French travellers, diplomats and writers have visited Bulgaria for centuries
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it. This is why today in Sofia you will spot an odd French name here and there: the Léandre le Gay Street in the centre, schools named Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, a metro station is known as Frédéric Joliot-Curie. On noticing this, you may be reminded of the words of the late Bulgarian President, Zhelyu Zhelev, who infamously stated that Bulgarians were... Francophones.
What has remained of the Bulgarian francophonie is hard to find in today's Bulgaria. But, historically, Bulgaria and France have shared a lot more than the fascinating signs still found at some older railway stations that spell out Mouvement, Chef de gare and Salle D'Ettente.
Poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine spent just three days in a house in Plovdiv, in 1833, but ever since that building has been known as Lamartine's House
Bulgaria and France are far apart and their contacts have been rare and often mired in conflict. In the 13th century, the Bulgarian King Kaloyan defeated and killed Latin Emperor Baldwin I. In the 18th century, Voltaire put his Candide into the hands of brutal Bulgarians who raped and pillaged wherever they went. Their power and strength was matched only by their savagery. While he used the Bulgarians in Candide as a metaphor for the Prussians, Voltaire later wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary an article about actual Bulgarians. In it he got some of the facts right and some of them wrong, but it seems that the main reason for him writing the entry was to explain how and why in France the name Bulgarian transformed into bougre, or sodomite (the Bogomilism heresy – known in France as Catharism – was to blame, and the word permeated into English as, well, "bugger"). In both world wars Bulgaria and France fought on the opposite sides. The 1919 Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine after the First World War marks one of Bulgaria's greatest ignominies.
And yet, as streets, squares and schools in Bulgaria record, the two nations have also had some common ground. Throughout the years, there were Frenchmen who travelled around Bulgaria, promoted its national causes, and established schools and businesses. Some of them also died in Bulgaria, as soldiers.
French military cemetery plot in Sofia
Victor Hugo never actually visited the country, but Bulgarians named schools after him not only because of his masterpieces The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables. Victor Hugo was also a vocal critic of the atrocities committed during the suppression of the April 1876 Uprising against the Ottomans, galvanising public opinion in the West to protect the Bulgarians.
Another Frenchman commemorated with a street in central Sofia went to great lengths to support Bulgarians in the final years of Ottoman rule. Léandre François René le Gay was the French vice consul in Sofia during the April Uprising and appealed to the Ottoman authorities to halt the repression. During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, he and the Italian consul Vito Positano, who also has a street named after him, successfully convinced an Ottoman general not to burn Sofia to the ground before retreating.
A portrait of French Vice Consul Léandre François René le Gay decorates the French Embassy in Sofia
French president François Mitterrand also has a street in Sofia named after him, for his role in dismantling another regime that oppressed Bulgarians, Communism. In January 1989, he visited Bulgaria and had a breakfast at the French Embassy with 12 Bulgarian intellectuals critical of the regime. This was a gesture of open support for Bulgaria's nascent dissident movement, although when the regime collapsed, in November 1989, it was due to an internal coup and not because of genuine democratic pressure.
Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who has a metro station and a street in Sofia named after him, had nothing to do with Bulgaria. He was not chosen for his scientific research in chemistry, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1938. He is not even the most famous of the Curie clan, as his parents-in-law were none lesser than Marie and Pierre Curie. So, what is Frédéric Joliot-Curie doing with not one, but two namesakes in Sofia? Because he was a Communist, and in Communist Bulgaria that mattered more than anything else. He also has streets named after him in Plovdiv and Varna. For comparison, there are two Marie Curie streets in Bulgaria, in Plovdiv and Pleven, and one Pierre Curie in Pleven.
The River Danube inspired science fiction writer Jules Vernes to write a novel, The Danube Pilot, which takes place in Bulgaria in 1876 and has a Bulgarian protagonist
Not all Frenchmen whose names are on Bulgarian street signs were connected to politics. Ami Boué earned a street sign in Sofia because of his scientific research. A geologist, he travelled around Bulgaria in 1836-1839 and surveyed it for the first time. He corrected old maps and explored the Sofia Plain, the Stara Planina mountain range between the Iskar Gorge and the Black Sea, the Rila and the Pirin mountain ranges, and the entire length of the River Maritsa, to name but a few.
Among all the French street and school names, there is one that stands out as it is attached to a 19th century house. Lamartine House in Old Plovdiv actually belonged to a wealthy local merchant, Georgi Mavridi. In 1833, he hosted the poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, who was on his way back from the Middle East, for three days. Lamartine left an enthusiastic description of Plovdiv, claiming that it had one of the best locations for a city, which won him eternal recognition as the namesake of a house that another man built and owned.
Monument to fallen French soldiers in Svishtov
Some Frenchmen with connections to Bulgaria are not commemorated locally. Science fiction writer Jules Vernes, famed for his tense novels and accurate predictions of 20th and 21st century innovations and technologies, wrote a novel, The Danube Pilot, that takes place in Bulgaria in 1876 and has a Bulgarian protagonist. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier visited Bulgaria in 1911 and was inspired by the clear lines and whitewashed walls of the traditional architecture of Veliko Tarnovo. Later, he would develop his modernistic style based on it.
The greatest omission is perhaps Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui. He was sent by the French Government in 1841 to the Niš and Pirot regions, now in Serbia, to report on the atrocities during the Ottoman suppression of a Bulgarian uprising. Blanqui's report Voyage en Bulgarie pendant l'année 1841 remains a valuable source of Bulgarian history and includes one of the most inspired and inspiring descriptions of the Belogradchik Rocks.
Frenchmen also died in Bulgaria, in many cases as soldiers.
During the Crimean War that the Western Powers fought against Russia in 1853-1856 thousands of troops were transported via the Danube and stationed on Bulgarian lands. Many of the wounded were sent to Varna. 5,183 French soldiers died there of their wounds or cholera. Initially, they were buried in two locations near Varna. In the 1950s, they were exhumed and reburied in a new place, at the intersection of King Boris III Street and Road 902. The monument from one of the previous cemeteries was installed over the new grave: an obelisk with four cannons made in Toulon.
Frenchmen fought on Bulgarian soil during the Great War on the Thessaloniki Front (it was the first time many Bulgarians saw black people, as Senegalese troops also fought there). Some of them died far from the frontline, from cholera as prisoners of war, in Svishtov on the Danube. Until recently, the remains of over 200 French servicemen lay in a dedicated military cemetery with a monument in Svishtov. In the 2000s, they were reburied in the French military cemetery in Sofia. Their monument, however, is still in Svishtov.
One of the most iconic views in Veliko Tarnovo entails a tower, built in the 1930s, which is locally referred to as Baldwin's Tower. Presumably, Bulgarian King Kaloyan, who had defeated and imprisoned Baldwin I of Flanders in 1205, kept him inside. Eventually, Kaloyan killed Baldwin I by throwing him from the tower. According to one version of the story, the Bulgarian got furious because he interpreted the knight’s chivalry towards the Bulgarian queen as an open flirt