Plovdiv, Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture

Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, is set to be 2019’s European Capital of Culture. The EU’s ‘Capital of Culture’ program picks a city each year to host traditional and pan-European events, and in turn, helps to revitalize the city and increase tourism.

Plodiv’s major attraction is its sprawling old town, which consists mainly of traditional wooden manors from the late 1800’s, painted with deep or neutral tones with floral embellishments. Greco-Roman ruins, the city’s foundation, are scattered throughout the city, from the hilltop Nebet Tepe, to the Roman theater and Hippodrome. In the heart of the ‘Creative district’, a single Ottoman mosque stands proudly, functioning not only as a prayer space but also as a cafe-restaurant.

Bulgarian homes are built efficiently to maximize space.

The old city is being restored, and the freshly-painted buildings look great! We wandered further from the main streets and found some older, weathered homes. Even though it’s great that the EU is working to preserve these buildings, there’s a certain charm that is lost when they’re touched up. Luckily, Evan and I arrived ahead of the crowd, and before the end of the restoration process.

A lot of the homes are empty or under renovation, but many have already been converted into restaurants, inns, and galleries.

We walked around the old city’s cobblestone streets for a few hours, popping in and out of antique shops and ice cream parlors. The streets are full of art galleries, both contemporary and classical, but as Evan put it “We aren’t here to see art”– We were here for the antiques.

At one antique shop, we discovered $2 1970’s Bulgarian records, a pin of Lenin as a baby, and a badge minted with the face of George Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first Communist ‘President’. Jackpot.

Plovdiv is definitely the place for authentic souvenir shopping and seemed much less expensive than Sofia (not that Sofia is particularly expensive). I wanted to buy almost everything I saw: traditional clothing, instruments, gas masks, and all kinds of antique furniture and handmade goods.

We stopped in for lunch at a panoramic restaurant and had a feast of a meal for only a couple of dollars. I enjoyed a big potato pie and a liter of beer while sitting in the sun, taking in the view.

View over the Creative District from Nebet Tepe hilltop

Wandering into the ‘Creative district’, we squatted down on some wooden seats and watch the people go by for a while. The creative district’s main street is lined with shops and cafes, and at one end, there’s a cozy bar area. The buildings here are a mix of early 1900’s styles in pastel colors, built on top of a Roman Hippodrome, which is still visible. The Ottoman mosque was particularly interesting because the style of the painting inside seemed very European-influenced, as compared to the one in Sofia and others I’ve seen.

Ancient Greek ruins in old Plovdiv

Before we left to go back to Sofia, we stopped in at a photo studio. We donned traditional Bulgarian garb– loose-fitting pants, red sashes, embroidered tunics and faux-shearling hats, and got some great pictures taken for just $5. Why not.

Which of us is a Western Spy?

Plovdiv is a great little city; much smaller and more traditional than Sofia, but still large enough to feel like a city, with plenty of shops and restaurants. One day was more than enough to see all of the sites at a slow, comfortable place. I wish we could’ve stayed even longer, we even looked into changing our flights to stay in Bulgaria longer!

Exploring Northern Jordan: Amman, Madaba, and Jerash

Known to the ancient Greeks as ‘Philadelphia’, Amman, Jordan’s capital, is full of ancient ruins, and authentic markets. I spent a month in Amman, studying Arabic, last January, and ventured down from Jordan University into the Wasat Balad (Amman’s old town center) every chance I got.

Below are some of my favorite spots, as well as the best sites in Amman, and day-trips within an hour by public transit. The nearby towns of Madaba and Jerash are not to be missed on a trip to Amman!

Doves flying over Amman’s city center

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A Weekend in Wadi Rum and Petra

Deep in the deserts of southern Jordan, lie two incredible sights: the mysterious ancient city of Petra, and the boundless Wadi Rum. You could spend one day and one night in each place and see the highlights, or, you could spend days exploring each and every crevice.

Petra, known as the “Red Rock” or “Rose City” was the capital of the ancient Nabatean people. The Nabateans were a cave-dwelling tribe that controlled part of the Silk Road trade routes a long long time ago and much of their history is still debated.

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Visiting the Druze Village of Horfish

This weekend, our program visited the Druze Village of Horfish, in the rolling hills of the upper Galilee region of Israel. Here, we met Sheikh Kasem, and learned about the Druze faith. The Druze are one of many interesting minorities in Israel and they kindly welcomed us with open arms and black coffee.

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The Druze village of Horfish, situated in the hills of the Galilee

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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a Nutshell

Today in Hebron, a city in the Israeli-Occupied West Bank territory of Palestine, I was at a small corner store buying hummus for lunch, when IDF soldiers and Palestinians began to clash on Shariya Al-Shuhada. But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. (You may want to pull up a map of Israel and it’s territories in another tab to reference.)

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Aswan, the Ancient Gateway into Africa

Aswan, the largest city in Upper Egypt, is a Nile-front paradise, where felucca sailboats gracefully navigate the river and its many islands. Aswan was regarded in the ancient times as the gateway into African trade routes, and today maintains its unique mix of Arab and Nubian culture. Across the water, West Aswan and Elephantine island are brimming with picturesque traditional Nubian homes, beautiful gardens, and ancient ruins from the Pharaonic, Hellenistic, Coptic, and Islamic eras.

There’s no shortage of things to do in Aswan; I spent a week exploring its many sites, and still didn’t see everything!

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A Week in South Sinai, Egypt

When most people think of Egypt, they think of the Pyramids, mummies, and ancient gods. Across the Suez Canal from ‘mainland’ Egypt lies an entire region of the country that is often forgotten, with a very different culture.

The Sinai peninsula, which connects Egypt to Israel-Palestine, is rich in history, as well as natural wonders. South Sinai is an excellent place for hiking and SCUBA/snorkeling, with several national parks from the ‘Colored Canyon’ of Nuweiba to the coral reefs of Ras Mohammad.

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