Plovdiv, a city built on six hills rising from the plains between the Balkan and Rhodope mountains, is Bulgaria’s first European Capital of Culture, an annual designation given by the European Commission to highlight the diversity of arts and culture. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the continent.
Walking around it, it’s all I can do not to cry in gratitude, wonder and happiness. I am on a family trip that I never expected to happen: my dad, mom, brother and myself visiting the country where my father was born. He lived here until he was 14, when he and several family members fled as the Communist Party grew in influence across the country.
Emotions follow me 125 miles northeast of Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo. Here, over Bolyarka beers on a large terrace overlooking the imposing Asenevtsi Monument — four larger-than-life-size mounted horsemen around a 30-foot-tall sword — we agree this city should be Bulgaria’s next European Capital of Culture.
Veliko Tarnovo was the country’s capital for several hundred years and reigned as one of Europe’s centers of arts and culture in the Middle Ages. (It’s fine to just call it “Tarnovo,” which is what most locals do; veliko, which means “great” in Bulgarian, was only added to the city’s name in 1965.) Tarnovo was the first Bulgarian city to be written about in National Geographic; a story about it ran in the magazine’s October 1907 issue. Its history goes back five millennia and its cobblestoned, red-roofed homes and businesses spill down a steep natural amphitheater created by a sharp bend in the Yantra River .
Growing up, there wasn’t much Bulgarian culture in our suburban house, but there was banitsa, a flaky, cheesy traditional Bulgarian pastry, and nightly Bulgarian lessons for my younger brother and myself from my dad. My mom, a Baltimorean whose sweet tooth crossed cultures, never stopped baking the former, but the latter ended one night in second grade when I told my dad, “This is your language, not mine.”
When he lived in Bulgaria, my dad never went to Plovdiv or Veliko Tarnovo. His family lived in Perilovets, a farming village in the country’s northwestern corner, near its borders with Romania and present-day Serbia. He did go to Vidin, a port city on the Danube River about 30 miles from his village that, in a cart pulled by oxen Belyo (“white”) and Sin (“blue”) was an all-night journey from the family farm.
Veliko Tarnovo is almost 200 miles farther from his village than Vidin. Plovdiv is about 50 miles more distant. My dad learned about the long histories of both cities in school, but says the idea of seeing either in person never crossed his mind.
In 2003, when I was in my mid-20s, I spent two weeks in Bulgaria with my dad, but didn’t make it much farther from his village than he had as a kid. On that trip, my initial meeting with every second cousin, family friend and former neighbor who hadn’t fled the country (and who didn’t speak English) started with them excitedly greeting me in Bulgarian. I smiled in what I hoped was an apologetic manner as my dad explained I had no idea what they had just said.
An argument could be made that my father shouldn’t have listened to a 7-year-old complaining about language lessons. Still I can imagine “this is your language, not mine” hurting so much that it made sense to wait for me to come back to him when I was interested. Except I never did. By 2003, all I could do was recite the first seven letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Every introduction left me feeling I had let my dad down.
That trip ended with me glad to have put faces to names of these distant family members and to have seen where my dad grew up. Since he left, his family’s house had been razed and a modest, one-floor, village hall built in its place. The well he fetched water from and a couple of trees he climbed remained. I was in no hurry to return.
It wasn’t until after both my dad and I were several years out from brutal-but-successful treatment for cancer (melanoma for him; breast for me) and he was 82 that I decided I wanted to go back. Fifteen years had passed. A more mature traveler and daughter (although still unable to speak Bulgarian), I instigated the trip. My brother Rob and my mom, neither of whom had been to Bulgaria before, quickly announced they were coming too. “We have to make it the ultimate homecoming for dad — to share his birthplace and heritage with his American family, all together,” my mom said. “It just has to be all of us!”
I had matching gray, long-sleeve T-shirts made. Screen printed on the back, in a nod to our Bulgarian and Baltimorean roots, is a riff on the Guns N’ Roses logo: “Hons n’ Roses — The Mishevs do Bulgaria.” (“Hons” are a very Baltimore thing; Bulgaria is well known for its rose perfume.)
The “Hons n’ Roses” tour includes seeing Plovdiv and Tarnovo before ending with a visit to Perilovets and the family.
Since it is the Capital of Culture, Plovdiv is our first stop. Our first destination in the city is a gatehouse at the entrance to the city’s Old Town. Only local residents, business owners and guests at the several boutique hotels here are allowed to drive this UNESCO World Heritage site’s narrow, cobbled streets lined with 19th-century homes built in the top-heavy Bulgarian National Revival style. (At the time, taxes were assessed on a home’s footprint, so the ground level was made as small as possible.)
Checking into the Hotel Evmolpia — Evmolpia was this city’s name when it was a Thracian settlement in the Late Bronze Age (1200- 500 B.C.) — we’re offered local cheese and wine. Archaeological evidence shows grapes have been grown and wine made in this area for more than 3,000 years. Today, there are about 20 vineyards and wineries within an hour’s drive of Plovdiv.
At Hotel Evmolpia, I try a red made from the local grape variety mavrud. It’s heavy and I taste cherries and blackberries.
There are also local chardonnays, merlots and cabernet sauvignons available.
Adjacent to the Old Town is the formerly derelict, now trendy, Kapana District, a maze of tight, winding streets. (Kapana means “the trap” in Bulgarian .) We quickly get lost, and that’s fine. Around one corner there’s the Hipster Hostel and an art gallery selling products made from felt. Around the next corner is a giant spray-painted mural of an alligator with a heart-shaped diamond in its toothy mouth being ridden by a bored-looking man wearing a turtleneck.
It is one of my mom’s life quests to try as many beers as possible. So when we turn yet another of Kapana’s corners and find Cat & Mouse (Kotka i Mishka in Bulgarian), a bar with more than 100 beers from around the world and three of its own brews, we stop. Tasting each of the latter, you’d never know the bar and brewery was founded to finance a website dedicated to independent journalism, Pod Tepeto (“Under the Hill ”), and not only out of a love of beer.
We settle in with our drinks at an outside table from which we can see three different spray-painted murals, two boutiques selling a mix of locally made clothing and home accessories and three or four art galleries/studios. The businesses are on the ground levels of colorful, two-story buildings with pennant flags strung between them. The building next to Cat & Mouse is a cafe named Central Perk, styled to look like the cafe of that name from the TV show “Friends.” Latte- and espresso-sipping customers speaking French, German, English and Bulgarian relax here in sofas and armchairs.
Bulgarians have a word for this scene: “aylyak.” Aylyak is a word taken from Turkish; in that language it means doing nothing or being idle. In Bulgaria, aylyak is slightly different; here it refers to a lifestyle that cultivates and celebrates an easygoing, unhurried attitude (as in, the opposite of farm life). Within Bulgaria, it is generally held that Plovdivians do aylyak best.
While locals love aylyak, it is also blamed for the delay in the refurbishment of Plovdiv’s Central Square, which was not finished in time for the Capital of Culture opening ceremony in January. I think it makes more sense to blame the Romans, Macedonians or Thracians though: It seems you cannot dig a hole in Plovdiv without hitting a ruin from one of these civilizations. Beneath almost the entire one-mile length of the shopping and pedestrian street Knyaz Alexander I in the center of the city is a Roman stadium built at the beginning of the 2nd century when the city was known as Trimontium. Several sections of it have been excavated, including a seating area you can see in the basement of the clothing store H&M and, in the middle of Dzhumaya Square, colonnades and the stadium’s northern end. For better or worse, most of Bulgaria’s ruins are eminently accessible and here you can sit in the same seats where, 2,000 years ago, 30,000 people gathered to watch chariot races.
Uphill from our hotel is the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis. Built at the end of the 1st century, it was used for performances for several hundred years, abandoned after a fire and forgotten until a landslide in the 1970s revealed a section of it. The Bulgarian Conservation School spent 10 years restoring it and in 1981 it reopened as a performance space that has become renowned for its acoustics. Sadly there are no rock concerts, operas or master Zumba classes being held while we’re here.
This fall, restoration work on more than 20,000 square feet of intricate mosaics in the 1,800-year-old Bishop’s Basilica should be finished.
My dad is surprised by the vitality of Plovdiv and its people. “It measures up to a modern European city, but still retains its Bulgarian flavor,” he says. He recognizes the vestiges of former Communist rule in its big gray multistory apartment buildings, but likes that newly remodeled buildings — and newly excavated ruins — are now the focus.
On our last evening in Plovdiv, my mom, Rob and I walk up to the broad, flat summit of our hill, called Nebet Tepe, to watch the sunset. We also find ruins of dwellings and fortifications that predate the birth of Christ. We’re not a selfie family, but standing on the rubble of an ancient wall at the hill’s edge, we snap one.
My dad knows more about Veliko Tarnovo’s history than Plovdiv’s. Most of the latter’s ruins were discovered and studied after he fled the country. The former’s history is the Bulgarian history he learned in the one-room Perilovets schoolhouse. Tarnovo was the country’s capital during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1393) and also at the beginning of the Third Bulgarian Empire in 1878 when Bulgaria won its freedom after almost 500 years of Ottoman rule.
My dad knows the names of some of the 19th-century rebels that Tarnovo’s Monument to Hanged Rebels honors for advocating (and fighting for) Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire. The constitution that governed the country when he was born was drafted and signed in the white, cross-shaped building down the street from our hotel. (Today, this building is the Museum of the Bulgarian Revival and Constituent Assembly.) He tells us about Russian Gen. Iosif Gurko, for whom our hotel is named. (Gurko’s army liberated Veliko Tarnovo from the Ottoman Empire on July 7, 1877 .) He tells us the four Asenevtsi Monument horsemen liberated Bulgaria from the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century, then ruled it as czars for most of the next century.
Even without my dad’s details about the Bulgarian czars who lived in grand palaces on Tsarevets hill, the view of it from the sky walk, a glass-bottomed viewing platform that stretches out between buildings above the Yantra River, are impressive.
Little is left of the palaces but their foundations. A wall built to fortify the hill still stands. Its watchtowers are crenelated and the wall itself is as thick as 12 feet in some places.
Walking down Samovodska Charshiya street, which is home to the studios and galleries of many local artisans, we hear about my dad’s favorite cow, Mininkata (“little one”). He says she was famous because she was an award-winning milk producer, and that, because of her, his father, whom my brother and I called “Dedo,” went to jail. “The Soviets came for her and Dedo refused to let her go, so they put Dedo in jail and the family had to pay a huge ransom to have him freed,” my dad says.
Over our drinks at the Asenevtsi Monument, after we’ve finished making the case for Tarnovo as Bulgaria’s next European Capital of Culture, I thank my dad for sharing his history with us and tell him I’m sorry I was such a punk back in second grade.
Thankfully, when it’s time to get another round of drinks, the bartender speaks English.
Mishev is a writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Her website is dinamishev.com. Follow her on Instagram @dinamishev.
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4 Pernik St., Plovdiv
A boutique hotel in the city’s Old Town with antique-filled rooms and a daily happy hour with free wine and cheese; walking distance from many of the city’s historic sites. Double rooms, including breakfast, from about $67 per night.
8½ Art Guest House
15-17 Gen. Gurko St., Plovdiv
Seven whimsical rooms, some with balconies, in the heart of Old Town. Rooms, including breakfast, from about $81 per night.
33 Gurko St ., Veliko Tarnovo
A 21-room hotel constructed of stone and timber in Veliko Tarnovo’s Old Town with rooms overlooking the Asenevtsi Monument, Yantra River and Tsarevets. Rooms, including breakfast, from about $53 per night.
10 Gurko St., Plovdiv
Traditional Bulgarian ingredients like veal, lamb and peppers are prepared with a modern and sophisticated twist; there’s also a wide selection of Bulgarian cheeses and wines, including some made from the indigenous mavrud grape. Entrees from about $8.
7 Zlatarska St., Plovdiv
Regional specialties like spare ribs and stuffed eggplant highlight local ingredients in a cozy yet trendy space in the Kapana District. If you’re going to try rakia, considered Bulgaria’s national drink, this is the place to do it because of its large selection. Make sure to save room for dessert. Entrees from about $8.
Cat & Mouse
14 Hristo Dyukmedzhiev St., Plovdiv
Several beers, including locally brewed ones, are on tap at this bar specializing in craft brews; more than 100 beers from around the world — Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Britain, Serbia — available by the bottle. Beers from about $3.
33 Gurko St., Veliko Tarnovo
Hearty, meaty meals like spicy pork stew, bread stuffed with chicken and pork ribs with polenta in a cozy, stone-floored tavern on a cobblestone street above the Yantra River and opposite the Asenevtsi Monument. Open 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Entrees from about $6.
7 Stamboliiski St., Veliko Tarnovo
Sit in front of the fireplace (winter) or on the terrace (summer) and enjoy Bulgarian nouveau cuisine as well as pastas and pizza. Open noon to 3 p.m. daily for lunch and 5:30 to 9 p.m. for dinner. Entrees from about $7.
Free Plovdiv Tour
Tours start at Plovdiv City Hall, 4000 Tsentar
Local guides lead two-hour walking tours (in English) to many of the city’s most historic sites while giving a history lesson of the area. Tours start at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily from May through September; open at 2 p.m. daily from October through April. No reservations required. Free.
Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis
4000 Tsentar, Plovdiv
A landslide in 1970 revealed a Roman theater in the middle of Plovdiv’s Old Town that was built in the 1st century. After a lengthy restoration, this theater is among the best-preserved Roman theaters in existence. Concerts and events are held here in the summer. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily April through October and 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. November through March. Entrance about $3 for all ages.
Bulgaria Wine Tours
Half-, full- and multiday tours in English, with tastings, to several of the 20-some boutique wineries in the surrounding Thracian Valley. Tours pick you up at your hotel and are available daily with advance reservation; custom tours also available. Tours run from about $72 (half-day) to $95 per person for excursions with three or more people. Otherwise, about $90 to $112.
Tsar Simeon’s Garden
11A Veliko Tarnovo St., Plovdiv
This garden in the city’s Central District was one of the first public gardens in Bulgaria and originally designed and installed in 1892 by Swiss landscape architect Lucien Chevalas. After recent renovations, the garden’s cast-iron Demeter Fountain (by Italian sculptor Arnoldo Zocchi ) is again flowing as is its Singing Fountain, which has a music and light show coordinated with its jets several times a week. The garden is open 24 hours; the Singing Fountain light/music show is at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Free.
Regional Ethnographic Museum
2 Dr. Chomakov St., Plovdiv
More than 40,000 artifacts including clothing and tapestries on display in a restored house built by a wealthy merchant in 1847 in the Plovdiv Renaissance style. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays from April through October and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March. General admission about $3.50; guided tours about $6.
Zhelezarska rue, Place Dzhumayata, Plovdiv
This mosque in the city center was built on the former site of the Sveta Petka Tarnovska Cathedral in the early 1360s after the Ottoman Army’s conquest of Plovdiv. The current nine-domed mosque dates from the 15th century and today is one of the oldest and biggest Ottoman religious buildings in the Balkans. Modest dress — covered shoulders, and no shorts or mini skirts — required. Open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Free.
Free Walking Tours of Veliko Tarnovo
5 Hristo Botev St., Veliko Tarnovo
Two-hour walking tours in English around Tarnovo’s Old Town. Guides cover the history of Bulgaria and Veliko Tarnovo; some even go into the history of typical Bulgarian foods like Shopska salad and yogurt. Tours start at 11 a.m. daily. Free.
Tsar Asen Square, Veliko Tarnovo
This hill was home to the country’s kings and heads of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the Second Bulgarian Empire; today you can see the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God and the remains of more than 400 residences. The former is not an active church; instead of the religious scenes typically painted in Eastern Orthodox churches, the large-scale interior frescoes here are done in a very modern style and are of Bulgaria’s medieval history. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from April through October and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from November through March, holidays excepted. Admission: about $4 per adult, about $2 for kids 7 and under.