Give Bulgaria's capital a miss, head for its cultural heart

As EasyJet launches its Sofia service, savvy travellers will continue on to Plovdiv, says Robert Nurden

The sound of wailing bagpipes and an accordion greeted me from over the wall. I saw a troupe of girls in swirling green and red dresses dancing hand in hand in their sweltering Bulgarian folk costumes as the temperature hit the high 30s.

I found myself sitting next to Nedelya, one of the dancers. She asked me, as most Plovidians do, whether I preferred Plovdiv or Sofia. I didn't have to lie because for me there was no contest: Plovdiv. The result was handshakes and an invitation to her name day party.

Here in the country's cultural capital the creative spirit burns white hot. The more savvy travellers on easyJet's new flights to Sofia, starting on Tuesday, will continue on their journey to this city of painters, musicians, dancers, writers, awkward politicians, gorgeous buildings, fine food and wine, which has always had a bohemian edge. Ever so politely it put two fingers up to the Ottomans, then to the communists, and now to Sofia. Yet it's always been the most welcoming of places to outsiders who meant no harm. Locals believe above all that life is for enjoying – but without too much effort. That's why they're called the Ailyaki, the idle ones.

I ventured out on to the treacherous cobbles of the Old Town and made for the Roman amphitheatre. On stage they were getting ready for an opera that evening, Aida. Through the backdrop of the ionic colonnade I could see the modern city, and beyond that the Rhodope Mountains.

The Old Town, built on three hills rising out of the plain, is a marvel. Thracian, Greek and Roman remains lie next to, and beneath, 400 Revival-style houses, those 19th-century wooden-frame constructions built by the emerging class of rich Bulgarian merchants who eventually saw off the Turks. Art is everywhere: as many as 30 top-notch galleries and studios are tucked into alcoves, while music pours out of countless doorways.

Down below, a mile-long pedestrian street lined with shops stretches from the Maritza River to Tsentralen Square. It makes Plovdiv a place of walking and talking. Beneath much of it runs a Roman stadium, which emerges in bizarre settings, not least at an internet café whose clients look out at an archway where lions once roared. And then there are the shops, cafés and bars of Kapana, the old Turkish quarter – masses of them and all ridiculously cheap.

Nedelya's party guests and I were taken to the folklore restaurant Veseloto Selo (Happy Village). About 30 of us were soon surrounded by plates of shopska salad, bottles of rakya, huge earthenware pots of stew, and bowls of yoghurt.

I got talking to Nedelya's artist brother. "I bet your friends in England don't know where Thrace is," he said. "Tell them to come. They can help us discover our past. Orpheus was a Thracian, and so was Spartacus. Maybe that's why we're such a rebellious lot."

"And why do Bulgarians shake their heads for yes and nod for no?" I asked.

"We wanted to confuse our oppressors," he said. "Now we just carry on."

How to get there: EasyJet (easyjet.com), WizzAir (wizzair.com), BA (0870 850 9850; ba.com) and Bulgaria Air (020-7637 7637; bulgaria-air.co.uk) all fly to Sofia. From the airport take a taxi to Plovdiv for about 70 leva (£25), or to Sofia bus station (£2), then a bus to Plovdiv (£3.60). Robert Nurden stayed at the Hebros Hotel (00 359 32 260180; hebros-hotel.com), in a double from ¿95 a night, with breakfast.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
music
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager - Commercial Cable & Wire - UK

    £60,000 - £75,000: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the major Aer...

    ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'