Whether from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania or elsewhere, Eastern Europeans collectively share a sparkle of adoration and excitement when they hear the name “Plovdiv”. They love the city, are impressed with its upkeep, its boldly colored buildings, its history and nature. They recommend everyone to go there, to spend more time. They speak with brightly lit eyes and long for the day they can return.

Dolls hung from trees in celebration of Spring Plovdiv, Bulgaria - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps
Dolls hung from trees in celebration of Spring Plovdiv, Bulgaria – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps

Bulgaria’s second largest city claims to be the oldest in Europe. Located smack dab in the middle of this expansive country, there’s evidence of inhabitance dating all the way back to 6th century BC. Its Old Town is dotted with primitive sites. The Ancient Theatre looks like something out of a Grecian movie set, and is still used today for live summer performances. The Roman Stadium is mostly covered by downtown’s pedestrian streets, but a small opening allows visitors to take a glimpse at the layered steps where eager fans used to sit and cheer for their favorite sportsmen. Various other structures are scattered throughout the city, giving a special reminder of days gone by.

The town’s simple play-on-words slogan “PLOVEdiv” has spread to more than just souvenirs. Everything about the city radiates love. The people are eager to speak with anyone and everyone, even if it means taking time away from their job or personal business. When I arrived nearly an hour later than planned, employees at a chiropractor’s office near my apartment-stay immediately offered to call my host and poured me a cup of fresh coffee while I waited for her arrival. That night, line workers at a local fish restaurant held our hands as we tried to figure out what we wanted to fill our stomachs and indecisive minds with. The next day while stopping for a quick lunch, the pizza house’s chef told us we must return two days later to try his special-made cotton candy. When we announced that we’d be leaving before then, he went to the backroom and returned minutes later with the largest, fluffiest stick of sugary cotton goodness I’ve ever indulged in.
The stories of kindness and playfulness go on and on.

 

Click on an image to view the photos of Plovdiv, Bulgaria up close:

Within Old Town, clusters of university students gathered at the theater to enjoy its tranquil environment, a pair of men in their thirties played football while waiting for customers to stop by their shops, and young school children flocked into markets to purchase after-school treats: prepackaged cuts of Tahini Halva.

A group of workers stopped for a drink atop one of the city’s three hills, asking for a photo to be taken of them. I obliged and found one in particular to be a charmer as their open-legged seated positions caused the pair look more like rag dolls than men 30 years my elder.

Nearby, a trendy area known as Kapana, or “The Trap” is lined with coffee shops, bars, and independent shops selling local goods. Each is either covered in freshly painted graffiti or painted in subdued pastels. Colored kites are strung in taught lines, decorating the space between land and sky, meanwhile adding to the neighborhood’s whimsical allure. We stopped for a freshly ground brew at one of Kapana’s coffee shops and were so impressed with the service and ambience that the following day we returned for round two.

 

Click on an image to view the photos of Plovdiv, Bulgaria up close:

 

The rest of the city is equally as exciting as its people. There is no end to Plovdiv’s beauty, and surprises are around every corner. By far, the most surprising – more surprising even than the cotton candy treat – was a pizzeria located near our apartment-stay. With cyrillic letters, we passed by its patio and laughed at a display of posters plastered to the walls. Six familiar faces: Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, and Monica: The cast of Friends! Then we noticed the restaurant’s sign had a cartoon drawing of a dark haired guy with a famous sideways grin. Above the caricature, in cyrillic letters, was written “Joey”.

The pizzeria was named Joey, after the struggling actor, goofy, “How you doin’?” guy famous for his heavy New York accent and childlike behaviors. Inside, the decorations were simple: What more do you need thank Friends posters lining the walls?

None of the locals seemed to find it as humorous as we. Perhaps they were used to the name and decor, but more-so it seemed that they were less aware of what a hit the show is in the US and elsewhere. Having already eaten dinner, we shared Kamenitza, the local beer, while flipping through the menu and finding on page after page photos of that same silly grin smiling back at us.

 

Click on an image to view the photos of Plovdiv, Bulgaria up close:

For our final surprise in Plovdiv, we stumbled upon the second Friends-related cafe. Serving coffees, teas, and little snacks, it’s complete with an orange couch lying low to the ground and surrounded by fully stuffed chairs. A stage sits near the entrance, ready for acoustic performances, and the bar is staffed by an upbeat trio. We found a window seat and ordered “New York Coffee” and “Empire Coffee” – incredible coffees infused with flavored syrups, one cinnamon the other toffee. We looked out the window and watched traffic pass back and forth along the busy street. The cafe’s logo was clearly displayed and cast a shadow on our table. This time, there was no goofy Joey smiling down on us. Instead, two coffee cups are drawn facing each other with the cafe’s name carefully written between them: “Central Perk.”

While being the oldest town in Europe, the city of Plovdiv Bulgaria is an eclectic mix of old, new, historical, hipster, antique and modern. The people are as lovely as the architecture, and the vivacious spectacles keep the old young and the young younger. Perhaps this is why it has survived so long.

 

Click on an image to view the photos of Plovdiv, Bulgaria up close:

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