‘THAT’S one of Plovdiv’s seven hills,’ says Velislav, my guide, pointing towards a mall. ‘Right,’ I mumble, dutifully writing it down in my noteboo… hang on, what? A shopping mall? I look up to find Velislav smiling; evidently, an hour into our day together, I’m not yet attuned to his subtle sense of humour. He got me good.
‘OK, OK,’ he concedes, ‘it was one of Plovdiv’s seven hills. But the ruling communists exploded it, as they needed stone. Later, it became a shopping centre called Markovo Tepe — Markovo Hill.’ We’re looking at this mound-turned-mall from one of Plovdiv’s six surviving hills, Bunardzhik. The ten-minute trudge up has rewarded us with a massive statue of a machine-gun-holding Russian general and panoramic views all the way across southern Bulgaria to the Rhodope Mountains.
Along with Matera in southern Italy, Plovdiv is Europe’s anointed Capital of Culture for 2019.
It’s a rare moment in the spotlight for Bulgaria’s second city (normally it’s the capital, Sofia, that draws the crowds — and the stag dos).
Exhibitions and shows, including Bolshoi Ballet performances (plovdiv2019.eu), will take place. Yet as Velislav demonstrates during a gentle-paced walking tour (€75/£64 per day, localitetour.com), the city has been a cultural hub for ages.
‘Plovdiv is known as Bulgaria’s most creative city,’ he explains, the arty stuff dating back to when Plovdiv was Philippopolis, a Roman stronghold.
Back then, beneath what’s now a pedestrianised high street, gladiators battled lions in a huge, long stadium.
Visitors can descend into a chunk of it, while the Old Town above includes the handsome ruins of a steep, semicircular Roman theatre.
The Ancient Theatre — only rediscovered after a 1972 landslide — is especially impressive, with views of Plovdiv behind its stage of ruined columns, and the sheer white marble seating rows offering me a glimpse into life as a Roman spectator. Verdi operas are taking place here until August.
We weave around the Old Town, with Velislav pointing out pastel houses in the Bulgarian National Revival style, a peculiar 18th- to 19th-century look that sees large second storeys leant forward on supporting wooden eaves. Some can be entered as museums: the ketchup-coloured Georgiadi House has National Revival exhibits in its courtyard, for instance. Combined tickets, including the Ancient Theatre, are 15 lev/£6.50 (oldplovdiv.com).
Lunch is at hilltop Rahat Tepe, where families and couples cram on to a staggered pergola terrace. Iron pans of sizzling giblets accompany cheesy fritters and Shopska salad (tomato, cucumber, peppers, topped with feta-like sirene cheese). My pork kebabs are delicious. An army of ravenous cats work the tables, perfecting their plaintive looks.
Across the high street from the Old Town skulks Kapana, which I explore the next day. Originally where artisans worked and lived, this central neighbourhood fell into near-dereliction during the latter 20th century but has since undergone a drastic revival. Today, hipster bars and galleries line cobbled streets whose zig-zagging arrangement earn Kapana its nickname ‘The Trap’ — as in an animal trap. ‘It’s also a trap for wallets,’ warns Velislav.
For Bulgarian wallets, perhaps, but not mine. At Coffee Craftex, home to the best black gold I find, an Americano costs just 2 lev, or 85p (coffeecraftex.com). Craft beers at Cat & Mouse, which serves 150 varieties on its pavement terrace, of which there are many in this city, start at 3.50 lev/£1.50 (catandmouse.bg).
Walking back to my hotel in a T-shirt — it’s spring, yet already 18C; summer can see temperatures twice that — I close my eyes and listen to Kapana. Chatter emanates from the graffiti-scrawled streets, with those terraces in full flow. Along a more residential lane an old man shouts passionately to another on a balcony opposite. These hills feel wholly, agreeably alive.
Doubles at Hotel Evmolpia, which pairs an Old Town location with free cheese and wine in the evening, start at £62 B&B, hotelevmolpia.com
Ryanair has services from London Stansted to Plovdiv three times a week, ryanair.com
Three Plovdiv day trips
Two hours north is the ‘Bulgarian UFO’, a saucer-shaped communist hall atop the 4,700ft Shipka Pass. These days it stands eerily empty
Amid the mighty rock faces and pine forests of the Rhodope Mountains runs a lovely five-mile waterfall walk featuring some 46 cascades
Cycle through the 800ft-high gorge, past a waterfall cave called Devil’s Throat, and finish at one of Bulgaria’s many thermal pools
■ All available as privately guided trips via localitetour.com