What is a literature tour?
Literature tours are a widely known type of the city walking tours. Their theme is the life and literary work of famous writers. Common stops are literary museums, theaters, libraries, bookstores, sometimes coffeehouses and inns, monuments in parks, and even cemeteries, reading epitaph plates. There are many such tours in Europe. For example, a casual stroll from the house of Schiller to the house of Goethe in Weimar; dark bear drinking on the favorite table of Tolkien and Lewis in Oxford; climbing the tower in the center of the small Spanish town of Alcala de Henares, which commands a perfect view over the house of Miguel de Cervantes.
There is a similar literature tour held in Sofia, too. (Thumbs up!) It is organised by the “Union of City Reading Rooms” and it is guided by the famous young writer Alexander Shaptov. The litera tour in Sofia combines the stories of many national authors who lived in the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, and form the cannon of Bulgarian literature, every student study them at school: Ivan Vazov, Aleko Chonstantinov, Dimitar Dimov to name a few. The stories on the tour also include curious side characters such as legendary bookstore owners, publishers, compositors *, foreign ambassadors, and His Majesty the Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria.
The “Union of City Reading Rooms” has developed the so-called “Literature map of Sofia”. It is an inventory of every street, square, building or monument connected to a famous writer. And while working on this map, the idea to promote it with thematic guided tours gradually formed. Without much expectations the first tours were held and lots of people turned out, intrigued about the format, myself included. The tours proved to be successful events and continue to happen for a third year. I dear say they became more popular than the literature map, which were supposed to promote.
There is a secret behind this success, other than apparent perseverance and charisma of the organisers. It is the mere history combined with the unique layout of the Bulgaian Capital Sofia. The city itself is kind of a rush storyteller, a meta-author of its own literature account. What does this mean?
Sofia, the rush storyteller
The city of Sofia presents rich opportunities for topics to include in a literature tour. The reasons are at test two: (1) all Bulgarian classical authors, with almost no exceptions, had lived in the capital city at the same time, when (2) the city was still fairly small, compact.
Even though many authors hadn’t put down on paper a single line about Sofia, they most certainly had lived there. One example is the author Yordan Yovkov. Although he lived for many years in Sofia, he is famous with short stories about the simple life in the Bulgarian village, describing the day-to-day hardship of the common countryman. There is a good reason for this. Sofia was the center of public life in the country. It was simply the place where things happen. The biggest publishers, booksellers, librarians were concentrated here, too. For every ambitious author it was a necessity to hang around and establish connections. That is very convenient for us — references to all the important authors are collected in one city.
And this city was very compact. The public life in Old Sofia was enclosed in a small perimeter that can be crossed side-to-side with a half-hour brisk walk. One end was marked with the Lion’s bridge, the other — the Eagle’s bridge. Thus many literature-related places are located at a comfort walking distance, which enables the tour to include more stories and to cover them in two, two and a half hours, without fatigue.
Perhaps, there is a third characteristic that makes Sofia a gold mine for literature walks: (3) there are references to writers at every turn. That is why I call Sofia a rush storyteller. For example, no less than 300 streets are named after writers, philologists, and literature characters. And only in Sofia, one can find entire neighborhoods designated to Bulgarian writers: Yavorov, Smirmensi, Hristo Botev, and some others.
If anyone analyze the talk of Alexander Shpatov during the literature tours, I bet the most repeated noun will be “a coffeehouse**”
Very often, while talking about author’s biographies we tend to emphasize too much on the places where they lived, family houses, rented apartments etc. Even Though, it may be interesting to see the chair, in which the author used to nap or the drawer, where he/she kept his/her journal, these details speak little about the author’s character. If one wants to understand their temperament and inner world, one should seek to find out what had happened in the coffeehouses.
The coffeehouse is best described as the facebook of the time. It was the place for heated disputes over a game of backgammon. Here the news arrived first and the press (domestic and foreign alike) was red out loud. Public praises and public insults were also part of the atmosphere. Not a few iconic novels and the characters in them were invented on the tables of the most famous Sofian coffeehouses.
Many of these iconic places do not exist today. They are only preserved in archive pictures. But the literature tour is a time to revive their memory and visit the location where they were standing. The tour is an escape to the upbeat mood in the Armenian coffeehouse, visited only by the poorest writers; the gossips in the Bohemian bar “Bambuk”, the members-only Union Club; the Vienna restaurant “Pod Lipite”; and the legendary pastry shop “Tsar the Liberator” (the Russian Emperor Alexander II).