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New Europe

Day Thirty-five: Plovdiv

The Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv 
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With Mira at one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in south-east Europe, overlooking the city of Plovdiv, or Philippopolis, as it was named after Alexander the Great's father.
Michael Palin - New EuropeMoving 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 Durrės 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.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-five: Plovdiv
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Plovdiv
  • Book page no: 84

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