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Anniversary of Emergence of Organized Tourism in Post-Ottoman Bulgaria

In August 2023 the Bulgarian Tourist Union, one of the oldest public organizations in Bulgaria, celebrates 128 years since its inception. Its founders were the patriarch of Bulgarian literature Ivan Vazov and prominent writer and public figure Aleko Konstantinov.
The official tourist movement began on 27 August 1895, with a mass ascent of Vitosha Mountain Cherni Vrah Peak, where the union was established.
It all started with a strange looking “Invitation” published in the Sofia Zname newspaper on August 22, 1895. It offered the Sofia nature-lovers to meet on Cherni Vrah Peak for establishing a Bulgarian tourist club.  
The announcement looked unusual indeed. Bulgarian society was at that time a largely rural one, with strong Oriental imprint on everyday life and ideas about pastime. To just walk idly was considered by many an exotic whim. To quote one of Aleko Konstantinov’s friends Nikola Tantilov, “a stroll in the countryside around the capital (…) was considered a prerogative of foreigners, and we used to look at such people as persons with a lot of free time to kill”.
The very concept of tourism was a challenge to such a society. The word itself was used as a synonym of pedestrian. Tourism was both a product and an indicator of modernity, and attitude to it showed how rapidly new ideas were spreading through the former Ottoman province.
Modern travel has already broadened the vision of many Bulgarians about the outside world. Aleko Konstantinov, a devoted traveller, used his visits to the World Exhibitions in Paris in 1889, Prague in 1891 and Chicago in 1893 to provide Bulgarian readers with a portrait of the Western world, in his travel notes entitled “To Chicago and Back”. (He was not blind to negative aspects of modernity and we will find in his “Invitation” a phrase about „civilization, with all its beauties and abominations“. Modern tourism, however, was also about broadening the vision of Bulgarians about the nature surrounding them: something that was close at hand and could be reached by means of an alternative pastime.
It is this detail that makes Aleko Konstantinov’s “advertisement” quite understandable to a 21st century observer. „Brothers, forget your thirst for gold, your search for power and superiority, (…), get out of these coffeehouses full of tobacco smoke, leave these dusty streets, leave the city (…) and come to experience for a while a real, pure delight (…) and you will find yourselves completely changed, you will become better men, healthier, more balanced and more cheery”. The obsolete wording builds an opposition that is still current to this day as an alternative to high-tech-, AI-, mobile communications-dominated environment.
There is an important detail that added value to the idea of mounting Cherni Vrah in 1895. When one looks at the 2023 program of the Bulgarian Tourist Union for celebrating the anniversary, when one reads about initiatives to climb Vitosha from the village of Zheleznitsa, or the “Vitosha Run 2023” competition starting from the center of the capital to Cherni Vrah, one should keep in mind that such a timing would be impossible back in 1895. At that time Vitosha was a mountain without established routes, without any suitable infrastructure, with densely overgrown slopes; it was a must to hire a local guide for climbing Cherni Vrah. Wild animals like wolves and bears could confront a strayed “tourist”. It was not fortuitous that the “Invitation” was addressed to “people over 20 years old”. We know that appr. 400 people responded to it, but only 300 reached the peak.
Aleko Konstantinov (knowing well the hardships of the route) was himself very much impressed by the success. The feeling of surprise oozes from his report, published several days later in the press under the telling title of “Incredible, But True: 300 on Cherni Vrah Peak!”. 
Most Bulgarians justly attribute the birth of the tourist movement to Aleko Konstatinov and Ivan Vasov, whose travel notes, to quote 1936 Bratja Danchovi Encyclopaedia, “created the [necessary] mood and prepared the tourism idea here”. It is also worth noting that the idea of the tourism movement was supported by some of the most prominent Bulgarian intellectuals. Among the people Aleko Konstantinov casually listed as “experienced walkers” were Sofia University professors Ivan Shishmanov, Ivan Georgov, Krastyo Krastev, Nikola Chervenivanov, prominent medic Dimitar Mollov, not to mention Ivan Vazov, Boncho Boev (the future governor of Bulgarian National Bank), publisher Hristo Olchev, among others. 
These people helped turn tourism in the next decades from extravagance into a respectable pastime, suitable for all classes, a pastime for students and workers, for men and women alike, following the powerful appeal of Aleko Konstantinov, who invited Sofianites 128 years ago to seek “peace of soul and pure delight in the wild beauty and striking grandeur of the Bulgarian wonderful nature”.