Ancient Bulgarian Capital
By Kit Gillet
With spring firmly in place, it’s easy for minds to wander to weekend breaks far from the madding crowds of Bucharest. A quick drive up to Brașov or Sibiu for the weekend, mountain vistas along the Carpathians, a few days on the Black Sea coast. Few, however, consider a quick hop across the border into northern Bulgaria.
Yet, a three-hour drive south, across the Danube River that divides Romania and Bulgaria, lies the picturesque city of Veliko Tarnovo. Perched on a series of hills above a sharp bend in the slow-moving Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo exudes laidback charm, with its winding cobbled lanes, rich history and rooms with a view. With a population of less than 100,000, it also avoids the big-city feel.
One of the oldest known settlements in Bulgaria, as well as a former medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo is compact and easy to explore, and while the main street running through town is uninspiring, the roads off of it are filled with cobbled lanes and beautifully crafted old buildings, perfect for delving into on a warm spring day.
The pedestrianised Samovodska Charshiya leads past craftshops, cafes, antique sellers and restaurants into the maze of alleys that make up Varosha, the oldest residential part of the city. Wandering the streets of Varosha I pass old residents lazing in the sun, and regularly turn a corner to see the city and green hills spread out before me. Further down, General Gurko Street, one of the oldest streets in the city, features beautiful period houses and inns, many of which seem to literally cling to the rocks overlooking the river below.
A short walk down the hill and across a footbridge takes you to the opposite bank of the river, where, at the foot of the imposing Asenevtsi Monument – a grandiose sculpture complete with four towering statues of medieval kings – I take in the full panorama of Veliko Tarnovo. In the evening I switch banks again to dine at one of the terrace restaurants that offer unparalleled views out over city. An evening meal at fine-dining establishment Shtastliveca shouldn’t be missed, or if you don’t have time just swing by for glass of wine on the restaurant’s terrace.
On the eastern edge of the city, Tsarevets Fortress is one of the main draws for visitors coming to Veliko Tarnovo, and makes for an eye-catching sight when lit up at night. A royal capital and important fortress from the thirteenth century, it was burnt down by Ottoman forces in the late fourteenth century and then partially restored in the twentieth century. The fortress’ thick walls snake along the side of the wooded hill, creating the feeling of a fortified place of nature. Inside, the remains of over 400 houses, as well as a royal palace, monasteries and churches help you get under the skin of medieval Bulgaria. Meanwhile, at the crest of the hill the restored Patriarch’s Cathedral forms a visible marker across parts of the city.
Those needing more of a break from city life can head up to Arbanasi, a small village filled with historical houses and churches on a high plateau above the city. A steep, eight kilometre road takes you past Tsarevets Fortress to the hilltop village, with its almost one hundred churches, monasteries and mansions that are now classified as state-protected cultural monuments. Once popular with wealthy noblemen and women, Arbanasi is well and truly on the tourist map, but that shouldn’t put you off a visit.
Meanwhile, for the road-less-travelled, a short drive north of Veliko Tarnovo takes you to the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration of God. Flush up against a vertical rockface, and with views stretching for miles around, the grounds of the still-functioning monastery, originally founded in the fourteenth century, offer the kind of seclusion that makes the monastic life seem momentarily appealing. A few residential buildings, along with the church and bell tower, are all that constitutes the religious site, which occupies a spot that would otherwise be consumed by trees.
Finally, a short drive away, along a winding country road, you can find a small waterfall in a shady valley to soak up even more nature, before getting back in the car and heading north, across the Danube and back to Bucharest.
Romania-based journalist since 2013, Kit Gillet is reporting from the region for the likes of The Guardian and New York Times.