You cannot say that you have any idea of what Bulgaria really is if you have not climbed the cobbled streets of Old Plovdiv, taken in its multi-coloured Revival Period mansions and the faces of saints on the walls of local churches, if you have not savoured the aroma of ageing wood emanating from the houses and of flowers from their lush gardens.
Perched on the three rocky hills that for millennia have defined Plovdiv, the mansions, churches and cobbled streets of the old city hover between the past and the present. Souvenirs and tourists are everywhere, but not overwhelming, as there are still places here that are inhabited mostly by locals.
The mansions and churches of Old Plovdiv appeared in the 18th-19th centuries, the latest additions to the long history of the inhabitation of the three hills. In the 13th Century BC the hills were fortified, offering protection to the people of the area. When the Romans came, in the 1st Century AD, the hills emptied: the times were secure and most citizens preferred the more comfortable life on the plain. When the Barbarian attacks intensified in the 5th-6th centuries, however, people settled again on the hills. The city became a fortress, and remained so until the Ottoman conquest in the 14th Century. Again, Plovdiv was part of an empire, and again there was no danger of imminent war. The new arrivals, the Muslims and later the Jews, settled on the plain. The three rocky hills remained for the Christians. In the multicultural hodgepodge that Plovdiv is, these communities included Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians.
In the 18th Century, some of the local Christian merchants became very wealthy and poured some of their riches into sumptuous new houses. This trend continued and intensified in the 19th Century, including the construction of churches and public buildings like schools.
The architecture of this new building trend was typical of the Ottoman Empire at the time: the mansions have two or three floors with projecting bay windows, heavy roofs, and their whitewashed walls hide a basic structure of mud bricks and wood. The mansions of Old Plovdiv possess a particular aspect, however, which the Bulgarians proudly call Plovdiv Baroque. Unlike most of the traditional houses in Bulgaria, the mansions of Plovdiv do not have chardaks, the characteristic wooden verandas. Instead, their projecting bay windows were turned into spacious rooms. Their walls are not white, but are painted in bright colours and ornate motifs. The eaves of the roofs are curved. Here and there, in the walls, are semi-circular niches called Alafrangas, from the Turkish "in the Western fashion." Their only purpose was to hold a flower-pot in front of the windowsill and allow the inhabitants to peek out at passers-bye.
The collection of the Ethnography Museum is in one of the finest 19th Century mansions
In the days of its glory Old Plovdiv was a thing to marvel at, but by the end of the 19th Century in the newly-independent Bulgaria its architecture started going out of fashion. Styles arriving from Central and Western Europe were all the rage now.
In the following decades some of the old buildings were lost but, happily, the core of Old Plovdiv survived, and in 1956 the area was designated an architectural preserve. It remains so to this day, although in recent years the old cobbled streets have seen the construction of new hotels and restaurants in dubious "traditional" style.
Polished by the feet of countless people, the slippery cobbles of Old Plovdiv do not discourage tourists from exploring the area. For most visitors, the experience includes a ramble around, ah-ing and oh-ing at this or that façade, and the occasional stop at one of the churches, before ending at the top of the highest of the three hills, Nebet Tepe, for a view over Plovdiv.
However, Old Plovdiv's streets and mansions are packed with more stories and opportunities to explore the past. Some of them are right under the noses of visitors, like the Dr Sotir Antoniadi house on the main pedestrianised Saborna Street. This mansion belonged to a Greek physician and was the site of the first pharmacy in Bulgaria. The pharmacy is still there at ground level.
Further up, next to each other, the Balabanova and the Hindliyan Houses provide you with the opportunity to peek into the traditional home of a former inhabitant of Old Plovdiv. Both mansions belonged to rich merchants, and are now museums. The distinctive red-painted Balabanova House hosts an art exhibition and its top floor houses a traditional 19th Century wood-carved interior with contemporary European furniture. The Hindliyan House feels more traditional, with naïve frescoes of Istanbul, Alexandria, Venice and Stockholm, and amenities such as a bath with running hot and cold water.
These mansions are close to what is probably Old Plovdiv's least explored part: the Armenian neighbourhood. Here, the Armenian church Surp Kevork and the Armenian school share a compound peopled by elderly ladies visiting and gossiping in the church, and by children spending their break playing in the yard.
There are more houses with interesting stories scattered around Old Plovdiv. The Lamartine House, for example. Yes, the three-day stay of the French revolutionary and poet in the house of the merchant Georgi Mavridi, in 1833, left a strong impression on the locals. The house is itself interesting, as it stands on a slope and so has three floors on one side, and two on the other.
Some of the most impressive mansions of Plovdiv now house major museums and galleries. The collection of the Ethnography Museum is in the beautiful Kuyumdzhieva House. The imposing, classical-looking House of Dr Stoyan Chomakov is where you can see a collection of the paintings of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev, an eminent Bulgarian artist of the 20th Century who painted Plovdiv like no-one else.
Churches are another part of the rich muddle that Old Plovdiv creates. Situated in the heart of the area, Ss Constantine and Helena is probably the best known. Built in the 1830s, it was richly decorated by some of the best artists of the time, including Zahariy Zograf. The church was built atop the remains of an older church dedicated to the 38 Christians martyred in Philippopolis during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.
Another of Old Plovdiv's beautiful Revival Period churches, St Marina, is not on the three hills, but at their foot. Built in the 1850s, it is richly decorated with frescoes, some of which were partly covered with wallpapers [sic] during a renovation in 2011. What makes St Marina a church like no other is its wooden belfry, the only one preserved in Bulgaria. Rising 17 m, it has six floors and eight bells, the largest of which weighs 180 kg.
Atanas Krastev Square shows the continuity in Plovdiv's life, with ancient Roman and mediaeval fortifications providing the foundations of 19th Century mansions
The Assumption Cathedral, from 1844, is the first significant Revival Period building you see while entering old Plovdiv
Baroque-influenced murals in the St Marina Church
Ss Constantine and Helena Church was built on the spot of an ancient church in the honour of 38 martyrs of the faith
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.