sites listed above you only need a day, however we recommend staying at least 2 – 3 days to fully discover the rest of the cities great attractions