Plovdiv, two hours north of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, is a surprising small city. Late February, and spring is already here. The city smells fresh and awake, of coffee and syrupy cakes. Its footprint pre-dates both Rome and Athens by 800 years; walking up the calm, pretty pedestrian main street where elegant street cafes sit comfortably next door to casinos, the guide casually mentions that under the pavement lies a vast ancient amphitheatre. 100 metres further on, and we find the entrance excavated as the result of a Norwegian funding programme – a beautifully preserved pillared courtyard with various ornate porticos and antechambers. The tour continues – a complete and astounding Roman arena hangs carelessly over a motorway, cobbled side-streets veer off into grassy mounds with the remains of exquisite temples. Charming side streets back on to old Soviet concrete-horror blocks, and the citizens saunter. Plovdiv, apparently, is known to be a ’slow’ city – they call it ’ayliak’ – a sense of ease, living in the sunlit moment.
That afternoon, though, a less than relaxed group meets in the new, glinting and enormous culture centre. I am here with Bob Palmer, ex Culture and Heritage Chief for the Council of Europe and EU Capitals of Culture guru – a man of consumate experience and considerable diplomacy. We are to advise the city on its bid to become European Capital of Culture, to talk to their leadership, and to the city´s principal cultural operators about how they can use the opportunity to build an eventful city which engages the widest possible populus. In Plovdiv, with a 20% Roma population itself splintered into combatative factions, this is a fine ambition but a mine-loaded road to tread. The city has already been shortlisted by the EU, and its initial bid book is an intriguing read, full of self-deprecation, idealism (they have chosen the slogan Together ), good ideas, chaotic plans and bursting imagination. Bob talks very seriously about the immediate issues – a final bid is to be submitted in five months – about the deficits, managerial, artistic and financial that Bid 1 exhibits, about governance, planning, organisation, budgets. He is positive but uncompromising. Faces whiten. The deputy mayor, a young and clearly effective official, looks exhausted. My job is to talk about programming and building all-city participation. We discuss project development, how the city´s institutions can embrace genuinely new horizons and what collaboration really means. Bob is tough about the European dimension – something the EU, somewhat typically, expounds on lyrically without in any way defining what it means – and asks fierce questions which meet alarmed silence. We retire for a brief lunch (Plovdivians, it is clear, eat a lot of cheese) during which the deputy mayor stabs wearily at his phone.
In the afternoon, with a large group of culture operators present, we talk, probe, provoke and suggest. A journalist quarrels with a book publisher, and the local opera chief makes a commendable pitch for her company. The book publisher says that local standards are deplorable and is berated by a long-winded journalist. It is all depressingly familiar: European Capitals of Culture, it seems, deflate energy in everyone – partly, it must be said, because the EU itself – while describing this as their most successful programme – do so little to set clear boundaries, mentor applicants, finance appropriately to the programme´s aspirations, and support leadership.
Dinner, however, is very jolly – the book publisher tells an extraordinary story about his mother´s theft of icons from Finland – and full of cheese, we leave for Sofia. Plovdiv, best of luck. Your wish to be together is clear, and your city is a winner in its own right. And if I may, I´ll steal your slogan for Bergen, where ’together’ could be a fine aspiration for another beautiful small city with a penchant for heritage – and cheese.