The setting is a hilly landscape cut in its heart by the meanders of the Yantra River (writes Julia Ossena). Its clear iridescent waters shimmer down the ravine, reflecting alternately the colour of the sky and the green nuances of the forest. Veliko Tarnovo spreads onto three hills (Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora), its houses crammed on top of each other as close as possible to the edge of the drop.
As a matter of fact, the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire is a more grandiose place compared to austere Sofia, which - despite its charming name - lacks the good looks and poetry of its predecessor. Nestled in the north of the country, 75 miles away from the Romanian border, Veliko Tarnovo is the real deal, a place of history, traditions and culture.
Often referred to as the “City of the Tsars”, it is one of the oldest inhabited locations in Bulgaria, with a history of over five millennia. From the first traces of human settlement dated 3,000 years BC, it quickly grew to become the country’s strongest fortification between 12th and 14th century, as well as the most important religious, economic, political and cultural centre of the Empire. The city bloomed for 200 years as an extremely cosmopolitan hub with Armenian, Jewish and Roman Catholic merchant communities, until the country fell under Ottoman rule in 1393. It remained that way until 1878, when much turmoil led to the creation of a Principality of Bulgaria, with Veliko Tarnovo chosen as its capital.
Light shows, executions and cobbled lanes
The most popular attraction here is the Tsarevets fortress standing on a hill of the same name. This majestic complex housed the royal and patriarchal palaces, before being burnt down by the Ottoman forces. However its ruins are impressive and allow you to imagine how the site would inspire respect and fear many centuries ago. Visit it on a clear morning to marvel at the warm reflection of the sun on the thick walls, gazing down at the surrounding hills and smoky suburbs. At night a spectacular light show illuminates on demand the site with bright colours and patterns. You can spend a few hours taking in this signature sign of the country, its draw-bridges, towers, intimidating gates, churches… and even an “execution rock” overlooking the river, from where traitors were thrown to their deaths.
In town, the old district itself invites you to take a stroll in past history. Spreading on several levels on the hillside, you’ll love losing yourself through its labyrinth of streets and alleyways, crooked stairways and medieval squares. The whitewashed façades held together with timber structures seem to rest onto one another along the narrow cobbled lanes. Many houses and workshops have remained the same for centuries, with their low ceilings, small windows and colourful ornaments. To me the typical smell of coal burning early morning and late at night is a distinctive memory of the place and its peculiar atmosphere. It reminds me of the heart-warming welcome I always came across entering any side café and tavern for breakfast, or wandering back to my hotel late at night through the tastefully lit streets and monuments.
Before it’s too late…
On the other side of the gorge you’ll find a more recent part of the city, which houses (over a dramatic bridge) the National Museum. The building looks nothing special but stepping inside after ringing the bell is an experience of its own. After the old lady lets you in, you’ll be probably left on your own, your steps echoing while you explore the dark rooms and long eerie corridors dedicated mostly to the life and work of Boris Denev. Mainly unknown abroad, this highly talented Bulgarian artist became renowned between the two World Wars for his drawings depicting remarkably the horrors of military conflicts.
So powerful was his production that he saw himself repressed by the Communist regime after 1944, and excised from public life. Outside the museum, on the large esplanade, you’ll get fantastic views over the old district and admire the impressive Assens memorial, an enormous statue of expressive horsemen commemorating the Bulgarian Kings Assen I, Peter, Kaloyan and Ivan Assen II, during whose reigns the country attained its highest cultural, political and economical point. Memorials and commemoration plaques, symbols of a violent and heroic past, seem to be a must around the city, with so many peppered from square to square: monument of Mother Bulgaria, memorial of the Hung Men, and monuments of Vasil Levski, Velchova Zavera and Stefan Stambolov among others.
As for spiritual and religious curiosities, there are a great deal of churches and monasteries scattered around Veliko Tarnovo. Some of the most famous will be found in the mountain village of Arbanassi, four kilometres uphill from the town. Their beautiful and colourful frescoes from the 16th and 17th century are still almost intact, and you can’t but marvel at the naïve and pure representations of the saints’ life stories. The surrounding landscape and stunning views over the ancient capital are the perfect backdrop to this peaceful settlement, which you can access via a short taxi ride.
Veliko Tarnovo is truly a rough diamond where you can feel the weight of pride and history upon the people and the architecture. It grabs you at first sight and feeds your imagination with knight’s tales, ferocious battles and a unique Renaissance culture. It is however getting polished a bit more each year by a wave of British and German investors, charmed by its good looks and magical atmosphere. While the world’s attention for Bulgaria is still upon the Black Sea, it’s time for you to see it for yourself before its charms disappear, swallowed by global mass tourism.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".