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Friday, 08 July 2016

Antiquities in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Written by Richard Taylor
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They weren’t making this easy.


Flexibility is the top card in Rules for Travel.  Taking things in stride and all that.  Since my default setting is pouting rigidity, it can be a tricky business.  But one tries to roll with the punches and with that maxim in mind, I arrived in Plovdiv, got off the bus, stepped into the ring and took a pummeling.


After weeks of comfortable Romanized alphabet, I was back among the loops, symbols and wacky diphthongs of Bulgarian Cyrillic.  But there wasn’t merely script to interpret but body language, for they stoke the confusion with contrarian head feints, nodding for NO and shaking it for YES.  On top of that, my city map made no sense in any language.  Oh, most of the streets were there and the bus station.  But the ruins and museums and old city walls were evidently disguised with a cloaking device.  I became testy.  This place.  What kind of a name was that anyway?  PLOVDIV.  Sounded like something spelled backwards.  I growled and wept and threw up my hands at this virtual city.  It was all way over my head.


And it was.  Literally.



While scanning the skies in despair I noticed a bit of masonry on the slopes above.  The antiquities were on a mount.  I’d assumed that Plovdiv’s seven hills were strictly aesthetic landscaping but I found a path and started to climb.  At the summit, spread out in arch and cobble, was Old Plovdiv.  And it was just fine.




The Emperor’s legions called it Philippopolis back in the third century and today this City of Seven Hills may prompt modern Romans to scoff indignantly, “That’s taken.  Get your own name.”  But Plovdiv beat them to it by millennia.  Birthed in the time of ancient Thrace, it may be Europe’s oldest settlement, essentially constructed on mounts of great boulders, the homes and shops decoratively if precariously perched among them.


The showpiece is the great Roman amphitheater and it’s a going concern (one thing about the Romans, they built this stuff to last).  All over Europe, Greece notwithstanding, the ruins from other civilizations seem fairly meager.  Of course the legions may have razed them all in a cultural cleansing, something depressingly familiar in our own time.




The amphitheater seats twenty-two hundred.  Cleaning ladies were sweeping the benches and a man was sawing and sanding the stage.  I’d arrived too early for any song and dance – performances ran from June to August.




It’s a lovely peaceful walk among the high walls (although that Spanish tour group was on the loud side) and is punctuated with galleries and kashta – traditional homes – and museums.  Behind the Ethnographic Museum, the Church of St. Constantine and Elena dates back sixteen centuries and near the church were the bits and pieces of Eumolpias, the remaining ruins of the original Thracian settlement from 5000 BC.  




Having discovered the secret location of the Old City, I descended smugly to ground and took in modern Plovdiv over a leisurely couple of days. By the next morning I was strolling a fine piece of green called Loven Park, which had ponds and statues and a café where a fiddler played sweet tones to the couples.   Splitting the park was the Greven Canal, a sedate waterway occasionally enlivened by boat races.  Beyond the trees was the boisterous life of Plovdiv’s great pedestrian mall.  At the lip of the avenue, kids were sipping at one of the many iconic fountains.  The spring waters feeding them are apparently very healthy stuff, so I took a gulp.


It doesn’t affect my carnivorous ways but I’ve tended to find Eastern Europe a bare cupboard for vegetarians.  In Plovdiv they can sustain themselves with soups and potatoes and eggs, Bulgaria’s famous yogurt of course and delicious, disgusting great slabs of fried cheese.  Pizza is wildly popular (there were pizzerias all over the mall) with plenty of selections sans meat.  Salads are highly prized as well.  The traditional type is shopska – onions and tomatoes and cucumbers and cheese, which preceded the rest of my lunch of two spicy meat patties, fried cheese, a kebab and two glasses of black current juice.  I’m no oenophile, so the local plonk was lost on me but Bulgarian wines are highly regarded.


The day grew warmer so I asked the ice cream vendor for one scoop of Melon and a scoop of Snickers but my face turned Sour Lemon when he kept shaking his head and I thought, “You got a problem with my ice cream choices buddy?”  Then the recall:  It’s Plovdiv.  It’s reversed.  It’s that national eccentricity.  I walked off with my ice cream contritely.  Of course one never knows for sure.  Melon and Snickers.  Was that a loser combination?  Too glaringly touristy?  Red Cabbage ice cream would be the authentic way to go.  Fried cheese sherbet.  Heck, a double pepperoni slushy would do.





By late afternoon I was climbing the Hill of the Liberators.  There was no old town here but a military monument, the statue of Alyosha, looming atop the summit, dedicated to the “Nation’s Martyrs.”  Flowers were jammed into its crevices, the media was out, police and troops stood on dress parade with their families and a local official called out names over a microphone.  One by one, small groups would come forward and climb the steps and drop garlands at the statue’s base.  Given the time of year, I assumed this was a Second World War commemoration, or The Great Patriotic War as the Russians would have it (1941-45 which conveniently leaves out the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact) and since this Alyosha was evidently a Russian soldier, this seemed a likely scenario.


There are several lookout patios at the summit although the city views are not especially entrancing – modern Plovdiv is pleasant but not architecturally distinctive but the Hill of the Liberators does offer a fine prospect of the distant Rodopi mountains and the city’s seven hills.  One hill is a bit of a runt, sliced and blasted and repaved years ago to make way for a mall.  They’re odd looking hills in any case, more like pingos, if my hazy recall of ninth grade geography is accurate, popping up from the valley’s pancake flatness almost as an afterthought, seven huge mounds pulled together by a giant rake.




But then how could it be otherwise in this strange, weirdly wonderful mish-mash of a town that confounds while it fascinates; disparate elements that shouldn’t really work together but strangely enough…..they don’t.  And it doesn’t matter.  




Roll with the punches then.  Did Plovdiv knock me out?  Perhaps not.  But it charmed me overwhelmingly on points.




©Richard Taylor