Plovdiv, about 95 mi/155 km southeast of Sofia, is magnificent. It is Bulgaria's second-largest city and one of the few that still contains its original medieval town center. Called Trimontium, or "Three Hills," by the Romans who left behind many remains of their existence there, Old Plovdiv is so charming that acclaimed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once remarked, "Old Plovdiv should be covered with a glass dome and declared a museum town."

The city is a delightful mishmash of cultural and architectural styles. Within the ancient city (said to be 8,000 years old) lie a number of ruins, including a Roman amphitheater that was restored after 1977 and seats crowds of 3,000 for summer concerts.

Besides Roman ruins (some right on the main pedestrian mall), there are Turkish mosques, beautifully designed old houses and excellent museums. Especially interesting are the Ethnographical Museum, which is ornately decorated on the outside; the Archaeological Museum, opened in 1882; and the Bulgarian Museum of Aviation, located near the airport.

Walk the hilly cobblestoned streets of Old Plovdiv, which has wonderful examples of Bulgaria's National Revival architecture, as well as galleries and some of the best restaurants in the country. Plovdiv is an artistic center, with lots of talented young artists—many sell their work on the street.

About 20 mi/30 km south of Plovdiv is the 11th-century Bachkovo Monastery, with its beautiful churches and murals (look closely at the saints' garments in the central church's frescoes—you'd swear they have texture). Allow half a day for this side trip (go on Sunday morning, if possible, when the atmosphere is most lively). Long day trips can also be taken to Smolyan or the Valley of the Roses. Plovdiv is also near the ski town of Pamporovo.

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