Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




On Foot in Bulgaria

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, July 15, 1905)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 8


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]




Scans as a .pdf file (1.4 Mb)



Constantly shifting scenes of interest on the way


An Adventure in a Bulgarian inn — Impressive Views from the Mountains — Travellers Encountered on the Road



SAMAKOV, Bulgaria, June 18. — If you are looking for scenery, perhaps Switzerland and California can equal Bulgaria for a walking trip, but for roads that stream with the life of the people, take Bulgaria in the early spring, before the summer sun blazes put too hot. For here, where railroads and trolley cars are few, the roads are the veins of the provincial life; and all Bulgaria is only a province. Now, in the spring, the people make their trips, for pleasure or for business, some in coach, some on horse, but the great mass of the people, on foot, sack on back, staff in hand, trousers well girt up, as their forefathers and ours did before.


So have I been travelling, the last few days, over roads trodden by the bare feet of ancient Thracians and the sandals of Roman soldiers, but vastly improved since then by the Bulgarian Government, which takes a pride in its roads. Thracians still tramp those roads, or Trakians, as they call themselves, but they are better shod now than then.'


Three days ago I left Kustendil, over in what is still called Paeonia, as it was when Herodotus wrote about it; but it is far away now, over three ranges, and people speak of if here as though it were across some sea.


Equipments for such travelling are simple, old clothes, cowhide sandals, and a knapsack. If you have such a knapsack as I have, you would doubly enjoy such a trip. My knapsack has been the hero of three days' mild, but pleasant, adventure.


I was telling my friend, the local representative of the Committee, of my prospective trip.


"I shall give you an outfit," he said. So he went into his storeroom and brought out a pair of sandals and a knapsack, it was one of the prettiest knapsacks he had, of canvas and strips of brown leather, full of all sorts of little pockets. I started next morning, with this outfit, a good staff, and a dog.


To see the country here in spring and to see it in the late fall are two very different things. In October the red, sunbaked landscape gives one a thirst to see. I could hardly believe I had been over the same rood once before last year. The Kustendil valley was one sea of waving wheat, from whose shores rose hilts of vineyards and orchards, while here and there a low, spreading tree suggested a half-submerged, moss-covered rock. At times you drop into the tall early crops and lose sight of the landscape, and on all sides are green walls, through which seep the early morning earth smells. But the road was not lonely; at every few hundred paces I met peasants coming in from the villages, driving donkeys loaded with freshly gathered green produce for the town folks. An hour away from the town, and they became fewer.


There is something moonlike in the topography of this country, a succession of small, round valleys fringed with rooky ridges, with here and there a tall, lonely peak. By noon I had crossed the wheat fields, climbed the divide over into the Dubnitza valley, higher and cooler, shaded by the overhanging, snow-white peaks of the Rilo Mountains. There, in the pass, was a khan or "hahn," as they call a wayside inn here, where travellers fest and eat. You find them every hour or two, low, squat huts, built of mud and cow dung, with such names as the "Palace of Vienna" or "Castle of Moscow."




There were several travellers in the hahn when I got there, a Jewish merchant and several Bulgarians, villagers, and they were earnestly discussing national politics, drinking wine, and eating black bread and cheese. That is all the hahns ever have, besides Turkish coffee and plum brandy, but to their patrons that is quite enough.


The political discussion went on quietly enough till It drifted into the war in the Far East, when it immediately became violent. Russia is the only part of politics that can really excite the Bulgarian villager to anything like patriotic fire — the freed Bulgaria. With the growth of enlightenment Russophobes have sprung up among them, and when the two got together, Russophile and Russophobe, then the sparks fly. For a while I resisted the numerous violently worded invitations to join in the argument, until one pompous village elder gave out the fact that the Japanese fleet was composed mainly of American and English warships. Then I felt it my duty to set them right. I did so mildly, gently, but the storm of protest drowned my voice. I might have called Bulgaria a nation of donkeys, and they would have calmly considered it, but — against Russia. As a loud voice seemed essential here to carry conviction, I raised mine, but that was killing to dignity, and besides, the Russophiles outnumbered the Jew and me, and the one Bulgar among them who was Russophobe. Finally it occurred to me I had a piece of cheese in my knapsack wrapped in a last week's paper containing some convincing facts. I pulled my knapsack out of a corner, and threw it on the table; then searched for the paper. An astonishing silence followed. I was going to show them the paper, but it was the pompous villager who protested.


"No! No! Gaspodin!" he exclaimed, "we believe you. Perhaps you are right."


Every word I spoke after that they listened to with respectful attention; every fact I presented passed unchallenged. I was puzzled, dazed, and oven uncomfortable. So I soon attempted to pay my bill, but found I had been drinking on somebody's treat.


I tried to puzzle out the strange behavior as I pushed oh over a short cut across a rocky ridge, but soon gave it up in the toil of climbing. Far below ran the highway in a great semicircular sweep about the base of the mountain with the Struma swirling over rapids still further down through a rock-walled ravine. Far above on the ledges of the cliffs I heard the pipings of a goatherd's fife, and saw his goats apparently hanging to the bits of green grass tufts by their teeth.


It was middle afternoon before I struck the road again in time to hear the rattle of wheels and the shouts of men further up beyond a turn. It was my friend, the Jew, from the hahn, and he was driving a covered telega with two horses. I judged he had passed two or three more hahns on the road since I left him. Inside with him were a Bulgarian companion and a small boy.


"Come, get in!" he shouted, "lets all ride. Nobody should walk — hurrah! I feel that way. I am a Socialist!"


I accepted his invitation, crept in, and the talega piled on down the road. Presently we brought up at another hahn where the Jew insisted upon more refreshments for all. When we went on again we had another passenger and the Jew's every port, seemed to exude the milk of human kindness. Every traveller we passed on foot he picked tip with a whoop; a pilgrim to Rilo Monastery, a soldier going home on furlough, and a villager off on a visit. So we rolled into the town of Dubnitza, the Jew and I hanging on to the driver's board, the rest inside on the straw, an arm protruding from under the canvas cover in one place, a face in another, two legs from the back; a tight squeezed load of humanity. So we rattled up the main street.




I engaged a room at the most expensive hotel, which would cost me twenty cents, one franc. It was clean, if not luxurious. The Bulgarians are never luxurious, but occasionally you find them clean, not too often. Having wiped off the dust of travell went out into the town, to see the sights.


Dubnitza is still a Turkish town, long streets of low open shops, here and there, a mosque, but modern shone structures appear in places. There are shop windows, too, with sewing machines, phonographs and bicycles.


I met the editor of the local paper, who spoke pretty good English; only his vocabulary was more especially suited to political discussion. He read only the political articles in the English papers. There is not a town in Bulgaria where you cannot find an English-speaking person; they are graduates of our American college in Samakov, or perhaps of Robert College in Constantinople. My friend in Dubnitza greeted me with a clear New England twang that was quite startling; more so when he asked me if I wouldn't write him a leader for his editorial page. Something against the Government, if I liked, or, better still, against the Church. Then came a request to lecture before the local Socialist club on my impressions of Bulgarian government; I could do it in English and one of their men would interpret as I went along.


Dawn was barely breaking next morning when I rose, shouldered my knapsack and went out into the deserted streets to hunt up a breakfast. I found a villager's hahn open, a man in the white peasant costume of Macedonia was preparing for the day's work.


"Nothing yet," he grumbled sulkily; "too early."

"Not even bread and milk?"

"No — nothing."


I had thrown my knapsack on a bench. His dull face suddenly brightened.


"Perhaps," he continued hopefully, "if you'll wait a few minutes."


From another room he produced bread, sausages, cheese, sour milk, and sugar, and set speedily to work making a Turkish coffee. As I ate he sat down near me.


"Have you just come!" he whispered; "or — are you just going?"


I was puzzled.


"I came yesterday," I replied, "and I am going on now. What of it?"


"Nothing, nothing;" he answered with an admiring smile, "only—don't be afraid of me. I am from Monastir".


"What do you think i am?" I asked testily; "a Turkish spy!"


He smiled indulgently and his eyes were fixed on my knapsack.


"Turkish spies don't carry that," he said, "they're numbered."


Then the truth came to me.


"What do I owe?" I asked as I rose to go.

"What you please."

"And if I please to give nothing?"

"That is good, too."


He was in earnest. I paid the full price, and went on with his blessings.


Soon I had Dubnitza behind me and was crossing another flat, grain-covered valley. I was getting well into the land of ancient Thrace now, where the people still glory in the old name and the beauty of their women. In each day's walk you may notice change of type, and of costume in the women. One should come to these parts to judge the Bulgarian peasant women, not to Sofia, where they are of that distinct type known as Cheops, squatty and ugly as our California Digger squaws. About here they are tall and slim and often beautiful of feature. It is hard to believe that there can be such, a change in so short a distance, but I have noticed it from actual observation as well as from being told. Here in Bulgaria you may find the most beautiful peasant women of Europe; as well as the ugliest.


Shortly before noon I struck another hahn. It seemed bare and unpromising enough, and the heavy, melancholy face of its owner promised as little.


"Coffee and boiled beans," he announced gloomily.


I unslung my knapsack, and hung it carefully over the fireplace, as though it were a gilt frame picture. The hahn keeper's glommy features relaxed.


"Did you strike the line below Rilo?" he whispered.

"What line?" I asked.


He smiled knowingly.


"What's the hews — from there!" He jerked his thumb toward the nearby range.


I shook my head and scowled murkily. This impressed him and several travellers on the benches with the increasing complexity of the Macedonian problem in general, and did not compromise me. I dined on the best he had; eggs, milk, cheese, beans, coffee, and finished up with a Turkish cigarette. Meanwhile those simple


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peasants sat about in silence, staring at me in quiet admiration, sometimes shitting their eyes to the knapsack, as though looking for bullet holes. "When I left I offered him a franc, which he would have refused had I not pressed it. It is, indeed, a strong emotion which excites a Bulgarian peasant to refuse a franc.




Shortly after noon I struck the mountains again and climbed up the pass which leads into the Sarnakov Samakov Valley. On both sides rose bluffs and wooded slopes, while beside the road poured a fresh, green mountain stream. An hour's climb brought me up among the mist puffs, and the cool air came soughing through with low, waiting sounds; so it always does, for the Samakov valley is higher and cooler.


Up near the summit I caught sight of several horses tethered to a tree, and the wheels of a light wagon protruding from the foliage. As I approached I discovered a party of travelers taking an afternoon rest; two women, a number of children, and several men. They were seated Turkish fashion about a tablecloth, spread on the grass, and were eating and drinking. Aristocrats, evidently, for they travelled on wheels, and, save that the men wore fur caps and red sashes, they were dressed in European style. Dusty and in sandals, I felt the disparity between their appearance and mine. There was a pretty girl among them, perhaps I stared; at any rate, I met nothing, but frowns. Cold-blooded aristocrats, they have them here, even in this land of democracy; perhaps, I thought, some government officials getting each about one-fourth the pay of a New York policeman. They maintained a chilly silence while I passed. I had gone some few yards further, when a shout brought me facing around again.


One of them, a stout, elderly gentleman, was violently beckoning to me. He came half way to meet the as I returned.


"You look tired," he said genially; "come sit down—some lunch—some wine—a little talk." Ho reached out his hand and introduced himself by name. I recognized it at once as that of a prominent deputy in the Sobranje.


It was the pleasantest incident of a pleasant journey. Everybody from the stout gentleman to the pretty girl sought to make me as comfortable as they could.


"Poor fellow," said the elderly mother; "you have hard times ahead." My knapsack was tenderly hung up on the limb of a tree. But among these intelligent people my foreign accent and incorrect construction of speech would soon give me away.


"You are not a Bulgar?" said one presently; "perhaps Servian? or Rumanian?"

"No; I am an American."


They glanced dubiously at me, then at my knapsack.


"A missionary?"

"No—I live in Kustendil."

"Ah!" cried the stout gentleman; "you are the American."


It was an easy guess, for beside the missionaries I am the only American in Bulgaria; and that fact has made me known throughout the land. Besides, these people had read the translations of my letters to New York in the Sofia papers. And as such, as an American friendly to the Macedonian cause, I was as welcome as two comitajs with two knapsacks apiece. There was a Frenchman who came to Sofia once and stayed a week. Afterwards he wrote a book of his experiences. Now they have named a street after him.


"I suppose you will think," said the stout gentleman, "that we Bulgarians judge people by their dress. It is true. He seemed much distressed by the fact. "It is one of our peasant traits," he continued. "We have this Turkish story here to illustrate it; Once a Turk attended the festival of a rich man's birthday, but he came in simple dress. In consequence he was much neglected by the servants. A year after he came again, but in rich attire. He was given coffee in a silver cup. He raised his arm and threw his coffee down the sleeve, and said to his dress, "take it; this is meant for you."


They all laughed at the old man's illustration.


"According to that," I said. "I should throw this wine down the comitaji's knapsack."


That pleased them still more, for if there is one thing the Bulgarian is pleased to have known, it is his respect for the men who cross the frontier to fight with the bands.


It was late when I bid them good-by and trudged on to Samakov, more than ever pleased with my knapsack. I shall hang on to it during this trip, for it is an "open sesame " to the hearts of the people. But ten kilometers beyond a certain peak that I can see from my window it would have a startlingly different effect.


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