Many years ago in graduate school, I took a course that required each student to have a subscription to the renowned and self-described “authoritative” British weekly magazine The Economist. I don’t recall what the professor’s purpose in such a requirement was, but for me the unexpected benefit was reading about the world—and in particular the United States—from a non-American vantage point. I understood then how different the view of a country, its history, its current events, its people could be from the outside looking in. Enlightening and sometimes even salutary. Perhaps my writing about Bulgaria offers that sort of vicarious vantage point for Bulgarians. And this sort of prism disperses even more light on the subject when the author is writing not only from another place, geographically and culturally speaking, but from another time.
Plovdiv is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe and has seen many peoples— invaders and locals—call it their own. Next year it holds pride of place as the European Capital of Culture and will surely welcome many who have never visited before and who will jot down observations and take pictures that will be instantly conveyed to a wider audience. Some of these might wander the Old City and take note of a house built in the classic Bulgarian Renaissance (1762–1878) architectural style called the Lamartine House.
Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (October 21, 1790-February 28, 1869) was poet, historian, writer, and statesman. An aristocrat whose parents remained loyal to the monarchy after the French revolution, Lamartine both headed the provisional government of the Second Republic and sympathized with the plight of the working class, predicting that it would rise up in rebellion. That he wrote about such things while Karl Marx was still studying art history, translating Latin classics, and writing love poetry to his fiancé no doubt was met with approval by the Communist government that allowed the house to be named after him—and even circulated a stamp featuring the house shortly after their takeover of the country.
This despite the fact that Lamartine didn’t own the house, live in it, or even stay there for more than three days during the summer of 1833.
What allowed that 1833 three-day stay to last beyond the momentary impression of a French traveler passing through town is that Lamartine wrote a book, Travels in the East, Including a Journey in the Holy Land. Given Lamartine’s fame, it was quickly translated into other languages. He did not write much about his time there (see text beginning on page 164 in the link above), but he wrote enough of Bulgaria to endear himself to Bulgarians. He entered Bulgaria on his return journey from his eastern travels and described the three days in Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) as “passed…in the enjoyment of the agreeable hospitality of M. Maurides, in going through the environs, and in exchanging visits with the Turks, the Greeks, and the Armenians…The position of the town is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined…”
What likely was Lamartine’s most enduring gift to Bulgaria was his identification of its people, already more than 400 years an unwilling dominion of the Ottoman Empire, as Europeans. Seeing themselves as closer to the Christian West than a subjugated people of the Muslim East, Bulgarians were actively forming the nationalist sense that would form the basis of serious indendence efforts. It no doubt was reassuring and uplifting to be told that peasants they might be, but of the sort seen in the Western Alps. “They are quite the same as those of the Swiss and Savoyard peasants…I have witnessed rural dances amongst the Bulgarians, exactly the same as our villages in France.” And he pleaded their cause; “they are quite ripe for independence..The country which they inhabit would soon be a delightful garden..” He praised the mountains (“very similar to those of Auvergne”), though he gave Sofia short shrift. “There is nothing worthy of remark in the town.” And if you look at photographs of Sofia and Plovdiv taken around 50 years later, you can see why the latter impressed Lamartine more than the former.
So enduring are Lamartine’s words that the Sofia News Agency published an article in 2012 entitled Lamartine’s Hardworking, European Bulgarians as though to reiterate, in this time of persistent European refusal to allow Bulgaria into the Schengen area, that Bulgarians had their European bona fides given weight nearly two hundred years ago by a French icon. A Western icon, by the way, who admired the East, famously writing “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” and “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Sufficient French travelers wrote their impressions of Bulgaria that that Engin Deniz Tanir was able to write an entire doctoral thesis, The Mid-Nineteenth Century Ottoman Bulgaria from the Viewpoints of the French Travelers, on the subject. But for Bulgarians, Lamartine holds a special place as one of the earliest. And Sofia citizens hold nothing against him for finding nothing worthy in their city; they named the French language high school in the capital, Alphonse de Lamartine.