My kind of place: compact and old-world charms of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Bulgaria's second city, Plovdiv has a sophistication outsiders might not readily associate with the Balkans. Settled by Thracian tribes some 7,000 years ago, Plovdiv has a tremendous range of historical remnants, arts, culture and nightlife for such a relatively small place.
The mishmash of cultures attesting to its rich past include a grand Ottoman mosque adjoining a subterranean Roman stadium, with smart shopping, relaxed cafes, art galleries and historic churches all within a few minutes' walk.
Plovdiv is a hassle-free destination because it is easily explored on foot. Its network of central pedestrian streets and squares are ever-expanding, while the cobblestone lanes and traditional, restored homes of the elevated Old Town add to this subtle refinement.
A quirk of history perhaps "saved" Plovdiv. After the Russian-Turkish War of 1877, much of Bulgaria was liberated but southern areas, including Plovdiv, were returned to the Ottomans. Although Bulgaria would recover these lands, the capital had already been chosen: Sofia. While that city grew haphazardly, Plovdiv was relatively untouched, free to maintain its old-world charms and likeable character.
Plovdiv also makes a great base for a spa break in any one of the hotels that make use of the rejuvenating mineral waters of the forested Rodopi Mountains to the south, or for touring the Valley of Roses to the north - a place where Thracian antiquities have been found and one of the world's most important producers of rose oil.
A comfortable bed
Plovdiv's boutique accommodation scene includes the Hotel Renaissance (www.renaissance-bg.com; 00 359 32 266 966). A double room costs from 135 Bulgarian leva (Dh327) per night, including taxes. On the Old Town's southern edge, it is a two-minute walk from the shopping streets and has cosy rooms recreating 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival décor, with painted floral motifs and period furniture - plus an Arabic-language property document from 1878. Business travellers seeking the usual amenities and an indoor pool should head to north-side Novotel (www.novotel.com; 00 359 32 934 444; from 144 leva [Dh349).
Find your feet
Stroll the shop-lined pedestrian mall, Knyaz Aleksandar, which is lined with local and international designer clothing brands, as well as handcrafted jewellery.
Continue down to take in the sights of the Roman stadium and Dzhumaya Mosque. Built in the 15th century, the latter is one of the Balkans' biggest and oldest.
The Roman stadium has been increasingly restored, with its semicircular marble rows accessible through underground passages.
In the Old Town, on Ulitsa Saborna, an eclectic blend of attractions emerge, including art galleries, cafes, a Roman amphitheatre, Orthodox churches and the 7,000-year-old remains of the Thracian fortifications, Nebet Tepe, offering striking views. Wear sturdy shoes - the Old Town's steep cobblestone streets can be uneven.
Meet the locals
Bulgarians are kind and will go out of their way to help lost tourists. In the warmer months, everyone is out on the pedestrian mall to eat, drink, and see and be seen. Cultural events during the summer include open-air concerts at the Roman Ampitheatre, such as the Verdi Festival of Opera each June. You'll rub shoulders with many local art lovers near the end of September, when the Night of the Galleries offers free admission and late opening at all art galleries.
Book a table
Plovdiv cuisine combines the Balkan tradition of skara (grilled meats) and Turkish-influenced specialities such as meatball (kofte) soup, borek (a kind of flaky cheese pie), savoury aubergine dishes, and desserts such as sweet cherry preserves and baklava. A meal for two at a decent restaurant will cost about 80 leva (Dh194) but you can spend as little as a few leva on borek or doner kebap.
The scattered Old Town eateries offer good ambience, while the central pedestrian area is buzzing with quick eats, coffees and desserts, such as at the time-honoured Café Dreams on Stambolov Ploshtad (Square).
The garden restaurant of the upscale Hebros Hotel (K Stoilov 51) is more pricey, but known for its fusion of Bulgarian cuisine with international flavours. Try grilled foie gras with sliced apple (29 leva; Dh70) followed by traditional homemade meat balls (kebabche) in tomato with pickled cucumbers (19 leva; Dh46).
Every big city offers name-brand designer goods. In Plovdiv, shop instead for the city's unique artworks. Since an arts community developed in the 1960s, Plovdiv artists have produced acclaimed works unparalleled in the region. Works are for sale at most galleries.
The Philipopolis Art Gallery (Saborna 29) houses works by early masters such as Vladimir Dimitrov. The nearby Zlatyu Boyadjiev House (Saborna 18) also exhibits paintings by this great 20th-century artist, while Atanas Krastev House (Dr Chomakov 5a) exhibits the work of Krastev and hosts special events.
Definitely visit the Permanent Exhibition of Dimitar Kirov (Kiril Nektariev 17), housed in an ornate mansion towards the Old Town's southern side. It features the extraordinarily vivid abstracts, portraits and mosaics of the legendary Kirov, who died in 2008. These works will only appreciate in value and represent great shopping opportunities for savvy travellers.
What to avoid
Plovdiv is very safe and you're unlikely to run into trouble, though beggars can be a minor nuisance.
About 30km south of Plovdiv, Bachkovo monastery is Bulgaria's second-largest, with 11th-century Byzantine origins. Its Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa (1604) houses frescoes by the 19th-century Zahari Zograf (considered Bulgaria's greatest iconographer). A large placard here outlines hiking routes in the forests.
Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) flies to Sofia from Abu Dhabi via Istanbul in seven hours from €370 (Dh1,749) return, including taxes. Plovdiv is on the Sofia-Istanbul railway line and there are frequent trains from Sofia, as well as buses. A taxi from Sofia station costs about 200 leva (Dh480).