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New Europe

Day Thirty-six: Perperikon to Zlatograd

The temple at Perperikon 
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The temple at Perperikon, where Ovcharov thinks a powerful Oracle was worshipped 8,000 years ago. In the background the Rhodopi Mountains and the forests where the Orpheus legend was born.
Michael Palin - New EuropeFor two months of the year a small army of students from Sofia University join local Bulgarian-Turkish labourers in Ovcharov's kingdom, mapping the site, marking the rocks, digging trenches and generally strengthening the case for Perperikon as not only a sanctuary, fortress and sometime acropolis, but also one of the great religious sites of antiquity.

Whatever they find, Ovcharov's work is already done. By convincing himself and the Bulgarian government that it is everything he says it is, he has transformed a lifeless local economy, given tourists a more urgent reason to visit the beautiful Rhodopi Mountains and made an international name for himself. Though to be honest, Napoleon suits him better than Indiana Jones.

Within a few months Bulgaria will be given some of the most momentous news in its recent history, when a decision on their European Union application is made. From what I see down here they have decided it'll go their way and that the border crossings into nearby Greece will be reopened. Considerable amounts have been spent upgrading the roads and local amenities (with signs not just in Cyrillic but in the Latin alphabet as well). A town with the unpromising name of Zlatograd turns out to have a wonderful collection of 200-year-old Bulgarian-Alpine houses, restored and brought to life in an Ethnographic Museum. The houses have pantiled roofs, tall white chimneys and deep wooden balconies on one of which we're treated to a last intense shot of Bulgarian cuisine. After a week and a half of the ever-present salata shopska, a mound of salad shrouded in grated cheese, these local delicacies are a revelation. Fragrantly spiced meat stew, cabbage leaves stuffed with rice yet light as a feather and a spicy bean soup called bob.

Afterwards we're served dense Turkish coffee, made in little copper pots and heated in the sand whilst three singers and musicians treat us to unique local music. The songs are delivered in a style I've heard nowhere else, a deep, resonant throaty flow of great, if controlled, power. They're accompanied by the equally unfamiliar strains of the gaida, a sheepskin bagpipe, with three tubes, one to keep the bag inflated, another to play the melody and a third the drone. On paper it reads like a formula for the most difficult way to produce a sound, yet they manage to make these old songs of love and longing intensely poignant. They tell me that an example of this remarkable way of singing is aboard the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Which is as it should be. After all, Orpheus, the greatest musician of them all, was a local Rhodopi boy.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-six: Perperikon to Zlatograd
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Zlatograd
  • Book page no: 89

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