With the coming of this new year of 2013, the Bulgarian Cultural Institute London will be opening a Bulgarian library and reading room. The project is currently being developed with a view to allowing easier access to Bulgarian literature and other materials for Bulgarians and others in the UK.

Another key goal of the project is to enable Bulgarian publishers to publicise their work abroad. Newly-acquired Bulgarian texts will be presented to the public in Britain several times per year.

The reading room will provide the opportunity for visitors to enjoy the available materials in a peaceful and comfortable environment.

Travellers’ Tales of Bulgaria

The historical reasons for British people going to or passing through the Balkans and Bulgaria are multiple, but three broad motives can be picked out, each roughly corresponding to a period of time.

The first period could be called the ‘Trading Years’. This began around 1581 when the Turks granted trading privileges on Ottoman territory to the English, which previously only the French had enjoyed. British travellers in this period were often merchants with the English Levant Company, or diplomats posted to Constantinople (Istanbul today), part of whose task was to promote trade. The English began by selling wool, cloth, tin and, later, weapons to the Ottoman Empire, receiving in return silks, wines and carpets. Later, in 1799, Britain secured the right to navigate the Black Sea and trade with its ports.

A second, part-overlapping period was when a few adventurous aristocrats extended their ‘Grand Tours’ of Europe to include Constantinople. The so-called Grand Tour of Europe was almost a ritual observance by sections of the English aristocracy in the 18th-19th centuries. Its furthest point east was usually Athens, but the more determined pushed on to Constantinople. This was a period when the opulence of the Ottoman capital impressed the drawing rooms of Europe, and a gentleman’s leisure wear might include a turban and ‘narghile’ (hubble pipe).

The third period could be dubbed ‘The Crisis Years’. It saw the arrival in Bulgaria of visitors engaged at some level with conflicts involving the “Great Powers”, especially Russia and the so-called “Sick Man of Europe”, Turkey. This period started in 1800 with the erosion of Turkish power in the north of its empire as Russian forces pressed repeatedly south into Bulgaria in 1810 and 1826, and ended in a flood of visitors between 1876 and 1900, both at the time of and after Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule.

Within these three time periods, we find secondary motives for going to Bulgaria. One is simply the desire for adventure in relatively wild and unknown parts of Europe, “the mysterious East”. Another, felt by an English Royalist during the English Civil War, is to escape from Oliver Cromwell’s “Commonwealth” state, which is far from Royalist-friendly. In the 1800s, reasons for travel become still more varied: there are English land-owners and farmers there, Christian women missionaries, railway engineers, and, after independence, a lawyer interested to see how the rule of law has changed. In the 1900s, journalists travel to cover uprisings in Macedonia; two young men take a sailing boat from Britain to the Black Sea; and ethnologists and folklorists examine the characteristics of the different Balkan peoples.

Many travellers have good things to say of Bulgaria, not least its landscapes and cities. Their first impressions of Sofia and Turnovo, for example, are of beautiful places in splendid settings. Turnovo is compared with great natural and cultural sights like the Matterhorn, the Acropolis in Athens and Niagara Falls. The travellers are moved by the enchantments of nature in the Rila Mountains and on the Danube, for instance; one experiences an almost religious ecstasy at seeing the sun rise over Rila’s snowy peaks.

They describe their stay in Bulgarian homes and are, mostly, delighted by the hospitality. Food and drink are a common theme: some hunt their own meals, others enjoy local “pogatch”, “soochook” or “cabaubs”, using their own phonetic spellings. Some aim to characterize Bulgarian looks and character. They use terms such as handsome, robust, patient, stubborn, courageous, inventive and honest. One writer believes Britain’s working poor are worse off than the Bulgarians in terms of housing, clothes and money. A few voices are critical, claiming the Bulgarians eat raw horseflesh and practise vampirism.

People’s clothing interests observers. They describe women’s plaited hair, the gold coins and metal discs (‘paras’) on their heads and necks, their wide-sleeved and embroidered dresses. A few go so far as to label national and gender differences: Bulgarian women are “the prettiest race in Turkey”, compared with Greek women who are “beautiful as statues are beautiful”. It’s asserted that the Bulgarians marry young, and that there is a high divorce rate in the cities, initiated by the women. Exceptions noted to the more usual women’s roles are the courageous female freedom fighters or “haidouts”.

Ceremonies, customs and cultural entertainments are examined. One traveller experiences a harvest-time practice when the sole of his boot is rubbed with corn to mean he should always walk on plenty. Another learns about the female doyenne of spring, Baba Marta (Granny March). A third sees the Nestinarki (female fire dancers), moving in an apparent trance across living coals to the ‘ratchenitsa’ with its intricate and rapid rhythm, and exhibiting slow pulse rates and unburnt feet afterwards.

Alongside issues that interest most of the travelogue-writers across the board, each has individual interests and agendas. A military adviser collects logistical data on the defensibility of Plovdiv in case of war. An educational enthusiast notes that secondary school standards are higher than in 90 per cent of equivalent English establishments, and that young people are being influenced by the media to become “Socialists and Nihilists”. A commercial expert remarks on sales opportunities for attar of roses, the perfume ingredient, and so on.

Entertainingly, the tables of observation and judgement are turned from time to time to reveal Bulgarian opinions of the British. The mayor of the Black Sea city of Bourgas expresses surprise that British people are interested in anything but their sports, like cricket or rugby, and their business affairs. A traveller challenged by a Bulgarian to define civilisation as typified by Britain and America, but not by Bulgaria, totally fails to do so.

In most of the accounts, a negative cast is thrown over the whole experience by the shocking evidence of Ottoman oppression. Examples cited are Bulgarians having to put small doors on their houses to stop the Ottomans using them as stables, having to pay “teeth money” for the wear and tear to Turks’ teeth from Bulgarian food, and wholesale and random exploitation, rape and murder by the Ottomans, including mass public hangings.

Many writers foresee the invasion of Turkey by Russia as a result. British and international opinion becomes further outraged by Ottoman massacres in the town of Batak and elsewhere, and the Bulgarian cause becomes a major theme in British politics and foreign policy. The British Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone writes an introduction to one of our travellers’ books deploring the fact of a people “never knowing real security or peace, living a life poisoned by fear, and deprived of the freedom which is indispensable to all nobleness in mankind”.

Ways to give:
Please send a donation as cash or cheque or money order payable to British-Bulgarian Society, to 50 Heathfield Road, c/o B-BS, London W3 8EJ, OR pay online withPayPal to
£9.50 GBP or any other sum wished would be an extremely welcome gift to assist clever but disadvantaged children at the Geo Milev AEG School in Rousse, northern Bulgaria to reach their full learning potential.
Children benefiting from your generosity will include orphans without proper home support for their studies, young people with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer that seriously affect their school progress, and other deserving groups.
The Fondatsya is jointly administered by Nigel Middlemiss and Prisca Middlemiss, formerly teachers at Geo Milev AEG School, and by Adriana Mitova, Director of the School.

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