“Why?” With frowns and furrowed brows, this was the main response from family and friends when I decided to tour the Balkan peninsula alone. To them, the Balkans were still a battlefield, ravaged by war and in ascetic thrall to Communism.
It was most clear in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s flourishing second city, that they needed to wake up from 1992. While there are hallmarks of Communist rule – not least the Central Post Office, grimly housed in a bloodless yellow monolith – other pages of its history are layered like strata through the city centre. Elegant Art Nouveau buildings, all pastel fronts and snowy curlicues, overlook the seven century-old Dzhumaya Mosque, distinctive with red bricks and sharp minaret. In between, an unexpected drop in the pedestrianised street reveals a semi-excavated Roman stadium, sign forbidding dogs, cigarettes, and guns.
With so much history prominent in the main streets, the vibrancy of 21st century Bulgaria has been squirrelled into alleyways and back passages, and none more so than Nayden Gerov street, tucked behind the main street. Hurrying along it to find a path up Sahat Tepe, the hill that’s home to the medieval Clock Tower, I was shocked by a towering, skeletal jester painted on a screaming red wall. Jowly and glassy-eyed, lilac and lime, it was hideous but well-crafted.
It was the first of many strange yet skilful paintings I found down this road. A sleeping girl on a pillow of books, dreaming of gormless goldfish and a monstrous, drooling skull with eight arms; a reclining woman with the face of a black-eyed tiger, engulfed in multicoloured flames; an elderly craftsman with half-moon glasses building a grinning puppet man, while his blue-faced colleague made dragon and alligator hand puppets brawl; my favourite, a monochrome woman wearing Jackie Onassis sunglasses and bright flowers, bearing her teeth and puckering her lips aggressively; for some light relief, the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; plus many, many more. Even the rocks at the foot of the hill were decorated with countless caricatures of famous faces, each accompanied by Cyrillic scrawl. It was bold, breathtaking – and completely bonkers.
Needless to say, the view from Sahat Tepe was less stunning and surreal than the freakish murals on the ground. They were the perfect riposte to the naysayers at home, proving that modern Bulgaria’s a far and colourful cry from its Communist nadir. Now, if only they’d brighten that ugly Post Office with some street art…