They weren’t making this easy.
Flexibility is the top card in Rules for Travel. Taking things in stride and all that. Since my default setting is pouting rigidity, it can be a tricky business. But one tries to roll with the punches and with that maxim in mind, I arrived in Plovdiv, got off the bus, stepped into the ring and took a pummeling.
After weeks of comfortable Romanized alphabet, I was back among the loops, symbols and wacky diphthongs of Bulgarian Cyrillic. But there wasn’t merely script to interpret but body language, for they stoke the confusion with contrarian head feints, nodding for NO and shaking it for YES. On top of that, my city map made no sense in any language. Oh, most of the streets were there and the bus station. But the ruins and museums and old city walls were evidently disguised with a cloaking device. I became testy. This place. What kind of a name was that anyway? PLOVDIV. Sounded like something spelled backwards. I growled and wept and threw up my hands at this virtual city. It was all way over my head.
And it was. Literally.
While scanning the skies in despair I noticed a bit of masonry on the slopes above. The antiquities were on a mount. I’d assumed that Plovdiv’s seven hills were strictly aesthetic landscaping but I found a path and started to climb. At the summit, spread out in arch and cobble, was Old Plovdiv. And it was just fine.
The Emperor’s legions called it Philippopolis back in the third century and today this City of Seven Hills may prompt modern Romans to scoff indignantly, “That’s taken. Get your own name.” But Plovdiv beat them to it by millennia. Birthed in the time of ancient Thrace, it may be Europe’s oldest settlement, essentially constructed on mounts of great boulders, the homes and shops decoratively if precariously perched among them.
The showpiece is the great Roman amphitheater and it’s a going concern (one thing about the Romans, they built this stuff to last). All over Europe, Greece notwithstanding, the ruins from other civilizations seem fairly meager. Of course the legions may have razed them all in a cultural cleansing, something depressingly familiar in our own time.
The amphitheater seats twenty-two hundred. Cleaning ladies were sweeping the benches and a man was sawing and sanding the stage. I’d arrived too early for any song and dance – performances ran from June to August.