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Exploring Plovdiv

Bulgaria day five


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Statue of Alyosha

We had a more leisurely start today as we weren’t scheduled to meet up until 10.00. There was time for me to properly admire the view from my room at the Hotel Ego, including the statue of Alyosha on Bunarzhik Tepe (the Liberators’ Hill). Although a significant landmark in the city, this statue is the subject of some controversy. It was erected in 1954-57 to commemorate the Soviet casualties incurred during their occupation of Bulgaria in World War Two. The local authorities considered having the statue removed in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but there was a campaign for its preservation which included installing a 24 hour guard on the statue to prevent it from being demolished. Its removal was proposed again in 1996 but not carried through.

After breakfast I shared a taxi to a convenient spot with Rick and Sylvia, and we walked through a pleasant park (Tsar Simeon’s Garden) to join the VT group in front of the Municipal Building on Stefan Stambalov Square, our meeting point for this morning’s city walking tour – the first of two day time activities for this meet arranged by our host John.

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Attractive building near Stefan Stambalov Square

City walking tour

There was plenty of ‘meeting and greeting’ in the square before eventually we were separated into two smaller groups and each allocated a guide for our walking tour of the city.

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Jon and Regina in Stefan Stambalov Square
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Jean-Pierre, Rosa, Holger and Co

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Our host, John

This tour was organised by the same 365 company who provide the free walking tour we had done in Sofia, but was a private (paid for) one for our much larger numbers here.

The guide for the group I joined was Velis – he was very informative, although at times he walked a little fast for me to be able to take photos and keep up with the group! He started by giving us a brief history of Plovdiv.

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Our guide Velis

The city is one of the oldest in Europe, having been settled as long ago as 4,000 years BC. In the 4th century BC it was conquered by Phillip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, who fortified it and named it Phillipopolis.

Later the Thracians regained their power over the city, but after a series of battles in the 1st century AD it became part the Roman Empire. During that period Plovdiv (then called Trimontium) was an important regional centre. The city flourished, with large-scale construction of buildings, facilities and roads, the remains of some of which can still be seen today – as we were to discover.

Over the centuries, the city was passed between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines until in the 14th century, like the rest of the country, it fell firmly under the Ottoman Empire. After liberation in 1878 the principality of Bulgaria was broken up and Plovdiv became briefly the capital of a small breakaway state, Eastern Rumelia – still under Ottoman rule but autonomous. This lasted only seven years before, on 6 September 1885, the city was conquered, and Eastern Rumelia was reunited with the Principality of Bulgaria. This date is celebrated every year as an official holiday in Plovdiv.

Today it is the second largest city in the country and a major centre of culture in Bulgaria. Now, in 2019, it is one of the two European Capitals of Culture (the other is Matera in Italy) and is the focus for many cultural celebrations and events.

Together Plovdiv

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Together Plovdiv sign

Together Plovdiv is the slogan adopted by the city for its spell as Capital of Culture. The large colourful letters of this installation celebrating that slogan have become a popular spot for meeting friends and for selfies and other photo opps.

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Photos at the Together Plovdiv sign

The sign stands by a small cascade at the foot of which sits one of a number of statues in the city centre that are the work of Danko Dankov. These are all of real people, who lived in Plovdiv in the 20th century. This one is Miljo who lived here in the 1960. He was considered a gentle fool with big ears, who ‘captured’ all the city’s gossip and shared it with acquaintances and strangers encountered here on Plovdiv’s main thoroughfare. Urban legend has it that he was actually very intelligent and could speak several languages but went mad from too much reading! Locals today say that you can confide your deepest secrets in Miljo as he can no longer gossip about them!

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Velis with Miljo

Roman stadium

At the northern end of this pedestrianised street are the partially uncovered remains of the Roman stadium, built under the Emperor Hadrian. Velis explained that it stretched beneath the street back to our starting point near the cascade. It is long and narrow in shape (not round like the Colosseum in Rome, for instance) and is approximately 240 metres long and 50 metres wide. When in use it could seat up to 30,000 spectators. As a comparison, the Colosseum held about 50,000.

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The Roman stadium

The spectators' seats are of marble and are tiered in 14 rows, with stepped aisles leading between them down to the track. The front parts were decorated with stylized lion paws, the remains of which can still be seen in places.

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Model of the Roman stadium

Velis told us that typically the Romans built these large stadiums, seating people from all levels in society to watch the games (gladiator fights, battles with animals, even mock naval battles with the stadium flooded). Their theatres, on the other hand, were much smaller as they believed only the upper classes had the education needed to appreciate drama.

For a long while it was completely hidden. A model nearby shows what it once looked like, with an aqueduct to the north providing water for the staged sea battles for which the stadium would be sealed and flooded. The southern end (still buried below the streets) had an ornamental entrance. On its pilasters are busts of Hermes and prize vases with palm sprays, as well as items associated with Hercules – a lion skin, a mace and a quiver. Apparently (according to Velis) you can see some remains under a couple of the shops, including H&M, but I never got around to going inside to check.

Dzhumaya Mosque

The mosque which lies next to the remains of the stadium was built with stone recycled from the aqueduct. These stones were used firstly to build a church, in the 5th century AD (the Sveta Petka Tarnovska Cathedral Church). In the 14th century (1363–1364) this was transformed into a mosque, after the conquest of Plovdiv by the Ottoman army. The mosque was demolished and rebuilt during the 15th century. Its construction shows the influence of Byzantine and Old Bulgarian architectural styles, with two layers of bricks alternating with a single layer of stone.

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Dzhumaya Mosque

This is one of the oldest and largest Ottoman Islamic buildings in the Balkans, yet is a relatively modest structure, with only one minaret. Instead of a large central dome it has nine smaller ones. The name ‘Dzhumaya’ means Friday, denoting that this is the city’s main mosque for Friday prayers. I never got the chance to go inside, despite passing several times over the course of the weekend. A shame, as the frescoes (dating from the late 17th to early 19th centuries) sound really worth seeing.

Kapana

We then entered the Kapana area of the city, where a maze of small streets follows much the same pattern as the Ottoman souk which once stood here, although the mainly wooden buildings of that era are long since gone. The very name, Kapana, recalls that maze as it means ‘Trap’ – once among these streets it was hard to find your way out!

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Colourful Kapana

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Street art in Kapana

Velis explained how when the Communist Party came to power many of the nicest houses were in this area, so they seized them for senior party officials to live in. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and restoration of democracy the houses were to be handed back to the original owners, but some couldn’t be traced and many didn’t want to return – either because they didn’t fully trust that the Communists had been overthrown or because they had meanwhile established comfortable new lives elsewhere. So Kapana became a sort of ghost town and the houses stood empty and began to crumble and decay.

But when Plovdiv was awarded the Capital of Culture for 2019, the city authorities realised that they had to clean up Kapana. Houses were restored, craftspeople encouraged to move into the empty shops and revive the old trades (leather work, metalwork etc) or introduce new ones, and a street art competition was organised to replace random graffiti tags with real art, with wonderful results!

I loved the buzz of this area, which has rather the feel of some of London’s trendier East End districts (Hoxton, Shoreditch) but on a lower key, more accessible scale.

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More street art in Kapana

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People in Kapana

The Old Town

Leaving Kapana we crossed the Main Street via an underpass and climbed the steep stone steps to the old town. This was built on three of Plovdiv’s famous seven hills, Nebet, Dzhambaz and Taksim. Incidentally if you try to count these seven hills you will only find three more in addition to these three – the seventh, Markovo Tepe, was destroyed during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, and most of the pavement for the streets in Plovdiv was made from its rocks.

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Street art, and souvenir art
- the street art painting shows a girl surrounded by roses, the symbol of Bulgaria

The area covered by the Old Town has been settled since Roman times, but most of its buildings date from the Bulgarian Revival period which covered the latter part of the Ottoman rule. I saw many similarities with the houses we had seen yesterday in Koprivshtitsa – the mix of wooden and stone materials, the colours, the decorative touches. According to the Visit Plovdiv website, the houses can be divided into two main groups:

‘The first group of houses corresponds to the mountain asymmetrical type, but it has been expanded and enriched for the needs of the urban life. The second group is the so-called “Plovdiv symmetrical urban house”. This group of buildings is characterized by a unique national interpretation of the European baroque.’

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Building detail

We passed a beautifully painted house which I later found out is the Balabanov House, dating originally from the early 19th century and built as a home for a rich trader and usurer, Hadzhi Panayot Lampsha. It was unfortunately demolished in the 1930s but reconstructed in the 1970s, based on photographic material. Today it houses an exhibition of modern Bulgarian art on ts ground floor, while the first is used for cultural events.

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The Balabanov House

Velis took us first to see the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate built in the 11th century on the foundations of an earlier Roman one. This is one of the three entrances to the ancient acropolis of Philippopolis. During the rule of the Ottoman empire, houses were built into the remains of the old stone walls around the gate.

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Hisar Kapia

Near here I spotted a stone carving of a man’s face which I rather liked. Later I pored over the Cyrillic lettering and worked out that this is Tsanko Lavrenov, a Plovdiv-born artist known for his cityscapes of the old town of Plovdiv and what look like wonderful frescoes in monasteries in Bulgaria and elsewhere. Naturally I was pretty pleased with myself for working this out!

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Tsanko Lavrenov


We passed a beautiful large wooden house dated 1847, but if Velis told us anything about it I missed it - perhaps because I found it hard to keep up with his pace on the large uneven cobbles of the old town. However subsequent research has revealed it to be the Kuyumdzhioglu House, now the city’s ethnographic museum. This is just one of many sights here I would have liked the time to explore properly, but the tour didn’t allow for this and unfortunately I never got back to the Old Town after this morning tour.

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The Kuyumdzhioglu House

Sveti Sveti Konstantin and Elena

But I did hear Velis talk about the lovely old church dedicated to St Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire, and to his mother Elena who had persuaded him that this was the only true religion.

This is the site of the first Christian church in Plovdiv, which was built in the mid 4th century AD. It stood on the spot where the martyrs Severin and Memnos were beheaded for professing their Christian faith some thirty years earlier and was dedicated to them. The church was demolished and rebuilt several times over the following centuries, until in 1810 it was rebuilt for the final time

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Exterior frescoes, Sveti Sveti Konstantin and Elena

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Wall decorations


We didn’t go inside the church, regrettably, but what I saw from the door looked stunning! The church retains its original 19th century frescoes and has an iconostasis made in Vienna in the Baroque style. Luckily for me, the exterior has a frescoed gallery, part of which I was able to see, and photograph, a small part in the short time available to us here.

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Peering inside

The church’s bell tower was added in the 1860s. Next door to the church there is an icon gallery in the former parish school. In what is becoming a familiar refrain in this blog entry, there was no time on the tour to visit this. I planned to come back, both to gallery and church, but as you will read below, failed to do so. Maybe another visit to Plovdiv is called for?

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Bell tower, Sveti Sveti Konstantin and Elena

The Lamartin House

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The Lamartin House

The old town streets are lined with attractive houses, some now serving as shops catering to the many tourists, and a few as hotels. Velis pointed out one in particular, the Lamartin House - famous not because of anyone who lived there but because a former owner once played host to a famous French writer, Alphonse de Lamartine, who toured the Ottoman Empire and wrote a book about his experiences, ‘Voyage en Orient’, which featured his stay in Plovdiv.

Velis told us a story about his visit which I guess may or may not be true. Apparently it was a big deal for an Ottoman city to receive a visitor of any importance from the West, and all the rich residents wanted to invite him to stay in their house (there were no hotels at the time). To resolve the argument, it was decided to hold a horse race. Anyone wanting to host the visitor had to bring his horse outside one of the city gates, where all would race towards Lamartine. The first to reach him and tag him would be the lucky host. However, no one thought to tell the Frenchman, who when he saw lots of men on horseback charging towards him thought he was about to be attacked by brigands and ran away! Luckily no harm was done, the visit passed off well with much partying, and Plovdiv got its mention in the book.

A little beyond here we came to a small open space with a good view over Plovdiv.

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View of Plodiv from the old town

We finished our tour in the open space in front of the city’s music academy. Young people in national costume were waiting outside before a performance, lending colour to the scene and happy to be included in our photos. I was surprised that one carried bagpipes and would like to have heard them played.

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Girls in national costume


A bronze statue in the square (again the work of Danko Dankov) is of the violinist Alexander Nikolov (aka Sasho Sladura). Velis told us that he loved to tell jokes, and this was his undoing. One evening after a performance a senior Party official asked him, ‘When are you leaving’, to which Nikolov replied, ‘The question is, when are you leaving?’ He was arrested in 1961 and sent to a labour camp as punishment for his jokes against the ruling powers, where he was murdered. The statue commemorates not just him but all the intellectuals who fought against, and were killed by, the oppressive regime.

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Velis with Sasho Sladura

Immediately below the square are the remains of the Roman Theatre, which was only rediscovered in the 1980s. An inscription on a pedestal dates it to the end of the 1st century AD. It has 28 concentric rows of marble seats surrounding the stage in a horseshoe shape, which would have had a capacity of about 6,000 (compared to the 30,000 who could attend the public games in the stadium). Today it is used to stage opera, music and drama performances, and unfortunately for us was closed today as it was being prepared for a performance.

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The Roman theatre

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We had planned to take a group photo in the theatre but had instead to do so in the square itself. By this time the other walking tour group had joined us, so we were a good crowd for the photos.

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Group photo after the walking tour

Afternoon in Plovdiv

Our host John led a group of us to a nearby bar with seating in a peaceful garden, under some shady trees, but their kitchen was closed and some of us felt the need for food as well as drinks for lunch. So I joined my friends Regina, Jon, Teresa, Lorraine and Anne Marie in a search for food which took us back down the hill to Kapana (the few bars in the Old Town seemed only to offer drinks).

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'Cat on a hot tin roof' - at a souvenir stall in the old town


We found what we needed in Vertigo (if I am reading my Cyrillic correctly) - some nice salads and an assortment of drinks including fresh lemonade with roses.

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Regina and Jon outside Vertigo

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At lunch in Vertigo (taken by Jon)
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Jon making origami birds in Vertigo

I had planned after lunch to return to the church and icon gallery we had seen on our walk, but that was when I expected to eat that lunch in the old town. Now, with an aching ankle (I have problems with my achilles) and wanting to pace myself through the trip, I decided, somewhat reluctantly, that re-climbing that hill would not be a good idea.

So I strolled through Kapana with the others, taking more photos of the street art on the way.

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Street art in Kapana

When we reach the mosque, I decided to wander back to the hotel for a good rest. I of course found quite a bit to photograph along the way, including a beautiful old building on Hristo G Danov street – it looks to be of some architectural significance, but I’ve not been able to find any information online.

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Building on Hristo G Danov street

I also found a sculpture of the writer Ivan Vazov (he after whom the theatre in Sofia is named) in the park surrounding the Natural History Museum, Dondukova Gradina Park, and felt a bit smug at deciphering the Cyrillic inscription on the plinth!

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Bust of Ivan Vazov

There were some pretty cats in the same park, one of whom in particular was keen to make friends.

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Friendly cat

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10 March 1943 memorial

Opposite the museum I found a moving monument, with an inscription in Hebrew, English and Bulgarian, dedicated ‘To all who helped to save us on 10 March 1943 from the grateful Jewish community of Plovdiv’. This refers to the events of that date when the Jews of Bulgaria were rescued from deportation to the death camps through the efforts of some prominent campaigners and the general population. According to Wikipedia:
‘There was an intense national outcry. Protests were held throughout the country, with both ordinary citizens and religious leaders, including bishop Kiril of Plovdiv, threatening to block the path of Holocaust trains by lying on the railroad tracks.’

On another website I found a fuller description of the events at this time in Plovdiv:

‘During the night between the 9 and 10 of March about 1500-1600 people were arrested and gathered in a school … to be transported to the death camps. The Plovdiv Bishop Kiril, a prominent opponent of the anti-Semitic policy of the Government, arrived at the school, jumped over the fence, entered at closed door, and firmly declared: “Where you go, I go.” The future Bulgarian patriarch sends an express telegram to Tsar Boris III quoting: “In God’s name I sincerely beg Your Majesty for mercy for the Jews!”

The action of one of the reputable leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church categorically alarms the leaders about the discontent and resentment in the country, concerning the anti-Jewish policy. A powerful social and political resistance comes from the side of writers, artists, musicians, publicists, craftsmen, politicians and national representatives ... Pressured by the outrage and demands of the intercessors, which overflow the Bulgarian society, the Government retreats and on 9 March 1943 an order was released concerning the cancellation of deportation. On the 10 March 1943 the Jews prepared for deportation were released and sent back home. Bulgaria is the only country in Europe in alliance with the Third Reich, in which the Jewish minority was not only preserved, as well as increased its population in comparison to the beginning of the war.’

Our guide on the walking tour in Sofia, Deni, had told us that the fall in numbers of Jews in Bulgaria happened not during WW2, as you might have expected in a country that was allied to the Axis powers, but after it, when many left to start new lives in Israel.

I thought at the time that the ruined building nearby might have something to do with the events of that time, but my research since returning home reveals it to be merely the shell of an old furniture store destroyed by fire in 2016. Nevertheless I found it rather photogenic!

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Burned out building

Finally, in the small garden across the road from the hotel, I came across this rather haunting sculpture of a young girl but have not been able to find out anything about it. Maybe it too is related to the events of 10 March 1943?

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Statue of a girl

Saturday evening

After my rest back at the hotel I got ready for dinner and took a taxi back to the centre with Kirsty, Colin and Josephine. We had a short stroll along the pedestrianised street which was lively because of the festival. We enjoyed a brief bit of singing from a performance being given in the Roman stadium.

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Watching the choir

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Choir in the Roman stadium

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Puppet show on the streets of Plovdiv

We bumped into some other friends, and decided to go for a drink at the nearby White Bar where we were pleased to be able to pull a couple of tables together – even if a sugar bowl did suffer in the process! The waitress who came to take our orders explained that the cost of this would have to be added to our bill, which didn’t seem unreasonable, but the twenty minute wait for our drinks did, so eventually the culprit (mentioning no names!) left a small sum in recompense for the broken bowl and we all left.

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In the White Bar, waiting for our drinks!

It had been suggested that we meet before dinner by the colourful Together Plovdiv sign for group photos – and despite the onset of rain it was a great location for these. This was our third evening in Plovdiv, and on each of them a warm, mostly sunny day had been followed by a wet evening – a pattern seemed to be emerging.

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Group photo at Together Plovdiv

From the sign it was a short walk in the light drizzle to the Smokini Restaurant for our Saturday dinner which like last night was served on platters to each table. The starters were delicious, but I would have preferred the main course meat dishes to have been served a bit hotter.

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Starter platter at Smokini

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VT dinner at Smokini

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VT dinner at Smokini
- Jonathan's birthday cake


The atmosphere was as lively as ever at a VT dinner, and during the course of the evening it was announced by our host John that I would be taking up the challenge of hosting next year, in Newcastle - gulp

I left fairly soon after that as we would have another early start the next day and the cold that had been bugging me for days was migrating to the cough stage, making it difficult for me to chat in the noisy restaurant. Time for a fairly early night, I decided. Other friends staying in the Hotel Ego also left at this point, so we shared a taxi back and I got my early night.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:34 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged churches people streets architecture history statue houses sculpture street_art bulgaria romans euromeet plovdiv street_photography virtual_tourist Comments (20)

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