Old royal capital boasting a dramatic cityscape, fascinating monuments and an epic fortress in the middle of Bulgaria.
Before visiting Bulgaria, I really had no idea where to go. The itinerary I came up with was based on some quick internet research while I enjoyed the country’s coast. One of the stops I came up with was the city of Veliko Tarnovo in northern Bulgaria, prompted by a couple of photos and let’s be honest, the cool name. While my reasons for visiting may have been superficial, what I found in Veliko Tarnovo was a historic city blessed with spectacular landmarks and a dramatic landscape.
Veliko Tarnovo may not be a large city today, but it has some rich pedigree. It was once the grand capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire from the 12th to 15th centuries. During this period, Bulgaria was a powerhouse of the Balkans and many historic heroes, like Ivan Asen II, lived during that time.
As the royal capital of this Empire, Tarnovo (as it was known) thrived as the political, cultural and economic centre. The city was so large and magnificent that it was even decreed as the “Third Rome”. This grand legacy of Tarnovo is reflected today by local’s only using the city’s old name and the frequent use of the colour purple on buildings and the city’s flag, purple the colour of royalty.
After the fall of the Bulgarian Empire to the Ottomans, stunted the grandeur of the city for centuries, although it remained an important centre for Bulgarian identity. Unfortunately, when the country was able to break free from the Ottoman Empire and regain its independence in 1878 Sofia was selected as the country’s capital. This decision cemented the decline of Tarnovo’s importance, although it was still symbolically linked with the idea of Bulgaria’s history and independence. To commemorate this, the city was renamed in 1965 to Veliko Tarnovo which means “Great Tarnovo”.
You might be wondering whether there’s actually anything to see in Veliko Tarnovo, considering I basically said it ain’t what it used to be. In fact, Veliko Tarnovo probably has the mostly densely packed collection of tourist attractions in all of Bulgaria. While I’ll get to the major landmarks momentarily, what might be the biggest tourist attraction to me is the cityscape itself.
Situated on the Yantra River and very close to the Balkan Mountains, Veliko Tarnovo is situated in a very feature-rich landscape. The city sits upon hills nestled into the banks of the river, with the houses of Veliko Tarnovo following the sweeping turns of the landscape to amazing effect. As the banks of the river are quite steep, the end result is houses stacked one after another up the hillside in a long arc that follows the curve of the river.
The arc of houses begins in Old Town with the old Ottoman style houses and continues round into the more modern parts of the city. Looking out along the houses, you almost feel like you’re in a natural amphitheatre where the houses are the seats. To me, the best vantage point was finding a balcony somewhere high up like at a restaurant and just looking along the houses as they curve away.
However, It’s also worth seeing the houses from directly front on, as you see how truly steep the hillside is. The houses almost reminded me of the ones you find in the Portuguese city of Porto – tall, skinny houses stacked one after another like dominos up a slope.
What’s great about the old Ottoman houses of Veliko Tarnovo is that while they make up a breathtaking cityscape, they are also individually beautiful. Walking through the upper and lower streets of Old Town, you’ll come across plenty of well-preserved houses in the Ottoman style. I can’t actually think of anywhere else where I have seen so many Ottoman houses outside of Turkey.
The Ottoman style is typically white walls, wooden balconies on a multi story house, where the ground floor is actually smaller than the upper floors. This was because the Ottomans taxed homeowners based only on the area of their ground floor, so people got around this by having their upper floors hangout over it. Clever. Also, with the way the houses are built into the hill slope, many of the houses actually have their front door on the top floor. Only when looking up hill can you figure out how many stories some of the houses have.
Rather unusually, Veliko Tarnovo doesn’t really have a clearly defined town centre. As the city has grown over the past century, it has sprawled out westward but the heart of the town is the area along the Yantra River. As the main part of town is stretched out along the river bank, there’s not really anywhere for a main square or focal point. The terrain really gives Veliko Tarnovo an unusual layout for a European city.
Because the houses basically exist on levels up the hillside, the locals say that directions are essentially given through either ‘up’, ‘down’ or ‘take the stairs’. This refers to the many small, narrow staircases that lead between the various levels. While you may get a little disoriented taking small streets and random staircases, finding your way back is pretty easy when all you have to do is go down to the river or up to the main road. Veliko Tarnovo is definitely a fun place to explore for this reason.
For tourists, there are two streets that are particularly worth visiting. Georgi S. Rakovski street in the Old Town is the closest thing Veliko Tarnovo has to a pedestrian street. This narrow street is lined with charming old houses and is also one of the main streets of the Samovodska Charshia market area. Within the market area you will find many of the city’s local craftsmen. The houses themselves are of the National Revival Period, dating from the latter half of the 19th century.
Another major feature of the street is the Handji Nikoli Inn, possibly the last functioning Ottoman Inn in Bulgaria. The inn dates back to 1858 and today functions as a restaurant, museum and gallery. I did actually eat dinner there one night and while it was a little expensive by local standards, the decor is beautiful and the food is tasty.
The other important street for visitors is more often sought out by Bulgarian and Russian tourists than westerners. General Gurko Street is the lowest street running by the river and heads in to the newer part of town. Bulgarian and Russian tourists seek this street out, not just because it has many nice Ottoman houses, but because of the man it’s named after. Field Marshall Iosif Gurko and the Russian forces that he led, liberated the city of Veliko Tarnovo from the Ottomans in July of 1877. The continued efforts of the Russian soldiers would lead to the return of independence to the Bulgarian people in 1878. From memory, the street bears his name as this is the street he rode declaring the city’s liberation.
As I mentioned earlier, despite losing its role as the nation’s capital, the city did remain a symbol of the Bulgarian nation. With that position came some benefits, one of which is the immense Monument to the Asen Dynasty. The Asen Dynasty was the ruling family of the Second Bulgarian Empire and is fondly remembered as a great time for the country. When the 800th anniversary of the rise of the Asen Dynasty drew near in the 1980s, the Bulgarian Government decided to commission a monument to celebrate the occasion and the monument was completed in Veliko Tarnovo in 1987.
The large, striking monument, sits on the green bend of the river opposite the main town. The monument shows four of the Empire’s tsars, Asen, Petar, Kaloyan and Ivan Asen II, on horseback surrounding a mighty sword. It’s position is a natural focal point for all of the houses that run along the river bank, so it’s a good thing it looks so impressive and heroic.
I learned that typically statues on horseback indicate how the figure died by the number of feet the horse is standing on, i.e. if it’s on its hind two legs, then the figure died in battle; on all four feet, then the figure died of natural causes. However, that’s not the case with this statue. Here, the number of feet down indicates the stability and prosperity of the figure’s reign. I thought these were fascinating little details and have since paid a lot more attention to statues of mounted men.
Perhaps not as historically or symbolically significant, but I think equally as fascinating is the nearby Interhotel Veliko Tarnovo. This huge hotel sits on the opposite side of the Monument to the Asen Dynasty from Old Town and harkens back to Bulgaria’s communist period. What makes the hotel so engaging is how much its brutalist architecture clashes with the rest of its surroundings. At first look you may be thinking “What the hell is this doing here?” but spend a bit more time examining its architecture and you might find something interesting there.
While I have covered the sights within the city of Veliko Tarnovo, I have left the best for last. Just to the city’s east, along the Yantra River, is the remains of the medieval Tsarevets Fortress. Before arriving, I had thought that the fortress was much further from the city and had planned to visit there as a day trip. This changed when just a few blocks from my hotel, I scored my first view of it and realised that it was right there.
Tsarevets was once the stronghold where the royal palace was situated during the Second Bulgarian Empire. Today what remains are the fortress walls, the main gate, the road that leads up to it and some assorted ruins. Despite that, the fortress is quite the sight to behold.
Exploring the Fortress gives you a great sense of what it must have been like in its heyday. The stronghold was first built up in the 12th century, although the hill had been settled for centuries beforehand. When you look at a map you can see why the spot was chosen. Almost all sides of the hill are protected by the Yantra River, the only part that isn’t is a high and narrow ridge line that runs towards the stronghold’s main gate. This explains why it took the Ottomans months of siege warfare to finally capture it in 1393. Sadly, they burned it down and it was left in ruin for centuries.
As there isn’t much information provided in English at the stronghold (although that may be slowly changing), it’s best to come prepared. From my walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo, I learned a little bit about a few of the places. One, is the Execution Rock found at the northern end of the walls. On this outcropping, traitors were rather brutally executed by simply being pushed off the rock and letting gravity do its thing.
Another interesting spot is Baldwin’s Tower on the far side of the fortress. This tower is where the Flemish Baldwin I, Latin Emperor of Constantinople was imprisoned by Tsar Kaloyan. The exact circumstances of Baldwin’s death are uncertain, but the stories revolve around Kaloyan’s wife. In one version, the Tsar’s wife romantically pursued the captive Baldwin, so he committed suicide rather than be unfaithful to his wife. The other version of the legend is that Baldwin tried to seduce the Tsar’s wife, raping her and was in turn violently killed for his crime. Either way, Baldwin died a prisoner in the tower that now bears his name.
A journey to the Tsarevets would not be complete without a visit to the church that sits atop the hill where the palace once stood. Whatever you do, don’t skip the church, as it’s not your typical church. I would go to say that you haven’t seen another church like this. See for yourself.
The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God was the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of the royal palace during the Second Bulgarian Empire. It fell into ruin with the rest of the stronghold after the Ottoman invasion. When the fortress began to be reconstructed in the 20th century, it was decided that the cathedral would be rebuilt to honour the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the First Bulgarian Empire. Yes, they liked their anniversaries in the 20th century.
There was a dilemma with building the cathedral however. Cathedrals are generally decorated inside with murals and iconography showing religious figures and events. At the time, Bulgaria was a Communist state where religion was not looked upon kindly. Their solution was to decorate the church with contemporary murals, depicting figures from Bulgarian history and folklore. Finished in 1985, the end result was these striking, almost haunting murals covering the interior of the church. Those that enter the cathedral without some warning are in for a little shock.
Aside from appreciating Tsarevet’s history and church, visitors are in for a treat when they see the view from the fortress walls and towers. Not only do you get to see the main city of Veliko Tarnovo from a different angle, but also other reaches of the Yantra River. This includes the small neighbourhood that lies under the fortress, home to the SS Forty Martyrs Church and the elegant Stone Bridge. Depending on the weather, you can see quite far across the landscape, including the distinct rocky cliffs found throughout the region.
Tsarevets Fortress rests on a hill of the same name, but it’s not the only significant hill of Veliko Tarnovo. Between Old Town and the fortress is Trapezitsa Hill, which was yet another stronghold, indicating just how well defended the city was. Today the hill is off-limits to visitors as it is now an archaeological site. The ruins there have been under excavation for years now, with two towers now reconstructed on the hilltop.
Veliko Tarnovo is big enough and popular enough these days that you have a variety of options when it comes to accommodation. There are plenty of hotels and hostels situated near the Old Town and Tsarevets Fortress, but also in the nearby part of the New Town. Location shouldn’t be too big a factor however, as getting around the city is quite easy on foot and there is decent coverage with local buses. If you can, I would highly recommend trying to get a balcony facing the river so that you can enjoy the wonderful cityscape at sunset.
As Veliko Tarnovo is located somewhat centrally within the country, it’s not terribly far from anywhere. The city is connected with the national train network, although based on everyone I’ve talked to, the trains are slow and always late. The faster option to get around is Bulgaria’s reasonably good collection of bus companies. There are plenty of connections with the nation’s capital Sofia (3 hours) that run from the main bus station, as well as buses to the coast (3-4 hours). Unfortunately, minibuses from Plovdiv (4-5 hours) sometimes run to the West Bus Station on the outskirts of town and you will need either a taxi or to take the local bus in order to get to the city centre. Online schedules can be found at BGrazpisanie.
There you have it. Veliko Tarnovo is a bit of a shy destination, but it’s a wonderful historic city and has a plethora of interesting attractions to see. Visitors are bound to find something here that speaks to them.
What most intrigues you about Veliko Tarnovo? Would you consider visiting there? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.