Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe. Archaeologists have discovered settlements dating from the 7th century BC in the area. Wandering around the old town you’ll find yourself standing (literally) on layers of history from ancient times to the present. So it’s no surprise that Plovdiv has been named one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019.
What is a European Capital of Culture?
The European Capital of Culture (ECC) is an initiative that started in 1985 through the European Union. According to the ECC website, the program aims to:
▪ Highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe
▪ Celebrate the cultural features Europeans share
▪ Increase European citizens’ sense of belonging to a common cultural area
▪ Foster the contribution of culture to the development of cities 
What are the benefits of being the European capital of culture?
Other than recognition of a diverse history (which is especially relevant for countries in Eastern Europe), being an ECC can help regenerate cities, drive tourism, and raise the international profile of the region. Since Bulgaria has one of the lowest GDP’s in Europe, the chance to regenerate their region and drive tourism can benefit their economy and allow more young people to stay in the country. 
Being nominated as an ECC also holds promise for the Roma communities in . Stolipinovo, the largest ghetto in Europe, is just outside the city centre of Plovdiv. Over 50,000 people live in the ghetto, most of who identify as Roma. Many of the residents of Stolipinovo don’t have access to healthcare, education, or basics like garbage collection.
The ECC committee in Plovdiv is partnering with the All Together initiative to increase access to healthcare and education in these communities. The EU has also committed 7.2 billion Euros for long-term initiatives to elevate the Roma community in Bulgaria. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, very little has been done to add infrastructure to Stolipinovo which has led to high numbers of illegal housing and trade.
The road to Stolipinovo
In 2017 I spent a month in Bulgaria exploring the history, culture, food, and hot springs. Yet, despite the kindness of many of the Bulgarians I met, there was a substantial prejudice towards the Roma communities in Bulgaria. I researched more about challenges the Roma community was facing in Bulgaria and decided to visit the ghetto myself and speak with some of the inhabitants to get a better-rounded view on what was happening surrounding the ECC events.
At first, I attempted to visit the ghetto alone. As I got closer to the ghetto, the city drastically changed. While the centre of Plovdiv is clean and well cared for, the streets leading to the ghetto were covered with rubbish. Some Roma children who were collecting recycling tried to talk to me, but we couldn’t understand each other. They motioned me to follow them, and now knowing I was going to the right place (and hoping to find someone who spoke English) I followed. However, my efforts were thwarted. I was stopped by a Bulgarian man working at a car repair shop. He asked me to come inside and told me it wasn’t safe to go that way. That there were many robberies and it wasn’t safe for tourists to go. He offered to drive me back to my hotel. I declined but decided to go back anyway and try to find a translator to bring with me.
The Roma boys who had been collecting recycling abandoned their task, and, with a lot of miming and asking people on the street to help translate, walked me back to my guesthouse, climbing on rocks, singing, and laughing.
I searched for a translator online and found a woman who was able to take me by car the next day.
Entering the ghetto was shocking. Not only was there rubbish on the street; there were also piles of it everywhere. The people living in the ghetto told us that garbage collection was sporadic, at best.
We talked to one woman selling clothing who had nine children and 18 grandchildren whom she said were going to school. We chatted with another man wearing a Manchester United jumpsuit, he was a chef by trade but wasn’t able to get any work so was doing odd jobs ‘under the table.’ Because of having to work ‘under the table’ he had no health insurance. Despite having a doctor, he wasn’t able to visit because he couldn’t afford it. This was common with people we talked to in the ghetto.
People were riding around on horse-pulled carts filled with vegetables and other goods to sell. I went to take a photo of a horse and a man began talking to me. I thought he was asking for money (that’s what everyone told me before going – they’ll try to rob you or ask you to give them ‘gifts’) but he only asked if I wanted to get on the horse for a picture. People warned me the Roma might get violent if I tried to take photos but everyone we met was friendly and excited to talk to us.
We talked to another man running a rug shop. He had rugs imported from Turkey. Most of the goods and food sold in the ghetto are illegally imported from Turkey. This often causes problems with law enforcement; however, locals sometimes come into the ghetto to try to get cheap cigarettes or produce. The man enjoyed his life here, he was able to make enough to support his family, but he knew it wasn’t that way for everyone and it could be a hard life.
None of the inhabitants I spoke with in Stolipinovo knew anything about being named the European Capital of Culture.
What does this mean for travellers and the tourism industry in Bulgaria?
The choice to travel to Plovdiv or Bulgaria in 2019 is up to you. Though an influx in tourism is likely to help all communities in Plovdiv, it’s important to stay aware of the unique issues facing the Roma communities there. If you choose to visit the city, you can help by getting involved with organizations that support Roma rights, and learn about the Roma culture. Plovdiv is a multicultural city and I’d like to see a variety of cultures celebrated in 2019.
Visitors and locals working in the tourism industry can help to keep the committee accountable for their promises to improve access to healthcare and education for those in the ghetto. We can help spread the word about these issues, so policymakers are pressured to take more action and raise awareness of the problems facing Roma communities in Bulgaria and the rest of Europe.
I tried to contact the committee to learn more about this initiative but did not receive a response.
The article was written by Kayla, thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
Bio: Kayla is a traveller, writer, and social media manager focused on creating social change. Learn more about her adventures on Twitter (twitter.com/kaylakurin), Instagram (instagram.com/kaylakurin) and her website (dogoodbesocial.com)
Learn more about Roma inclusion in Europe here: http://fra.europa.eu/en/project/2015/local-engagement-roma-inclusion-leri-multi-annual-roma-programme, and the plans to improve Roma relations in Bulgaria here: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/roma_bulgaria_strategy_en.pdf