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.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'