Roman Ruins? Sure, but Bulgaria’s Second City Offers So Much More

Plovdiv, like Rome, is known as the “City of Seven Hills.” But, in fact, there are only six. One was torn apart decades ago to make pavement — in its place is a shopping mall and parking lot. But there, too, artists reacted. Eight years ago, Atanas Hranov, one of Plovdiv’s most prominent artists, took stones from the torn down hill, inscribed them with quotes from the city’s poets and, in the shadow of the city’s 14th-century Dzhumaya Mosque, built a seventh “hill,” a mound that serves as a tribute to the resilience of art.

“We have seven hills in our city’s coat of arms,” Mr. Hranov told me. “Now, it’s true again.”

The people shaping Plovdiv into a center for unbridled creativity aren’t limited to its artists. The neighborhood of Kapana (“The Trap”) is named for its confusing layout, but it would be just as appropriate a name for the way its residents and small business owners draw you in. A short walk from the main street, the neighborhood’s stone streets are lined with bars, cafes and boutiques. It’s familiar by now — the hip, gentrified neighborhood where young people smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and trade stories over craft beers or overpriced coffee — but there’s something different about Kapana, something that makes it feel unlike all the Williamsburg carbon copies. I found an overwhelming sense of calm here — no one was out to impress; you could nurse a beer for a full hour at a neighborhood bar without getting dirty looks.

The Kapana spot I frequented most, Cat and Mouse, was one of the first bars in the neighborhood. While acknowledging that the story of Kapana is a familiar one of gentrification, its owners, Dimitar Semkov, 37, and Ivailo Dernev, 40, said the buildings in the area were largely abandoned when they moved in.

“It was basically a parking lot for people working in the city,” Dimitar said as the three of us sipped the house dark ale. “We decided to stay here because we saw potential.”

It was another example of innovative thinking. Ivailo and Dimitar are journalists and their online publication, Pod Tepeto (“Under the Hill”), is still, according to others I talked to, one of the only independent media outlets in the country. The bar was a way to finance their journalism so they wouldn’t be beholden to advertisers. The enterprise has progressed — into a co-working space, a guesthouse and an online guide for tourists. But they’ve never had ambitions beyond Plovdiv.

“Our mission is to show the passion of the people in this city,” Ivailo said. “When something good happens, we want to be a part of it,” Dimitar chimed in.

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