Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ancient Roman Sofia

Russian Church, Sofia
Whenever I travel, I always try to look for remnants of the past. At the moment – September of 2007 – I am in Sofia, Bulgaria. My reason for coming is to spend a few days watching the filming of the second season of the Roman Mysteries TV series at Boyana Studios. Filming stops for the weekend so I have two free days. As I occupy my time exploring the capital of Bulgaria, I look for traces of this city's Roman past. Here are some ways I find the past in the present.

1. The food.
Food is always a good way to go back to Roman times, or at least to get you thinking about it. Today it starts at breakfast with the hotel buffet. I help myself to olives, cucumber, wholemeal bread and white cheese. This is a Roman breakfast, I'm sure of it! And it's delicious.

Sofia subway roman tombstones
2. The physical remains.
I try to go to the Sofia Archaeological Museum to see some Roman artefacts; that's always a good way of bringing the past closer. But they're filming a movie with Martin Sheen in the square out front, so it's closed. But then I unexpectedly come across part of the Roman walls in an underpass. There are some columns and tombstones here. The Romans were here of course: this was Thrace.

3. The way people look.
I often sit at a cafe and watch the natives and try to imagine them in Roman garb. It's easy to imagine some of the Bulgarians in rough tunics; most of them seem like farmers and peasants: the plebs. You don't see as many 'patrician-types' as you do in Rome or Naples.

Sofia Women's Market
4. Markets and/or souks. The Women's Market here in Sophia really takes me back in time. Market stalls are divided into sections: from onions and herbs to chains and cogs. There is a clothes market, a flower market, a herb market, veg market, fruit market, fish market, a honey market. You can buy books, olives, cheeses, sweet peppers. People have obviously come in from the villages or suburbs to sell their produce, just as they would have on market days in Rome. Over there an old lady in a headscarf has brought in some herbs from her garden. Here a weathered man has got two cardboard cartons full of mushrooms; he probably gathered them this morning up on the mountains. Food that was in season in September of AD 81 is exactly the same food in season in September AD 2007. It is in Sofia that I eat the best tomato I have ever had in my entire life. Of course the Romans didn't have tomatoes.

Sofia's synagogue
5. Religious venues and festivals.
These often reveal aspects dating back to Roman times. I get to Sofia's synagogue before 1.00pm, as the guide book recommends, only to be reminded that today is Yom Kippur. But the nice caretaker says if I come back later, he'll let me have a quick peek. I come back at 4.00pm and he lets me in. Although this synagogue was built around 1905 its layout is not much different from the synagogue in Ostia, Rome's port.

lunch with pigeons
6. The customs.
As I sit on a park bench eating cold, folded-over pizza from lunch, I realise I have never been in a city where so many people eat fast food. They eat on the move, they eat on benches, they even eat hunkered down on their haunches. Some eat openly, some furtively. On every block there is a place selling food to go. This is very Roman. In Rome, Pompeii and Ostia, most small houses or apartments didn't have a kitchen. A hearth with a fire would be too dangerous. What did they do? They ate fast food from all those tabernae and thermopolea.

7. Human behaviour.
That young man with a cane, sitting on a bench and tossing bread to attract pigeons... is that something you would have seen in ancient Rome? That little girl, running gleefully among the same pigeons and making them scatter. I'm sure you would have seen that. The old couple, just sitting and watching the world go by. That couple kissing on the park bench, hardly coming up for air... would that have been allowed in Rome? It's all food for thought.

[Season 2 of the Roman Mysteries TV series was partly filmed at Boyana Studios in Bulgaria. The TV series is based on my books, The Roman Mysteries, and is now available on DVD.]