Some say the longest pedestrian street is located in Bordeaux, France, while others think Sainte-Catherine in Copenhagen is the longest one. Plovdiv in Bulgaria also applies for this primacy as its pedestrian street reaches 1.75 km. I think it is not important to compete which street is how many meters longer, much more important is what experience and atmosphere the street offers and what makes us stop and feel the moment.
Because the streets are different, main and side, long and short, wide or narrow, but we pass many of them just because we need to get somewhere else, the street quickly disappears from our minds as well as the echo of our steps on its pavement. However, there are also streets whose unmistakable flair you can recall even years later. And the main pedestrian zone in Plovdiv undoubtedly belongs to such streets.
If you want to go through this whole street, first, you have to get to the Grand Hotel Plovdiv and start your walk at this colorful bridge across the Maritsa River.
The bridge itself was a little disappointing to me, there are shops inside, mainly with clothes and various less necessary goods. But I like the view of the river – the flowing river that leaves and still stays with me. Maritsa is not just a common river. When the angry Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus, the god of wine, ritual madness and ecstasy, murdered Orpheus, they threw his head and his lyre into the Hebros River, which is the ancient Greek name for the Maritsa River. The river is most beautiful when the setting sun spills itself over the early-evening sky. You should stop and try to hear the gentle tones of Orpheus’ lyre and his singing among a mixture of city sounds…
We are continuing along the Imaret Mosque to the left. It was built of unplastered red bricks by Shahbeddin Pasha, the son of the conqueror of Thrace, in 1444-45. Every time I went by, the mosque was closed, only its slim minaret stood firing its tip up towards the sky like a sharpened pencil.
Now, we make one important turn to the right. Less than 5 minutes from the pedestrian street, there is the Regional Archaeological Museum, which is definitely worth a visit. Here, you will find not only objects from the 7th millennium BC, but a large part is dedicated to the famous Thracian treasures as well – gold, silver, wreaths, necklaces, earrings, coins, pectorals, vessels, knives, swords… Some objects can tell interesting stories, not only from ancient history. For example, a mask-shaped helmet, one of the museum’s most remarkable exhibits, was found in 1905, 90 years later stolen during a gunmen robbery, fortunately, rediscovered abroad and returned to the museum in 2015.
Don’t miss the large wall mosaic and especially two marble pillars from the 2nd century on its sides. At the time when Plovdiv was called Philippopolis, they used to decorate the entrance to the Roman stadium – we will talk about it later. There are busts of Hermes and Heracles on them, the patrons of the ancient games, with their attributes.
An interesting exhibit is also the early Christian tomb from the beginning of the 4th century with preserved paintings illustrating the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.
In front of the museum, we can see the Memorial of Unification from 1985 made by the sculptor Velichko Minekov, which commemorates the significant historical unification of the northern Bulgarian state and Eastern Rumelia (Plovdiv was its capital) on 6th of September 1885.
To continue down the record pedestrian street, we must cross the underpass beneath the busy “6 Septemvri Bulevard” (= Day of Unification). As in other underpasses or at bus stops in Bulgaria, you can find the so-called banicharnitsa here. The pleasant aroma of freshly baked savoury and sweet bread and pastries spreads around. The pastry has different names such as banitsa, kashkavalka, kozunak, milinka or byurek, depending on whether it is filled with hard or soft white cheese, olives, chocolate, jam and so on.
Leaving the underpass, we find ourselves on Rayko Daskalov Street, which not only assumes the right character of the pedestrian zone – lively but also somehow lazy hustle, shops with interesting goods, trees, benches, a fountain with drinking water (in the form of a vessel we already saw in the museum!), moms with strollers, couples in love, street musicians, tourists… but on the left side, it even scatters into several smaller streets, entangled like a maze. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this part of the city is called Kapana, which means “trap”. It was once a quarter of craftsmen, later abandoned and dilapidated. The reconstruction began in 2014. It is one of the most successful projects under the Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019 program, which returned the original soul to the place. Today, it is the vibrant heart of the city – cafes, pubs, bars and clubs, small shops with original souvenirs, jewellery or fashion pieces, workshops… A place full of life, where various festivals and other art events take place. Lovers of street art will find interesting murals as well.
It doesn’t matter whether you come here in autumn or winter, on a cold spring day or a hot summer evening, the bohemian neighbourhood will immediately draw you into its atmosphere and exactly – as it is written at one of the pubs – gives you the chance to start your wonderful day with a cup of tea and end it with a glass of wine…
During my recent visit, we chose the Baber & Cat cocktail bar. The young waiter Victor mixed drinks from different homemade syrups, it was like in a theater where it is not clear who the performer and who the audience is: Victor mixes, you observe. You are talking, Victor is listening… And then – like a precious Oscar statuette – you take your cocktail, mixed with ingredients you had never heard of before, and sit outside with people from different parts of the world who you had not known before, but still feel that you have known each other for a long time, because the dark of night and the sticky taste of the drink bring you closer together… You wish that the evening would not end, or that you could take a piece of that moment and hide it somewhere for worse times. And that exactly is Kapana! Anyone who comes here once will succumb to its charming atmosphere and end up in its “trap”.
But let’s move on because we haven’t crossed half of the record-long pedestrian street yet.
In 1365, Plovdiv came under the Ottoman rule and became an important administrative, military and craft center under the name Philibe. The main Friday Mosque Dzhumaya is a second mosque that has survived to this day. It was built by Sultan Murad, but there is still controversy over whether it was Murad I or II, and therefore it is not clear whether it was built in the 14th or 15th century. On the walls of the mosque, two layers of bricks alternate with regularly worked stones and vertical bricks – this is a typical pattern that was used across the Balkan peninsula in the construction of churches and other buildings before the arrival of the Ottomans. Therefore it is assumed that the mosque was built by local people or dragged along Christian captives.
The wooden construction was added to the facade only in the 19th century. In the past, stallholders were putting their stalls in front of the entrance, today there is a coffee house. You are sitting there, enjoying real Turkish coffee and watching the hustle on the street. However, I also encourage you to look inside the mosque. The prayer area is covered by nine cupolas, supported by four columns. Fine ornamental decoration with its patterns and colors reminds me of folk embroidery.
Right next to the mosque, it looks like we have to descend again into an underpass. Instead, we find ourselves on the original pavement of the ancient city, 4-7 meters below the level of modern Plovdiv. Plovdiv is one of the oldest, still inhabited cities in Europe (8000 years). In 45 – 46 AD, it became part of the Roman Empire as the most important center of the Thracian Province. And such an important city had had to have its own stadium.
It was built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. While there was cruel bloodshed of fighting gladiators in the ancient theater, classical athletic competitions were held at the stadium, such as running or javelin throwing. However, Emperor Theodosius considered it a “barbarian show” and forbade the games in 393. Since then, the stadium had only been used as a hippodrome, in which four horse-chariots competed in seven laps. Interestingly, the winner was not the athlete, but the owner of the horses. The entrance gate of the stadium was decorated with reliefs and pillars (which we saw at the archaeological museum). Plovdiv youth and tourists like to sit on the monolithic marble blocks arranged in 14 rows. Some are still decorated with a stylized lion’s paw. Once, up to 30 thousand spectators could watch the games here.
When I was here in January, there was a very nice café. The clumsy winter sun threw a shadow on the sundials of the southwestern corner of the mosque, providing enough warmth to sit outside, sip hot coffee, and look at the stone seats and other fragments of the ancient sports stadium. The café was already closed in August, but I hope it will be reopen because the place is truly exceptional!
The most important part of the stadium – the track – was arc-shaped with a length of 240 m and a width of 50 m. To get a better idea, you can watch the 3D projection or look at the model outside on the street.
And if you still don’t believe the amazing size of the stadium, visit the Excelsior Shopping Center (on the right side about halfway down the street) and take the escalator to the underground, where the marble spectators’ rows of the stadium will emerge again. Ancient heritage thus blends with contemporary modern technology.
By the way, the street already bears the name of Knyaz (Prince) Alexander I, who participated in the Liberation War against the Ottomans and in 1885, became head of the new united Bulgaria (6th September!). The bustle is even lazier, shops are more attractive – many offer a wide range of cosmetics, where the main component is the famous Bulgarian rose oil or rose water. Old men sit on the benches and discuss politics or the problems of their age, but also the others in the cafes turn their chairs onto the street to better watch the endless performance of the city’s vibrant artery.
Birds fly into the trees in the evening and the sun, going down the sky, illuminates the facades of elegant 19th-century houses. The designer of this modern Plovdiv was Czech-Bulgarian architect Josef Václav Schnitter, who also designed the residence of Dragon Manchev – today the seat of the municipal office, located at a small square with a fountain.
The older inhabitants of Plovdiv still remember the small, hunched figure of a man with a big head and big ears. Everybody called him Milyo. He walked every day into the main street, running after girls, putting one hand to his ear while shouting Aydaa! I think that probably every town has or should have a similar figure. There used to be such a man even in my home town in Slovakia, his name was Martsi. He also used to march up and down one street and greet all girls and women. I don’t even know what happened to him. Plovdiv’s Milyo has not only become a motif for several Bulgarian painters and photographers – he is for example depicted as the shepherd of swine (artist’s gallery in the Old Town) in the painting of Zlatyo Bojajiev, but even a statue of him was built here!
Milyo sits on the wall and puts his hand on his big ear as if listening. The girls are said to whisper their secret wishes into his ear, and everyone likes to take a picture with this legendary guy. Next to him, there are the large, colorful letters together, which is the main motto of the Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019 project.
On the main street, we can also find the City Gallery, but also several smaller, mostly private galleries – in Plovdiv, there are more than 40.
There is also a Dramatic Theater. If you want more privacy, I recommend to enter the building entrance and visit the nice restaurant in the inner courtyard.
At the end of this longest pedestrian street, you will again find some ancient Roman monuments. The capital of the province had to have its forum (agora) as well – a commercial, administrative and religious center. The excavations are still ongoing, part of the forum can already be seen – the odeon, which served as the seat of the city council and later as a theater and place for concerts and other performances for about 350 spectators. Archaeologists have uncovered not only the stage, orchestra pit and seat rows but also a city library here.
After a long walk, you will certainly appreciate a tasty lunch or dinner. There are several cafes and restaurants in the main street. One of my very positive experiences is the restaurant of the Hotel Odeon (closed on Sundays), right next to the archaeological complex of the same name. The quality of the meals was very good and the meals were served well. If you are not hungry, I recommend at least a coffee with lavender crème brûlée.
If you decide to visit Plovdiv, be sure to leave enough time to explore its main street. I believe you won’t be disappointed.
Important Links and Addresses:
Overview of cultural events: Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019
More about sights: visit Plovdiv
Archaeological Museum – Unification Square (Saedinenie) № 1: Archaeological Museum
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri