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New Europe

Day Thirty-five: Plovdiv

Horse and cart racing 
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Horse and cart racing in Plovdiv's Gypsy community. The supporters' cars terrify the lean horses.
Michael Palin - New EuropeClose by the Roman theatre is a network of cobbled streets, often huddled against remains of the old Byzantine city walls. Built along these steep slopes are houses as strikingly attractive as any I've seen on the journey so far. They date from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and were built by merchants who had made money from trade with the Ottoman empire. With solid stone-walled bases and half-timbered upper storeys cantilevered out over the street, they also have distinctive wooden balconies, oriel windows, decorative plasterwork and louvred shutters. They create a sort of Alpine-Turkish feel and could well be the backdrop to those Orientalist paintings that nineteenth-century travellers to the Balkans were producing for an increasingly fascinated audience back home.

One of those responsible for awakening this interest in all things Ottoman was the French poet Lamartine and his house, now open to the public, is one of the grandest in this picturesque little enclave.

Many of these houses were commandeered by the State after World War Two,
but since the demise of communism a restitution policy has been under way
and many of the original owners, or their families, have been given back their properties and are sympathetically restoring them.

Looking back at the city from the shallow, sandy river you can glimpse the hill where the amphitheatre stands, through a forest of eight-storey blocks made of prefabricated concrete. They are now mainly occupied by Gypsy families (also called Roma, or Tsigani in Bulgarian). Originating in India, the Gypsies made their way into Eastern Europe some 600 years ago, but have never really integrated with the local people. They're seen as outsiders who reject the social system, whilst enjoying its financial benefits. Mira doesn't see much hope. There are foundations and welfare groups who are trying to build a bridge between Gypsies and the rest of society but she can't see how it will work. Current figures bear out her pessimism. Around eighty-five per cent of Gypsies in Bulgaria are unemployed and only ten per cent of children are in secondary school education.

Today, with the help of the city council, we're trying to do our bit for Plovdiv's Gypsy community by providing pin money for a horse and cart racing event. A dozen contestants have come forward, some behind old nags shackled to rickety wooden carts, others perched on stripped-down frames of steel on rubber wheels. The racetrack is a section of dual carriageway which has been blocked off for the afternoon.

The organisers, Gypsies themselves, are taking it very seriously. Pieces of paper are waved about. Children, half-naked in the heat of the day, crowd around us, curious, but not aggressive.

But there is aggression elsewhere. There seem to be two kinds of vehicle in this community, the horse and cart and the souped-up, flashily customised old banger, always driven to deliver maximum tyre squeal. It's one of these that threatens to completely ruin the first race. Packed with cheering and yelling punters, it drives so close to the lead horse that no-one can overtake it. This results in a protest of such ferocity that the protagonists have to be held apart. Exactly the same thing happens with the next race. The horses, besides being whipped to flared-nostril frenzy, have to put up with the squealing roar of a car and its occupants right beside their heads.

Eventually a winner is chosen and we're invited to join a party in amongst the blocks themselves.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-five: Plovdiv
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Plovdiv
  • Book page no: 86

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