Being there: The opening of Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019

Some months ago, it was announced that Bulgaria’s second city Plovdiv would celebrate the opening of its status as European Capital of Culture 2019 with an open-air event on January 12.

Even those of us with a warm affection for Plovdiv queried the wisdom of this. The city on the hills, there for seven millennia, has a climate more personable than others in Bulgaria, but yet the chill grip of winter suffers it little or scant exemption.

And so we foregathered, bidden by the exalted status of the ancient city, which has seen civilisations of sundry eras come and pass – Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and now those within the sacred circle of the European Union – to see the bestowing of the mantle, of the European Capital of Culture; from aloft, from the soaring tower, erected for the purpose, in scintillating light and song old and modern.

But first, the practicalities of journalism, and of the ordinary folk called to this ritual.

Even kindly, gentle, ancient Plovdiv gives no quarter, even in the realm of chill factor. To give account of the atmosphere of such a heady evening, one must inured against it. To move among the throng and tell of its mood (and quite a throng it was) one must be insulated against the vagaries of the chill exterior that sought to paralyse the warm interior.

In prosaic terms: To prepare for the spectacle of Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019, not only the ordinary the literary gentleman in the grandstand but also the ordinary observer required something along these lines, as the current writer did:

An ancient t-shirt. First layer. The top of warm winter pyjamas. Second layer. A thick winter shirt. Third layer. A polo-neck jersey of imposing thickness. The fourth. Topped off with a colourful scarf of some efficacy. Add to this: A beanie of Euopean-standard best warmth, lined leather gloves suitable for a motorcycle messenger, double-lined trousers, mountain boots, and the thickest of socks. Are we ready for tribute to the highest aspirations of European civilisation? Yes we are. May we do so against the medium risk of hypothermia? Perhaps.

And so, on to the very centre of things, the Tower. Proceedings opened with leaden speeches by Important Personages. In sum, the fact that Plovdiv is European Capital of Culture is a Good Thing. The details of this verbiage need not bother us. Amid the throng on the open squares of Plovdiv, and amid those who had sought shelter in its enclosed and heated spaces, no one listened and fewer cared.

And then, it was time for the show. For idlers on social networks, it was a matter for comment. Some appreciated the spectacle. Others derided the tired and familiar Bulgarian folklore elements. Most, with the possible exception of small furry animals nearby, were impressed by the 10-minute display of fireworks. All basked in the miniscule individual glows of a myriad smartphones capturing the moment(s). Many shared, and many more liked. Many commented, as they may have done in the marketplace, in idle chattering moments in the days of yore before Plovdiv even had that name.

And so the city that once worshipped the gods of the Thracians, once on one of its hills boasted a statue of Apollo, once was conquered by Alexander the Great, once welcomed Emperior Hadrian, once saw the erection (?) of the statue of a Soviet soldier, Alyosha, moved on in celebration to its new status of European Capital of Culture 2019.

The feasts and fireworks over, the real party was in Plovdiv’s creative district, Kapana. The band Akaga was impressive, as always, the mood festive, the below-zero chill notwithstanding. You should have been there. But these were words written to compensate, a little, if you were not.

(Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.