Plovdiv’s Roman Treasures: A Walking Tour

25.07.2012 § 8 Comments

In 1968, the sports field of the Pedagogy Institute in Bulgaria’s second-largest city, sun-drenched Plovdiv, was scheduled for refurbishment. A company of the Army’s construction corps was assigned to expand the field, which involved digging deeper into one of the city’s three hills. However, the Institute never got its field, because what the diggers found underneath were the curved marble seating rows of an immaculately preserved outdoor Roman theatre.

Plovdiv, inhabited continuously since 4000 BC and Europe’s third-oldest city (after Athens and Argos), is known by many names. Settled by the Thracians as Eumolpias, it was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, and given the name Philippopolis. After the decline of the Macedonian kingdom, it reverted to the Thracians, who called it Pulpudeva. When the Romans swept onto the Balkans, they called it Trimontium (“City of Three Hills”) and made it a cultural and economic hub of the Roman province of Thrace. The via militaris, one of the Roman empire’s arterial roads, passed through the city, and it thrived on the banks of the Hebros (Maritsa) river, at one time containing numerous public buildings, baths, shrines, villas, with high walls and a Roman grid system in its streets. This walking tour will take you on a trip through its main Roman-era sights.

The city’s Roman heritage, preserved deep beneath layers of subsequent turmoil and history, has made it a gamble to build anything in the Old Town core. More than once have construction plans been put on hold when diggers discovered some new archaeological treasure in a building’s intended foundations. Some of Plovdiv’s greatest treasures sit directly beneath newer heritage buildings, making complete excavation impossible. Still, one by one these monuments have been made available to the general public through clever engineering, a nationwide commitment to heritage conservation and, more recently, EU funds.

1. The Roman Forum and Odeon (B)

Starting in the city’s main square (A), a block behind the Post Office and the Tourist Information Centre, is an entire city block of Roman remains. Little can be seen of the remnants of the Roman Forum, but the Odeon (a singing and performance venue) has been restored and houses regular performances. Work in this area is ongoing, but the monumental foundations seen here can rival those of Rome itself. Consider this a quick primer of Plovdiv’s Roman past and walk on. Your journey continues north along Alexander I Battenberg, the city’s main pedestrian shopping avenue, known to locals simply as “Главната” (“Glávnata“, meaning “the main/primary one”).

The Roman Odeon and Forum

2. The House of Eirene (C)

Don’t go too far, for just two blocks north of the Odeon, you’ll have to turn right down Patriarh Evtimiy street. It will lead you to the underpass that houses Plovdiv’s next hidden Roman treasure.

The house of Eirene, a colonnaded villa with a courtyard taking up a full insula (city block) of ancient Trimontium, was discovered when work began on the underpass below the major modern thoroughfare Boris III. An entire section of the original Roman paving was found intact, alongside the foundations of a nobleman’s home. Rather than abandoning the project, the Roman street was incorporated into the underpass, allowing pedestrians to walk on its ancient cobbles, and the villa’s foundations became a museum in which visitors could take a walkway mere inches above the intricate mosaic floor depicting Eirene, the daughter of Poseidon, as the patron of the home. Fragments of pottery, the base of a fountain and an exposed plumbing pipe, as well as rotating art exhibits can also be seen at the museum.

Definitely spend a bit of time here. Entrance is free for elementary and high school students and seniors, and 3 Leva otherwise, and includes a guided tour from a member of the museum’s knowledgeable staff.

The uncovered foundations of the House of Eirene
(source: ASP Museum)

3. The Roman Stadium (D)

When you’re finished at the House of Eirene, go back the way you came to the pedestrian shopping street, which you should get in the habit of calling “Glavnata”. Walk north along this street until it splits around Djumaya square, on the observation platform of Trimontium’s Roman stadium.

The stadium was built in the heyday of Trimontium for the benefit of its citizens, at one time drawing crowds of 30 000 for races, games and sporting events. Unfortunately, the stadium stretches directly beneath the entire length of the street you just walked down, the city’s most prominent shopping avenue – “Glavnata”. Every building along the street, many of them over 100 years old, would have to be torn down to excavate the entire ancient stadium. Some buildings have actually undergone reconstructive work to include glass floors with views to the ancient foundations below.

First uncovered during reconstructive work in the square in the late 1970’s, the stadium was inaccessible to the public for many years due to lack of funds and the uncertainty of digging under the shopping avenue. Over the past two years, at a cost of almost 1 million Euro, the northern curve of the stadium and including a marble arch, stands and a VIP box, has been restored, expanded and it’s open to the public as of April of 2012 as the Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis.

At the time of writing, you can descend into the stadium itself, walk around and examine the remnants of the seating rows hinting at the grandeur of this stadium, free of charge.

The Roman stadium
(source: Wikimedia Commons)

4. The Ancient Theatre (E)

This is the one Roman landmark that is somewhat out of the way of an easy walking tour axis. You may choose to take the detour now, or leave it as part of the Old Town tour. Regardless, don’t leave Plovdiv without seeing it.

The Ancient Theatre , built during the reign of Trajan (between 114 and 117 AD), consists of 28 semicircular marble rows (of which 20 have been preserved) around a two-level stage with a backstage building to the right. It is one of the best preserved such theatres in Europe. Due to its excellent acoustics, it is an active concert venue to this day, holding as many as 5000 spectators. It is sometimes erroneously referred to as an amphitheatre, although its semicircular audience area sidesteps the strict definition of the term. The theatre’s preservation work has been outstanding, reinforcing and supplementing the ancient structure with simple and clearly distinct modern additions. After ten years of excavation work, the theatre was opened for visitors in 1981, to coincide with the celebration of Bulgaria’s 1300th birthday. The Ancient Theatre (antichen teatur) is open to visitors year-round, and hosts concerts and performances throughout the summer.

To reach it from the Roman stadium, look to the south-west. You’ll see a building of red brick and a minaret tower. This is the famous Djumaya mosque, built during the Ottoman era and serving Plovdiv-area Muslims to this day. If you’re careful, you can take the street *behind* the mosque going right, and it will lead you to one of the entrances to the Old Town. From there, take the big set of stairs leading up, past the pink bell tower and onto Todor Samodumov street, then turn right on Tzar Ivailo. It will take you to the gated entrance of the Ancient Theatre. Tickets are 3 Leva, and an English-speaking tour will cost you 15.

The ancient Roman theatre
(photo: georgy.photo-forum.net)

5. The Archaeological Museum (F)

The culmination to this trek is undoubtedly the small, but newly renovated and extremely rich city archaeological museum. It’s crammed six millenia of history into a handful of well-lit rooms, and includes several Thracian gold treasures, some of the oldest gold ever worked by human hand, as well as coins, weaponry and statues from every period in Plovdiv’s history – Thracian, Roman and Medieval. Its size makes it easy to traverse in a short amount of time while the richness of its exhibits will leave you marvelling at the depth and richness of the region’s historical wealth. Entrance is 5 Leva (1 Lev for students), and a guided tour in English costs 20. Unfortunately, picture-taking is not allowed inside the building.

To reach the museum, walk north from Djumaya square (where the Roman stadium is), down the continuation of “Glavnata”, Raiko Daskalov street. After a few blocks, the street will end with an underpass beneath 6 Septemvri boulevard. Take the underpass, then turn left along the boulevard. You will reach a square with a statue of a winged woman holding a wreath – the monument to Bulgarian Unification. To the right of the statue in the square, you’ll see two buildings. The one furthest from the street is the Archaeological Museum.

The Archaeological Museum

There are many other such monuments in Plovdiv – remains of ancient basilicas and villas, parts of gates, aqueducts and city walls, even a rumoured coin mint that has yet to be found. Visit the official sitefor a complete list of locations and visitors’ information. Many of Plovdiv’s ancient treasures have been unearthed and displayed, but many more are underdeveloped and crumbling due to a lack of funds and a clear development strategy from the city. Yet, Plovdiv is vying for European Capital of Culture in 2019, which will enable it to showcase its unique past and to gain further funds to steward and preserve it.

The streets and sights of ancient Trimontium (in red) superimposed over the map of the city’s modern core. The ancient theatre (#1), the Roman stadium (#2) and the House of Eirene (#3) are described below. Note the match between the stadium and the street above it. (Source: ASP Museum)

Alongside its Roman past, the city has an exceedingly well preserved National Revival era old town with individual buildings dating back to Medieval times and the Ottoman dominion.

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