The Past Is Thriving In Bulgaria
Moving deeper now into the south-east corner of Europe, along the fast four-lane autoroute that connects Sofia and Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, across the Plain of Thrace. The landscape of heathland and low bare hills is undistinguished, and remarkably empty. In Western Europe a major highway like this would be a development magnet, studded with warehouses, distribution centres and business parks.
The present and the future may look a little subdued but the past is thriving in Bulgaria. Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe, first settled by the Thracians 7,000 years ago, then rebuilt in the fourth century BC by Alexander the Great’s father Philip of Macedon, who modestly renamed it Philippopolis.
The Maritsa valley, in which the city lies, was a natural conduit for trade through the Balkans and the commercial importance of Plovdiv/Philippopolis is marked, as in Durrës in Albania, and Ohrid in Macedonia, by the remains of a large Roman amphitheatre, set on a hill with a perilously balanced wall of columns and pediments creating a dramatic frame for the city beyond.
I meet up here with Mira Staleva, a young woman born and brought up in Plovdiv. Record temperatures, above 40° Celsius, are expected later today and already the white marble terracing of the outdoor theatre is like a hot iron, so Mira and I take refuge at a café nearby. A mindless drum and bass sample thuds out, hugely over-amplified. No-one is listening, but no-one seems to want to turn it off.
Plovdiv, says Mira, was a good place to grow up. It was a cultured city, tolerant and laid-back. ‘It’s very Mediterranean. I mean when you go for a coffee you go for at least two hours.’
There were Jewish, Romanian, Greek, Turkish and Gypsy quarters, and the only bad time she can remember was the ill-fated name-changing policy of the 1980s when those of the minorities who refused to change their name to a Bulgarian equivalent were victimised, being refused work and all benefits. She had many Turkish friends in school who were forced, temporarily, out of the country.
‘I was sixteen or seventeen years old, but nobody reacted. It was really sad. The communist system can make you really passive, you know.’
Like Azis, Mira was a Young Pioneer, and she remembers learning how to strip down Kalashnikovs whilst still at school.
‘You go in the classroom with thirty Kalashnikovs on the desk and everybody starts. We check the time. It was like a competition, who would be first.’
‘Who was the enemy?’
‘It was an abstract enemy. But in the Pioneers’ organisation you were “always ready”.’
At sixteen she was attending military camp, wearing uniform and getting up at five in the morning.
‘But it was the best time of my life, actually. When someone is trying to press you to do something, you find different ways to escape.’
Close 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.
The buildings are stained and the paintwork blistered and peeling. Uncollected rubbish is piled up, and stagnant puddles of sewage overflow the gutters. Between the blocks the occupants are sitting around in groups with waste, blown by the wind, drifting around them. Silhouetted against the strong evening sun they look like survivors of some apocalyptic disaster.
The party is getting under way in a yard between the blocks. A loud and brassy band is playing, massively amplified of course, and the floor is taken by a dozen or so elderly Gypsy women who gyrate rather gently to the cacophonous music. One of them has a gun, which she waves about her as she dances, occasionally taking aim at someone and grinning broadly. No-one seems to bat an eyelid.
The menfolk look on, unimpressed, rolling up their T-shirts to reveal large and rounded bellies which they stroke from time to time as if they were much loved family pets.
Even our friendly organisers don’t encourage us to stay on too long. Once darkness falls and the drink takes hold they can’t ensure our safety.
For the moment I’m content to be the only man on the floor, with the undivided attention of a swaying harem of Gypsy matrons, some of them armed.