Plovdiv, Bulgaria: The European Capital of Culture in 2019 is a place few tourists have heard of

As is the case every year, two cities are sharing the title of European Capital of Culture (ECC) in 2019. Much of the attention has been paid to Matera in southern Italy, partly because everyone loves Italy and visiting there is something to aspire to, but partly because the other title holder is Plovdiv.

Congratulations if you immediately know which country it's in without having to look. If, like me, you need a little nudge, then the answer is that it's the second largest city in Bulgaria.

The general ignorance about the city should be an embarrassment to many – Plovdiv has been around in one form or another for millennia and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities anywhere in Europe. How ancient? Well, it was conquered by Alexander the Great's dad in 342BC, long before his son went rampaging around the continent.

So, while it may not currently be the seat of government, Plovdiv is the oldest city in Bulgaria and, since the Communist era ended there in 1990, is arguably modernising faster than its capital city, Sofia.

When its cultural program was launched in January, more than 50,000 citizens (Plovdivians?) gathered to celebrate while 1500 local and international artists performed around them. With a population roughly the same as Canberra's, it represented a mighty, creative shindig.

With  about 350 separate events planned for its ECC year, the Bulgarian city has a lot to cram in. For the first quarter of the year, the city displayed some surviving sections of the Berlin Wall, 30 years after its dramatic destruction. In a country that is no stranger to Communism, it got plenty of attention.

As ever with the ECC project, there's a focus not just on what's happening now, during the year of culture, but what the legacy will be. Plovdiv's newly trendy Kapana neighbourhood is certainly grateful for the investment. Largely abandoned since the decline of Communism, it was rumoured to be earmarked for demolition before the announcement that it was going to have a spotlight shone its way. A spotlight and some significant EU investment. Now, Kapana is enjoying a rebirth thanks to a series of craft beer pubs, artisan coffee shops and some government-endorsed graffiti.

OK, so that may well translate as hipsterism, but locals and visitors alike are delighted that Kapana is being given the chance not just to survive but to thrive. If you're worried that this kind of gentrification may lead to soaring prices, then it's worth noting that, by several metrics, Bulgaria is still the cheapest holiday destination anywhere in Europe. Even though prices may be nudging a little higher during the year of Culture, Plovdiv will still be considerably cheaper than Italy, or any of the recent ECC capitals in the Netherlands, Malta, Cyprus and Denmark.

If Kapana represents the fresh young face of Plovdiv, then plenty of its ancient origins will be on show in 2019, too. There's no clearer example of this than the Roman Theatre, which is almost 2000 years old but has been so carefully maintained and partially restored that it will be used throughout the ECC year to host events and performances. It might not make any sense to walk like an Egyptian in Plovdiv, but you can certainly applaud like a Roman.

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Qatar has flights to Sofia via Doha from Melbourne and Sydney. Alternatively, Ryanair run flights to Plovdiv directly from London. See qatarairways.com

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