Plovdiv Bulgaria is the country’s second-largest city after Sofia, the capital. Spread about in the Upper Thracian Plain, Plovdiv is one of Europe’s oldest cities. Historians date the location back some 4,000 years BC when Thracians settled in the hills surrounding the town. They built a fortified settlement in what’s called the Three Hills—and so Plovdiv’s rich and colorful history began. The three hills are Tepe, Taksim Tepe, and Dzhambaz Tepe. And it’s around these hills I find time to wander, wonder, and discover this culturally rich city—old and new.
Today the ancient city of Plovdiv straddles the Maritsa river, sitting on both sides of its banks and surrounded by the seven hills of Plovdiv.
After enduring many battles and losing and regaining the territory over the centuries, including to the Persians, Greeks, and Celts, the Thracians lost the city to the Romans in the 1st century AD. Today visitors can see some of the most well-preserved Roman artifacts in this part of Europe, including fortress walls, cobblestoned streets, architecture, and the water and sewage systems.
Dominating the old town part of the city center is the Plovdiv (Philippopolis) Roman theater, or as it’s known, the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis. It’s one of the most well-preserved ancient theaters in the world. Still in use today, the Romans constructed the 5,000 – 7,000 seating capacity theater in the latter part of the 1st century AD, and today it’s still used to host cultural, musical, and theatrical performances.
Also constructed by the Romans is the partly restored Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis. Dating back to the 2nd Century AD, the stadium seated up to 30,000 spectators, remnants of the theater are scattered throughout downtown, including the northern curved part of the stadium in Dzhumaya Square. Here you can see some of a vaulted passage used for distinguished guests and remnants of the city’s ancient fortress wall.
As I set out on my first night walking the streets of Plovdiv, I’m reminded by banners and flags all over that that the EU selected the city to host the Annual European Capital of Culture (2019). Beyond the Roman archaeological wonders and the architectural wonders of Plovdiv, the city is home to the Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum that exhibits a vast collection of crafts, clothing, furniture, musical instruments, weapons, and religious. They display all of this in exhibition rooms in the mid-19th century home of the late Bulgarian merchant Argir Kuyumdzhioglu.
Another must-see historical space in Plovdiv is the Trakart Cultural Centre. Here you can find some of the most stunning Roman floor mosaics dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. But perhaps most interesting are exhibits of ancient Thracian glassware, including some of the oldest ceremonial wine vessels ever found.
Memory Wine & Dine Restaurant
As dusk turns to sunset, I set my sights on a nearby restaurant recommended by Natalia of Dragomir. Known for a stellar wine list, Memory Wine & Dine is one of the highest-rated restaurants in Plovdiv. Natalia asked if I would prod my server tonight for wine recommendations. Will they recommend a local wine—even Dragomir? Or will they divert me to other parts of Dragomir? I’m up for the task.
I walk in circles looking for Memory Wine & Dine. My GPS gets me to the right place, but signage is confusing, and by the time I realize “this is it,” I already walked by it twice. It’s in an area just outside the pedestrian downtown promenade tucked into a side street and an alley. Though it’s near to the hipster-esque Kapana district, it’s a quieter part of town at night.
The live music performer finished his last song as I wandered into the wine bar part of the restaurant. Soon I’m seated, and I’m prompting my waiter for both food and wine recommendations. Sure enough, among his first wine recommendations are all Dragomir, the Sarva, and the Karisma. Instead, I take it up a notch with my mouth still watering from the delicious Reserve wines, I order a bottle of the Dragomir Reserve blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the noble Rubin, a contender in my search for the signature Bulgarian varietal.
For dinner, I take the waiter up on his recommended roasted red peppers stuffed with yellow cheese, a Bulgarian salad, and the slow-cooked smoked pork ribs with ginger, honey, and gravy. The chef at Memory Restaurant in Plovdiv plates everything pleasing to the eye. And the stuffed peppers recommendation was perfect and having a fresh salad before my melt-in-your-mouth smoked pork rib, and hand-cut fried potatoes all paired beautifully with my Dragomir wine.
A large table of some 10 people celebrating a birthday continued to order various bottles of wines. As I finished my dishes and sipped my wine, it was well after 1am when I followed the birthday group out and closed the restaurant.
Dwell Coffee House
After a modest breakfast at my Hotel Ego, I wander around the hills of Plovdiv to search for a cozy coffee cafe where I can catch up with my writing and continue yesterday’s digital media downloads and organizing. Tucked up a little alley at the top of a flight of stone stairs, I found Dwell Coffee House. Sitting above a few retail boutiques and overlooking a few brightly painted apartment buildings,Dwell Coffee House has a small outdoor patio, and inside vintage accents and mid-century appointments give the modern space an eclectic and homey feel. For me, Dwell is the perfect place to chill, drink coffee, taste homemade baked treats, and fresh juices. The wifi is speedy, and the young couple who founded Dwell is charming and passionate about coffee. They opened Dwell in July 2018 and just recently celebrated its successful first year of business. They have a loyal following, a great space, and perhaps the best coffee in Plovdiv. In fact, after trying a few coffee shops here, Dwell Coffee House gets my vote for the best coffee shop in Plovdiv.
Vino Culture Wine Bar
Summer in Plovdiv is happening. The pedestrian promenade is packed with people, while the cafes, bars, and restaurants are pumping with good energy. I make my way just off the square to Vino Culture Wine Bar. Vino Culture in Plovdiv is a cozy wine bar with a handful of tables inside where passionate wine lovers spill onto the street, sit on the steps or one of the few tables and enjoy the wide selection of quality Bulgarian wines.
Dimitar from Zagreus suggested I belly up to the wine bar here and chat with Boris, who owns the place with his wife. He is the passionate wine expert while his wife and the entire staff prepare tasty tapas and eats from a modest kitchen behind the bar. I’m amazed to see what they serve in such a small space as much as I am fascinated with the wine collection and Boris’s recommendations. And it’s not only wine Boris is passionate about, but he could also be the number one fan of Lokomotiv, one of Bulgaria’s many professional football clubs based in Plovdiv. In one corner tucked around the right side of the bar is a memorial to Ayan Sadakov a legend of Locomotive Plovdiv. He played more matches on the Bulgarian national team than any other player and was a key player in Bulgaria’s run for the FIFA World Cup in 1986. He passed away at 55 years old in 2017 of ALS, but he is remembered and honored at Vino Culture in Plovdiv.
Boris pours me a crisp and clean and crisp 2018 Tamianka, a single vineyard bottling from Bratanov Family Winery & Vineyards. It’s a massively aromatic white wine showing a bouquet of flowers, orange zest, with a rounding apple, quince and honey flavors on the palate. Fruity and medium acidity. It’s a smooth drinking summer wine and a sure crowd-pleaser.
I order a plate of tapas Caprese while Boris sets me up with a small tasting of some of Bulgaria’s aromatic whites while following up with some of its indigenous reds such as Rubin, Mavrud, and Gamza. Shortly, a few regulars join me at the bar. Nearby enjoying her first taste of Bulgarian wines is a food and wine blogger from Germany. A few moments later Mira the enologist I met at Dragomir walks up to the bar. We laugh and share more wine talk before she retreats to a table outside to be with her friends. I’ve only been here a few days and I already feel like a local.
After a few days wandering Plovdiv, and after trying a handful of other wine bars, I always return to Vino Culture. From my experience, Vino Culture is the best wine bar in Plovdiv thanks to its selection, atmosphere, Boris, and the rest of its passionate and knowledgeable staff.
For dinner in Plovdiv, I’ve arranged to meet a Bulgarian friend I met in Marco Island almost two years ago. Stanislav (Stan) spends winters working at one of Marco Island’s most elegant restaurants Sale e Pepe. I mentioned my desire to visit Bulgaria, and he urged me to come to his home town of Plovdiv., Stan is in town this evening. Through the modern communications of Facebook and WhatsApp, we’ve agreed to meet at Pavaj, perhaps one of Plovdiv’s finest restaurants.
In the heart of the Kapana district, Pavaj is another cozy Plovdiv must-visit stop. The narrow three-story building used to be a house and shares walls on either side to similar spaces. Diners can eat on the street level and watch the world walk by or inside there are a few tables on the ground floor next to an unassuming bar and server station, or upstairs in a larger dining area.
When I stroll into Pavaj around 7 pm, the restaurant is teeming with energy. The kitchen is bustling, and the chatter of many languages floats from the outdoor seating area out to the street. There are no available tables, and I’m told it could be an hour or more until they can seat me.
So after texting Stan with the update, I stroll into deGUSTOstation, a small wine bar next to the restaurant. Outside the wine bar are a few oak wine barrels, a few chairs. There is a bit of commotion outside as another shop-owner is upset that some of deGUSTOstation’s tables are encroaching on the pedestrian walkway. An older gentleman who I learn is the father of the winemaker calmly disagrees with the other merchant while the mother gets me a glass of wine.
The wine bar only pours wines from Bendida, a small boutique winery in Brestovitsa village about ten miles outside of Plovdiv. The pocket-sized shop. I enjoy a tasting of Bendida wines and am impressed by both the single varietal Mavrud and Rubin—the two grapes indigenous to Bulgaria. All of their wines are made Elizabet Portev, the daughter of Metodi, who seems to have appeased the other merchant by moving the barrels closer to the wine bar storefront. The family opened the wine bar and shop about ten years ago and over that time have watched Plovdiv, and the Kapana district grow and mature.
Knowing I’ll be trying wines with dinner, I finish sipping the Mavrud before walking back to Pavaj. The place is still jumping. I look around the corner and across the street. There are several other restaurants with many open tables. Diners still are stilling at all the street-level tables.
When the guy who asked me to come back in an hour sees me, he smiles, walks up. “Just one moment,” he asks me to wait. I’m patient and wait. Yet I still am surprised that the place is so packed, so I ask him.
Pavaj—Plovdiv’s Hottest Restaurant
“How come you are so busy, why are your neighbors with empty tables and you are full?” He looks at me, then gazes across the street. I learn I’m chatting with the friendly and funny Raycha, who founded Pavaj with his wife Madlen in 2015. “Do you want to buy my restaurant?” He asks with tongue in cheek. It’s Sunday night, and they are closed Mondays.
“We can meet tomorrow for coffee and work it out!”
Everything about Pavaj is cozy and friendly.
One server leads me upstairs to a small dining room with about eight wooden tables, each with mismatched chairs. The space is eclectic with sparsely decorated dark walls, and a lime green vintage fridge sits in the corner, housing cold beverages, and wine.
By the time my friend Stan shows up, I’m discussing wines and cheese with Boris, our server for the evening. I choose a bottle from Georgiev/Milkov. The 2016 Rubin is lush, velvety, and with dark fruit on the palate. On the nose, the muted aromatics unfold throughout the evening, revealing dark cherry, chocolate, and berries with a hint of pepper. It’s of the same caliber of the wines I tried yesterday at Zagreus and Dragomir.
For the main course, I let Boris talk me into horse tenderloin. You read that right. Horse. My mantra is always open to new things. And with the high energy and friendly vibe at Pavaj, I have to try it. Though I noticed at Memory Wine & Dine last night had horse sausages on its menu, but other than that subtle mention, the last time I saw horsemeat on a menu was in Central China. Though I didn’t try it then, tonight, I’m in Central Bolivia, and I’m taking a chance.
We start with cheese and cured pork and move to a fresh Balkan salad. As Stan and I catch up, Boris keeps the wine flowing and provides excellent service with plenty of humor and laughter. It is like I’m having dinner in someone’s home.
The horse tenderloin is rich, juicy, and with the texture of prime or wagyu beef. The meat is tender and pairs with the Georgiev/Milkov Rubin perfectly. Though the thought that I’m eating horse at first seemed odd, if not uncomfortable. But by the time I cleaned my plate, there wasn’t much to think about except I cannot wait to have it again. Delicious. Thank you, Pavaj.
Once again, I’m one of the last diners in the restaurant. I guess we talked long and interacted with Boris and the other servers. As the staff cleaned the kitchen and prepared to secure the outdoor tables and chairs, Raycha reminds me again that we’ll be meeting to discuss the sale of Pavaj.
For the first time, I’m able to share with Raycha how I met Stan and a little about my interest in Bulgaria. He seems more relaxed now that the rush of a demanding dinner crowd is behind him, he insists we share a toast of rakia. I learn that not only does Pavaj have a stellar wine list, it also offers some 40 different types of rakia from all over the Balkans. Out of a special bottle from Serbia, he pours me, Stan, Boris, and a few other staffers a small shot glass. It’s Nirvana rakia from southeastern Serbia. We toast as Raycha proposes that this is one of the best and admits he feels Serbian rakia is the highest quality.
He takes our glasses and walks back into the restaurant, returning moments later with a paper bag with a bottle of wine and hands it to me. “Please accept this as my gift, this is unique and rare Bulgarian wine.” I pull the bottle out, revealing a familiar label. It’s a bottle of the “Hand Made” series from Zagreus. The only white so far in the Hand Made series, it’s a 2018 Zagreus Rikat, made from 100% Rkatsiteli, a native Georgian varietal but grown in Bulgaria since the mid-20th century. Typically it’s used for distillation and Brandy, but some winemakers are experimenting with it today.
I smile, cradle the wine tight in my hands, and laugh. I share the story of meeting Dimitar and tasting the Zagreus Hand Made Pamid. There are no coincidences, just the stars aligning. For tonight, the stars were shining bright, and the smiles even more brilliant.
We all bid farewell, with hugs and promises of “next time.” Yeah. Next time.
Mentioned In This Post
Eliezer Kalev Str 2
+359 (32) 63 62 61
Memory Wine & Dine
+359 32 626 103
Dwell Coffee House
Ulitsa Prolet 2
+359 89 961 7676
Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum
Ulitsa Doctor Stoyan Chomakov 2
+359 32 625 654
Ulitsa Otets Paisiy 5
+359 89 200 1926
deGUSTOstation / Bendida Winery
Ulitsa Zlatarska 11
+359 88 955 5622
Ulitsa Zlatarska 7
Kapana, Plovdiv, Bulgaria
+359 87 811 1876