Replica of steamer that brought Hristo Botev to Bulgaria docked at River Danube
On 28 May 1876, the passengers of the Radetzky, a steamer headed on the Danube to Vienna, were in for a surprise. As the ship was heading upstream, three men in strange military uniforms, swords and guns in their hands, appeared on the deck. Their leader, a handsome bearded man, cried something and suddenly young men, that until then had looked like ordinary gardeners heading for seasonal work in Austria-Hungary, gathered around the band. Dozens of them. They took off their clothes and put on uniforms. More weapons were seen onboard.
As the passengers were herded in a polite and orderly fashion to the first and second class cabins, the leader demanded to talk to the ship's captain, Dagobert Englender.
Later, the passengers learnt that the men were not gardeners at all. They were revolutionaries who wanted to cross into the Ottoman Empire and fight for the freedom of their Bulgarian brethren.
The ship's prow is decorated with a portrait of its namesake, Count Radetzky, a popular military leader
The Radetzky was diverted off her course without incident and the Bulgarians disembarked at a nondescript spot on the Danube's right bank. Here is how Captain Englender described what happened next. "When everyone had left the ship, a picturesque and sublime scene followed. The Bulgarians scattered in picturesque groups on the hilly ground and covered such a large area that even I thought they were more than they actually were. Then a voice was heard and they all kneeled, they were probably praying. Many were kissing the soil that was their fatherland and that would soon take them... Then the priest rose again, took the banner and another object in his right hand, he was probably blessing the fighters for freedom. I thought it was a cross: the naked eye could not make out what it was and I thought using the binoculars would be disrespectful. The scene was solemn and moving. Then all the boys stood up and I saw Botev standing on an elevation, talking for two-three minutes. They all cried: 'Hurray, [long live] Bulgaria, hurray, hurray!' so strongly and joyfully, that we, sailors and soldiers experienced in spotting nations that know how to cry 'hurray' and that not, told ourselves: 'These Bulgarians might still be insignificant and unknown, but they are bound to become a strong nation'."
And that was it. Radetzky continued on its scheduled trip. Later, the newspapers reported on the death of a group of Bulgarian rebels somewhere in the European parts of the Ottoman Empire.
Dimitar Gyudzhenov's rendering on Botev's landing at Kozloduy, painted in 1949
What for the passengers of the Radetzky was an unexpected diversion from their normal lives and probably a nuisance, has become a seminal event in Bulgarian history. The landing of Hristo Botev and his 205 men at Kozloduy is seen as the beginning of a heroic and doomed battle for freedom, often dubbed "the road to immortality."
But when they saw
The bank at Kozloduy
A horn blew at the steamer
A banner was waved.
Poet Ivan Vazov, who penned the poem "The Quiet White Danube," was not the only one inspired by the event. As late as 1949, painter Dimitar Gyudzhenov depicted his idea of Botev's landing: a fierce, passionate hero surrounded by his dedicated men. For decades, the painting has been a staple in Bulgarian history books.
The museum exhibition features a portrait of Botev and a green banner used by the Bulgarian rebels in 1876, embroidered with a golden lion and the slogan "Freedom or Death"
The first memorial to mark the landing place, a spot west of the modern town of Kozloduy, appeared in 1878. It was a humble wooden cross. In 1882, a stone cross was erected there, and in 1939, after decades of campaigning and fundraising, a larger monument was built.
Meanwhile, the steamer had slipped out of history forever. Built in 1851 in the Obuda Shipbuilding Yard in Budapest, the Radetzky went on sailing the waters of the Danube until the 1910s. In 1924, it was demolished for scrap.
In the 1960s, Communist youth organisations in Bulgaria initiated a nation-wide campaign to restore the steamship. Over a million Bulgarian children collected scrap to the value of 523,000 leva, and donated the money for the building of a replica of the old steamer. The Shipbuilding Yard in Ruse launched the new-old Radetzky in 1966. She was not a mere museum – the ship was fully operational and could carry up to 100 passengers aboard. She was an almost exact replica of the prototype, but with some improvements, such as the diesel engine and the side paddle wheels.
Today, the Radetzky is managed by the National History Museum and is open to visitors daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
The monument at Kozloduy was built in 1939 after decade-long money-raising campaign
The ship's chimney. After a complete renovation in a Romanian shipyard, in 2019-2020, Radetzky is now again operational and can be booked for trips
Historical reenactment of Botev's landing. The uniforms his men wore inspired the coats of the Bulgarian National Guard
Quiet White Danube
What is the colour of the Danube? For most of Europe, thanks to Johann Strauss's famed waltz, it is blue. Bulgarians make the exception. For them, thanks to the poem by Ivan Vazov, the Danube is white and golden.
The then young poet penned "The Quiet White Danube" soon after Hristo Botev's death, in 1876. In 1909, Bulgarian revolutionary and musician Ivan Karadzhov adapted a popular tune to the lyrics. Back in the day he was a teacher in the Bulgarian male high-school in Salonika, then in the Ottoman Empire. The song, with its unmistakably revolutionary pathos, caused him some trouble with the Ottoman authorities.
Today "The Quiet White Danube" is immediately recognisable to all Bulgarians. Bulgarian students learn it in primary school; soldiers sing it as a warm-up in the barracks; Bulgarian Army brass band play it at parades and festivities. Fans of Levski football team chant it, with adapted lyrics to mock their archenemy, TSKA.
Most Bulgarians know by heart the first few lines of the 22-stanza-long lyrics, but few are aware that the tune of this energetic march was borrowed from... a lullaby, which at least Germans and Russians sing to their children every night.
It is not as surprising as it sounds. In the 19th century, when Bulgarian society was rapidly modernising, liberal borrowing of foreign examples, music included, was one of the ways of cultural accession to Europe. The fact that original tunes were often meant for love songs was not that important. What mattered was the end effect. "The Battle Terrible Has Stopped, the Heroes' Blood Is Flowing," for example, is known in Russia as a folk song: "In the Field a Birch Three Stood." The revolutionary hymn "A Bright Moon Is Shining," sung by rebels against the Ottomans in the Strandzha, used the melody of an Ottoman love song. The tune of the military march "The Wind's Roaring, the Balkan's Moaning" was based on a church chant.
Here are the lyrics to which the melody of "The Quiet White Danube" has been sung, besides "The Quiet White Danube."
"The Quiet White Danube," by Ivan Vazov
Quiet white Danube's waving
Boisterous and bold,
The Radetzky's proudly sailing,
On its waves of gold.
"Bajuschki Baju," a German lullaby
Sleep, my baby, sleep,
Sandman's on his way,
Nana nana na,
The silver moon and fleecy cloud
Are watching from above.
Levski Fans Chant
Blue, the stands are waving,
Boisterous and bold,
Levski are beating the Chorba,
Now as before.
"A Cossack Lullaby" by Mikhail Lermontov
Sleep, my child, my love
Nana nana na,
Silently the moon above
Is peeping in your pram.
I'll tell you a story and
Sing you a chant,
You sleep with your eyes closed,
Nana nana na.
The second stanza is more remarkable. In 1840 it was hardly as politically incorrect as it is today:
Down the gorge the Terek's flowing
Swashing turbid waves,
An evil Chechen's there crawling,
Dagger in his hand.
But your Dad's a tempered soldier,
Battle-tried, and bold,
So, sleep calm, my little one,
Nana nana na.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners