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I’d stumbled across the magnificently named Plovidiv, in an article that hailed it the Chiang Mai of Europe. Having loved our time living in Chiang Mai and having a constant eye out for places that you can cheaply base yourself for a while – this got my attention right away. The more I read about it, but the more it appealed. It wasn’t popular just because it was cheap, it had history and yet it was forward-looking. Sounded a great combination to me.
Getting there from Sofia
Plovdiv is not actually that far from Sofia and so doesn’t have it’s own tourist airport so there were a couple of options – the bus, the train or either a taxi or shared car – as it’s less than 2 hours away. We didn’t want to cough up for a taxi, the car share seemed an unknown in a country we weren’t yet familiar with and the train, although very slow, seemed like a nice way to check out the country and took us to the heart of Plovdiv.
Apparently, it’s pretty easy, with one change to get to Sofia train station from the airport on the metro, but when we turned up we decided to take the easy option and get a taxi. Partly, I was worried about time, as I wanted to arrive in Plovdiv at a reasonable time and partly, we’d already done a lot of chopping and changing already, as to get to Valencia airport requires a taxi, train then metro for us. In retrospect, I think the metro might actually have been quicker (once you’d worked out ticketing etc). The plus side of the taxi was checking out a bit of Sofia. There is definitely a grandness to it and while some things looked a little shabby, I took note of the modern, efficient and cool looking local buses.
Sofia train station is an austere building and is not necessarily the place for the nervous traveller – just in that it’s not tourist friendly. That’s not to say it’s not friendly, but you’re going to have to work for it.
There are various food joints, selling mostly baked goods. There was a guy selling pizza slices upstairs which is probably the cheapest I’ve ever had and was surprisingly good. The platform for Plovdiv was accessed by going down a level – which incidentally is where the toilets are which are pretty decent.
When it came to buying our ticket, thanks to a couple on trip advisor who’d posted their experience in detail, we knew what to do, otherwise, we would have been flummoxed. This is more or less what they advised with a bit extra from our experience.
We bought our return tickets on the day of travel, from ticket desk number 16 in the main hall. It’s not obvious that it’s desk 16 as the sign is obscured, but basically, it’s next to desk 15. It cost around 40 Lev for two first-class returns. The trip advisor couple said that most staff do speak a little English, though we did not find this to be the case and only really managed to not hold up the queue for ages thanks to a kind-hearted young girl who helped out. So, leave plenty of time and be patient. Perhaps translate exactly what you want ahead of time and show this at the kiosk.
Invaluable tip for a happy return journey, is that before you can use the return ticket, you need to get it stamped in Plovdiv. When you leave Plovdiv the train goes from the platform directly off the main entrance. It wasn’t totally clear when we got there and we spent a while wandering between platforms unsure of the correct one. The stamping window for our ticket was on the left, just before the platform.
Both Sofia and Plovdiv have accurate departure boards but we found it showed Plovdiv on arrivals but not departure so we matched up the lettering.
The trains are really old but the old school six seat 1st class compartments are big and fairly comfortable. Not a great deal of people used first class, so despite only having one first-class carriage on the trains, you usually get space to yourself. The one major downside, if you’re there in summer, is it gets really hot and stuffy. You long for the stops, just to get some fresh air in there. Definitely take water.
On one of our journies, one of the train doors kept flying open which was a bit alarming at first, but the guard didn’t seem too bothered and just leant out of the moving train from time to time to shut it. In the end, we appreciated the breeze it created. But I would suggest not leaning on any of the external doors.
The train was is a slow but reliable option. It gave a great view of the countryside and was a different experience to Sofia at the other train stops, where people just clambered over the tracks to get on. Each station had a uniformed guard with a flag to wave the train on. They were often impressive buildings which needed a little TLC – like in a less colourful, more shabby Wes Anderson movie.
Upon arriving in Plovdiv, we grabbed another taxi to take us to a street near the Airbnb we were staying at. At the end of our trip, he surprised us by saying merci and I guessed that maybe he just knew a bit of French so was just throwing out whatever he knew, however, we soon realised that this is often used as an informal thank you. This turned out to be super useful, as until the end of our trip, the proper word for thank you, Blagodarya, was for some reason tricky to conquer.
We checked into our Airbnb without any human interaction, which frankly after such a long journey, is quite a joyous thing. I knew the owner’s family lived in the building should we need them and they were always available online for everything. The younger generation of Bulgarians are super tech-savvy, perhaps why it’s opening up to be such a great destination for young travellers.
Kapana – the coolest little neighbourhood
Look in any Plovdiv guide and they will tell you to go to Kapan and we were staying less than 5 minutes away from this neighbourhood and probably spent most of our time here.
If you look on google maps street view, you can see some images of the area not very long ago, looking very run-down. I realised that actually, many of the buildings were still in bad condition, but with street art, bunting and other artistic touches, it’s distracted from. This is probably that early gentrification stage that we all love so much, where without throwing money at somewhere, creativity is used instead. That’s not to say there isn’t some money invested in the businesses here – there are some fantastic cafes, restaurants and shops here. It could be described as hipstery, but in a good way – when hipster means arty, good reasonably priced food and craft ale 😉
Roman ruins to famous gymnasiums
Plovdiv’s history is one of the oldest cities in Europe, so it’s strange it’s so unheard of. I’m not particularly into ancient history but the Roman ruins here, including an impressive amphitheatre (that you can admire from a cafe on the hill), are pretty remarkable, particularly in such a small city. There are literally ruins of various sizes, wherever you go.
It’s quite a tricky place to work out, touristically, but really you just have to wander around the old town and you will stumble across all kinds of things – like the first Bulgarian gymnasium. It’s a thing!
Food and Drink
In our neighbourhood, just north of the Kapana area, we were spoilt – from the cafe opposite, which over looked the tree covered park in the square, to the burger joint and Indian restaurant around the corner. It’s always interesting having Indian food in different countries – for a start Indian food in the UK is often not even Indian, let alone the fact the country has such huge variations itself. The only Indian restaurant in a city, not big on asian food, was an interesting one. There was interesting artwork with some slightly erotic elephants, which was a little off-putting, but the food was great and as we don’t even have an Indian in our little Spanish town – was a welcome treat for us. Plus Mark matched the decor.
Pancakes seemed to be a bit of a thing here – simple style pancakes, which I happen to love, though Bulgarian cheese usually means the gritty soft cheese they favour, which can be a bit much if overloaded. Also, cornflake covered cheese is a thing. And it’s quite nice too.
There was one meal which I had a couple of times and was quite taken by. It was basically potatoes, bacon, onion, pickles and dill. So simple, but so satisfying. And cheap.
One thing that delighted us was that there is lots of great craft beer available. Our favourite was locally brewed Hills.
As food is pretty cheap, it meant we could treat ourselves a bit and went to the well recommended Smokini restaurant, a Plovdiv institution. It had a cosy and laid back vibe, really tasty food and nice wine. Particularly the duck and the seabass, and it’s a great opportunity if you want to try the cornflake covered cheese!
For a little city, there’s a lot of notable street art.
At the back of he city’s main street, as the rocks head up to the higher points is a ton of what seems to be political art. I never really did understand it but it’s worth checking out.
A great example of a good park
The central park is a delightful place, lots of shade from the trees, free books, fountains and all round pleasant people watching. There is a large restaurant at the back of the lake, which is a great place for a chilled out drink. It gets busy at weekends but can get a good spot during the week in term time.
I wish I could find a way to drive to Plovdiv because the antique/junk shops up in the old town have the most amazing things. It’s any collectors dream. I was particularly enamoured with the little mini radiator/stoves which I guess were in most homes to heat as well as cook on.
Man about town
There are a couple of statues worth looking out for – the guy in the centre who was apparently the local gossip and up in the old town the artist who was responsible for first saving the old town and its history by working to make it a destination.
Travelling with carry on only but wanting to take back things from my travels, has led to some interesting shopping strategies. It’s got to be small, not too heavy, no liquids etc. I’ve recently taken to wanting something vintage in each location too – a great way to get something a bit different. In this case a garish bit of sunflower crochet which Mark truly hates. I was also quite taken with the local pottery – available in most tacky tourist shops – fits in perfectly with my retro sensibilities. And I usually get some kind of postcard or card – light and easy to carry and can become mini little bits of art at home.
Food and drink are so cheap here – more so than we had expected. I can definitely see why it’s a great spot for people who want to bed down to do some online work for a while. Low cost, laid back, artsy and great beer. What’s not to pLOVEdiv? Never tire of that pun.