With this in mind, Plovdiv's distinguished "fame" rests on a vast abundance of artefacts dating from the Stone Age, Thracian, Roman, Goths and Huns, Byzantine, Ottoman and Renaissance eras, and into recent times. Excavations are still ongoing today, as local and international teams go about unearthing symbolic antiquities. The excavations restore and unravel their "secrets", their messages, then place these objets d'art – tiles, pottery, mosaics, weaponry, jewellery and so forth – as exhibits under glass and further protection in museums. It’s clear: Plovdiv is a prize draw for education and research, excavations and forthcoming businesses and tourism.

Fittingly, Plovdiv was chosen as a host city for the European Capital of Culture for this year, along with the Italian city of Matera. After much preparation, commencing in 2017, an impressive ensemble of more than 300 projects and 500 events was ready, covering not only the city but much of the immediate region, with an international outreach in mind. All was put together by the commendable Plovdiv European Capital of Culture organisation and committee.

Forward-thinking NGOs came up with concerts, educational and technological ideas, crafts and exhibitions, cuisine and lifestyle, films, theatre and street fests in their bid to delight local people and outsiders alike. This has been achieved within the organisation's simple and pleasant sphere and much publicised motto "TOGETHER", as symbolically noted on brochures and banners everywhere around the city.

With still more than three months left of its European Capital of Culture 2019 programme, there remains an exciting schedule ahead. Here are some of the main autumn highlights, and everyone is welcome.

For September there are plenty of events ranging from an Autumn Craft Fayre to an International Technical Fayre, an Ethno Kitchen on Wheels, a Week of Dance, a Theatre Festival and various Plovdiv Old Town Street Festivals, in particular, a Kapana Fest. Kapana, just a few minutes’ walk from the main street of Plovdiv, with many cafés and a fun, artistic vibe.

October will bring an "Electric Orpheus" concert, an Annual Business Forum relating to industry and a Swing Dance Festival.

In November will follow the Plovdiv Jazz Fest and a Parade of Young Wines.

Finally, December will see a "FilmGate BG" festival for Bulgarian short films at Plovdiv Airport. The motto is Short Cinema With Wings. The year will then conclude with a closing ceremony.

Further details about these events and much more can be found at www.plovdiv2019.eu

The city’s year in the limelight has been promoted with the help of EU funds, various sponsorship deals and individual private investors. This also meant working with local businesses, such as hotels and catering establishments, tourist bureaux and various online services, and new marketing strategies. Roads and infrastructure have been improved and museums and cultural centres have been updated. Also, working on overcoming negative stereotypes, such as those suggesting that Bulgaria is Europe's "bandit territory", which is simply not true. But such hangovers still occasionally linger, for no real apparent reason, in this pleasant and prosperous country that is moving on all the time.

The gracious hosts invited a consortium of journalists, mainly from Europe, to see Plovdiv for themselves, to witness an excavation, take note of the general atmosphere and enjoy local hospitality. The itinerary not only introduced the "outsiders" to the all-important yester-millennia landmarks but also bought them closer to the equally important modern-day scene.

Another outstanding project and strong feature relates to the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis, which for now is a large archaeological and construction site, filled with mosaics. This former shrine will very soon be brought back to life, thanks to the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Plovdiv Municipality and the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture. The immediate area is destined to be recreated as a museum by the end of the year. It will bind together history, ancient art and modern-day technology, when the recently unearthed mosaics find their final positions.

Literally vast quantities of mosaics from 4 to 6 AD have been retrieved – 2000 square metres of them – and reassembled onto platform trays, awaiting their next move. The designs contain more than 100 unique medallion inscriptions depicting rich pagan symbology. This basilica was at the heart of the city's Christian life at that time, until it was destroyed, as assumed by an earthquake.

This remarkable discovery was made in 1982 during road construction. The hands-on affair then took off in 2014, with more than 500 volunteers from all walks of life excavating. This recent venture follows the adjacent landmark and successful reconstructing of the "Small Basilica". The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis is awaiting UNESCO world heritage listing.

The journalists’ group had privileged access to much of the immediate behind-the-scenes goings-on, as the heavy-duty work continues. It was a great honour to have been taken there just weeks before the official opening of these beautifully restored works. To round off the occasion, the scribes were taken to the renowned Villa Yustina winery, within its own micro climate, among the nearby hills and valleys. There were plenty of vintage varieties to sample, which were delicious, while tee-totallers found equal pleasure in the locally produced and very rich and earthy grape juice.


Tourism

From a tourists' perspective, Plovdiv is home to the unique and celebrated Roman-era Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis. Then explore the cheerful and nearby Old Town, pop into cafes, find cosy corners and round off by seeing fine panoramic views of the city from nearby hill tops, all at a leisurely pace. When the sun goes down, go for a pleasant stroll along the River Maritsa. Many of these landmarks and features are within a comfortable walking perimeter of central Plovdiv.

My first sortie as led by my entourage took me to the unique and splendid Ancient Theatre, built by the Romans in 1 AD. Expectations were exceeded immediately as much of the original foundations and framework within this UNESCO heritage site, including the stage, are beautifully restored and very well kept. It is accessible not only as a sight-seeing venture but there is also the opportunity to see plays, ballet, classical and popular shows at this rare venue, still playing to the masses today while steeped in a high Romanic setting.

In addition to Plovdiv's most famous feature is the remaining part of a second-century AD Roman stadium beneath the main Knyaz Alexander shopping promenade, at a crossroads between the City Art gallery, the Dzhumaya Mosque with its distinctive minaret, and the shady Kapana neighbourhood. While in this vicinity, there is a chance to see a 3D film that documents this.

Then still very close by, head towards a slight hill away from the mosque towards the Bogoroditsa Orthodox church with its distinctive bell tower. From there is the enchanting, fairytale-esque cobblestoned Old Town district, alongside fast forwarding to more "recent" Renaissance times. A delightful array of elegant and richly colourful, irregular but remarkably symmetrical houses, built mainly during the mid-19th century, awaits.

Good examples are the elegant, stylish Kuyumdzhiev abode with its house and garden, now the Ethnographic museum, and the Balabanov house, which hosts cultural events. Also, the highly alluring and decorative blueish Hindilyan House, hosting lavish interiors, the Hippocrates Pharmacy museum and a myriad of others. Some of these architectural showcase pieces are open to the public and others serve as art galleries and cafes.

Finally, beyond the bygone trails comes the modern-day vibe of the shops, restaurants, bars and offices in a more familiar 20th-century setting. In particular, there is the artistic and mellow mood of the Kapana neighbourhood with a more everyday local scene rather than otherworldly tourism. Venturing there has much value, and gave us searchers a chance to meet more locals. I found it very easy chatting to almost anyone within this light, easy-going atmosphere, which brought more insight into my time there.

But continuing the historic quest, and for those interested in antiquities, Plovdiv is a treasure trove. A visit to the impressive archaeology museum is highly recommended with its remarkable array of local findings by the thousands, ranging from mosaic tapestries, weaponry, fine crafted ornaments and so forth, with expert staff to guide you through. Here are original golden treasures from Bulgaria’s settlements of Panagyurishte, Valchitran, Dubene and Rupite.

On this particularly and highly insightful day in full sunshine, when dusk finally came it was time to hit the local scene, enjoy free-spirited Balkan nightlife and head towards a concert venue by the River Maritsa. A large, enthusiastic gathering enjoyed an Orlin Pavlov concert, this fearless, dashing, youngish smoothie being the local equivalent to George Michael, and one of Bulgaria's biggest stars. When he took to the stage with his band, it was a rollercoaster ride with much cheer into the night.

Good quality walking shoes and a large sun-hat are required, for Plovdiv is among the few cities hosting two ancient theatres, alongside remains of medieval walls and towers, Ottoman baths and mosques, Eastern Orthodox churches, basilicas, synagogues, Catholic cathedrals and a host of others. The well-preserved old quarter from the National Revival period hosts its splendour of houses and churches.

Plovdiv, like most of Bulgaria, has a humid subtropical climate. From May to September, conditions are hot and sunny with average highs of 33 Celsius. In winter, skiing takes place in the mountain regions.


Personal impressions and round-offs

As for impressions, these were many and excelling. I was very impressed by the hosts, the committee and the city in general, with everyone open-minded enough to freely discuss anything, including those things that can sometimes disadvantage unsuspecting tourists. I personally had no complaints or discomfort in Plovdiv, whereas elsewhere I have encountered fickle hotel and catering staff, poor quality tourist information and mathematically challenged taxi drivers. The list goes on. Our group all agreed: "Plovdiv provides" and will give newcomers a pleasant, comfortable time.

Fundamentals such as fixing the roads and providing wheelchair access to venues are being worked on, and clearly there are far fewer problems in today's times than post-1989, especially after what has been a very successful European Capital of Culture promotion. With the right kinds of tourism and marketing campaigns, there is no reason why Plovdiv cannot prevail as an important tourist route, as well as economic, transport and education hub.

There is too much to see on a short visit. This Bulgarian beauty with its impressive lifespan dating back to biblical times requires a return visit with more study time. In my own simple capacity, I developed a great appreciation for this splendid place and its eye-opening antiquities and culture, the lovely people and the exquisite local cuisine; the positives go on. With all that Plovdiv and its people have to offer, it's up to we visitors to make the most of it.

In addition to the city, there are plenty of tranquil places to see nearby, such as scenic lakes and monasteries, rambling hills and spa resorts. Further information can be found at hotels, tourist information bureaux and online.

Getting to Plovdiv is simple enough after flying from almost anywhere in Europe to Sofia. Follow the A1/ E80 eastbound motorway which leads directly there with a pleasant, scenic 140-kilometre, 90-minute drive. Buses and trains are plentiful and Plovdiv has an airport but there are few flights.

For those curious onlookers in search of something new, go to Plovdiv now. Don't miss out. In a few years’ time it may become very crowded. Until then, a splendid time is guaranteed, and I shall return.


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