City #23, November 2014. There’s no denying that this is the poorest country in the EU. The pavement is full of potholes, the prices are low. Ancient glory is buried beneath Soviet concrete or plate glass office buildings built by cowboy capitalists.

Type of Youropeans? Very friendly, however. Most of them put a lot of faith in Europe, mostly because it’s far away. 72% are in favour of it. ‘Make the country into a province, with a governor from Brussels,’ one Youropean said. A journalist told me that Brussels is taking care of them, like Mother Russia did, and before that, Istanbul. Bulgaria joined the EU on special conditions, like Rumania. It has an annual obligation to demonstrate that it is taking adequate measures to combat corruption and organised crime. They usually miss their target, which at first was of great concern to the government, but now people just shrug. You can get used to anything.

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City Column

You used to be so beautiful, Sofia


Ten years ago construction workers building a new hotel discovered some old walls. Roman walls: further investigation revealed the ruins of an amphitheatre, the second largest in Europe, after the Colosseum. The construction workers were replaced by archeologists using trowels instead of heavy machinery, and the site eventually became one of Sofia’s biggest tourist attractions. At least that’s what night have happened, in an ideal world. But this is Bulgaria and the hotel was built anyway, on top of amphitheatre; the walls of which are still visible on the patio, a few metres away from the reception desk.

It’s called Hotel Arena di Serdica, probably a reference to the ancient name of the city, when it was powerful and Constantine the Great, the emperor who converted Europe to Christianity in the 4th century, regularly visited his mother here.

Now a 15-yer old BMW – perhaps purchased in Germany or the Netherlands – cruises down Vasili Levski Boulevard. The driver tries to accelerate, but the clutch slips and the car doesn’t pick up much speed. Rickety trams clatter past severe Soviet-era buildings, old churches, dilapidated houses, a few modern office buildings, and shopping streets where the goods are cheap, but there is not much on offer. No Louis Vuitton here, not even a Zara. This is Lidl territory.

Walls are plastered with posters for events that took place two years ago, the pavements are full of potholes, some of them roped off, but most of them not. Dig down a little further into some of those potholes – a metre or two – and they might discover beautiful baths, an ingenious temple or an ancient palace.

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