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New Europe

Day Thirty-six: Perperikon to Zlatograd

Nikolai Ovcharov 
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Nikolai Ovcharov, the Indiana Jones of Bulgarian archaeology, rests in the saddle before we head up the mountain. My mule was reluctant to head anywhere.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAs one does on a Monday morning, I find myself riding a mule up a steep track between oak, ash and hazel woods that leads to an 8,000 year-old city which an archaeologist (on horseback, ahead of me) thinks could be on a par with Troy or Mycenae.

The fact that I'm on a mule and he's on a horse says much about the Quixote-like character of Nikolai Ovcharov, the man who, by sheer force of his own conviction, has persuaded the Bulgarian government to spend good money putting the lost city of Perperikon on the map.

Below us, bulldozers, excavators and graders are clearing and levelling a wide swathe of hillside for an approach road. Generators hum beside the new visitor centre. Minibuses from the surrounding villages are delivering some of the 130-strong workforce, and a line of gleaming new toilets stands amid the dust. This is archaeology as big business. And archaeologist as celebrity.

Nikolai Ovcharov clearly loves the attention. Well built, with a carefully trimmed grey-flecked beard, he has a strong, commanding voice and a touch of a swagger. Some call him the Bulgarian Indiana Jones, and with his safari hat clipped up at the sides and a knife sheathed on his belt, he seems quite happy to invite the comparison.

At the top of the hill my reluctant mule delivers me into a shady glade where a couple of hammocks are slung and a rough table with wooden bench seats is
set beneath a makeshift canopy of leaves. Smoke rises from a fire. This is command headquarters for the dig, but we don't linger as Nikolai strides off to inspect progress.

We're in the Eastern Rhodopi Mountains, in the land of classical legends, two hours south of Plovdiv and just 21 miles from the Greek border. Orpheus, the man whose music could charm wild beasts and make rocks and trees move, is said to have been buried here after being torn to death by women on his return from the underworld, and Spartacus raised his army against the Romans here.

The side of the hill is ringed with massive white rock faces, so spectacularly sculpted by the combined effects of rain, sun and earthquakes that it's hard to tell what is naturally shaped and what is humanly carved. Nikolai has no doubt that he has stumbled upon evidence of what he calls 'the culture of the Rock People', and points out a huge throne, holes in the rock where timbers were secured, fortified gates to the citadel, a stone-walled grid for fifteen graves, and a slab on which the marks of an ancient fire circle can be seen and where sacrifices would have been made.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-six: Perperikon to Zlatograd
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Perperikon
  • Book page no: 88

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