This autumn, all the talk is about Plovdiv. The reason is not the city's marvellous old architecture, with which are enamoured both Bulgarians and foreigners. Neither it is its history as one of Europe's oldest cities, or its remarkable restaurants and the overwhelming calmness which takes over you while strolling along the centre. This September, Plovdiv made the news as the first city chosen as the European Capital of Culture.
Plovdiv will take the title in 2019, together with one of the Italian cities of Cagliari, Lecce, Matera, Perugia, Ravenna, and Siena. The European Capital of Culture contest has been organised since 1985 and brings to the chosen cities potential assets as exposure, investments, attention, and international recognition.
The choice of Plovdiv surprised some in Bulgaria. Among the four Bulgarian cities that competed for the title, Plovdiv had the second cheapest budget, of 22.3 million euro. For comparison, Sofia had planned to spent about 90 million euro, Varna's expenses amounted to 68 million euro and the old Bulgarian capital, Veliko Tarnovo, had budget of 20 million euro.
But why Plovdiv? The jury evaluated its budget as realistic and sound, and its programme as having "a sincere evaluation of the challenges for the city." The commission was also impressed by the special attention to Plovdiv's Gypsy community. The European dimension of Plovdiv's plan was probably also taken in notice during the voting. The city has planned to cooperate with Istanbul, Thessaloniki and Bucharest.
According to the cultural anthropologist Prof. Ivaylo Dichev, Plovdiv is not only a place of "empty antiquity with everyone is so keen to boast about" but it is a place of "living culture which is the most important in such competition." Indeed, what makes Plovdiv so charming is not its historical heritage but the way in which this heritage is a vital part of the everyday life. The streets and alleys in Central Plovdiv are not a part of a sterile museum, but a living landscape where besides the tourists, the ordinary citizens live, work and enjoy life. Plovdiv is also a marvellously diverse city, Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Roma live together in it.
The city by the hills, as Plovdiv is commonly known, is the home of 350,000 people and is the second biggest in Bulgaria. The mighty Maritsa runs through it. The scion of a Neolithic settlement which existed about 8,000 years ago, through the ages Plovdiv has been Thracians and Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian and Ottoman city. It has changed its name many times, it has been called Eumolpia and Philippopolis, Pulpudeva and Trimontium, Paldin and Filibe.
The Turkish word tepe, or hill, is still used for the hills of Plovdiv, as the city is situated on and around seven hills (one of which doesn't exist anymore). The city's oldest historical core is on Trihalmie, or the Three Hills, where three of the Plovdiv's tepe are huddled together.
On them is the Ancient theatre from the beginning of the 2nd Century. One of the best preserved Roman theatres in the Balkans, it had a capacity of 5,000 viewers and was discovered and restored in 1968-1979. Today, the theatre continues attracting visitors as a scene of festivals, theatre and other culture events.
Situated at the feet of Trihalmie, the Ancient Stadium from the 2nd Century had a capacity of 30,000 people. Today part of it is restored, and is one of the most attractive parts of the city. Another site of the ancient past of Plovdiv is the recently restored Small Basilica with wonderful mosaics from the 5-6th centuries.
The Old Town with its multicoloured houses is also on the Thihalmie and is probably the most specific thing remaining in the memories of the visitors. The walk along its cobbled streets is a real pleasure and among the most interesting sites are the Kuyumdzhieva House where is the Ethnography Museum, as well as the Balabanova and Hindliyanova houses, the Nedkovich House, Dr Stoyan Chomakov's house, the Mavridi House and the Yellow School.
Plovdiv is also a city of different religions. Besides the Bulgarian East Orthodox churches, the St Ludwig Catholic Cathedral, the Armenian and the Protestant churches, there are two functioning mosques from the 15th Century, the Dzhuma Mosque next to the Ancient Stadium and Imaret Mosque. Plovdiv is also the home of the only functioning synagogue in Bulgaria after the one in Sofia.