Monday, March 10, 2014

Travel Guide | The Old Bulgarian Capital Veliko Tarnovo Is a True Travel Gem

In central Bulgaria, set among the green foothills of the Balkan mountains and divided by meandering Yantra river, there is a true travel gem - the old Bulgarian capital Veliko Tarnovo (Great Tarnovo), once the beating cultural heart of the rapidly expanding Bulgarian Empire.

The fortress logo

A city with rich history, Tarnovo, as the locals call it, has existed as a settlement in these hills for more than 6 millennia. Tracians, Byzantines and Bulgarians have lived in this sacred place for many centuries. Its greatest prosperity was reached  during the 12th century, when brothers Asen and Theodor-Petar, Bulgarian tzars, and founders of the Asen dynasty, selected it for their capital. They built a fortified town surrounded by stone walls and defense towers on the highest of the three hills - Tzarevetz. Most of it, including the Palace and the Patriarchal Church, have been restored to their former glory in 1970.

The tower above the main gate

If you happen to be in town on a summer weekend you may witness an impressive spectacle illuminating the whole hill. With light and sound, the story of the Tzarevetz Fortress is told: how it was built, how it dominated for centuries and how it fell. To enjoy it properly, stand in the square outside the main gates just before nightfall.

The light and sound show illuminating the Tzarevetz Fortress

Down the road from the Tzarevetz hill, you will find the restored 40 Martyrs Church, a family vault of the Asen dynasty, where the tzars are buried.

The 40 Martyrs Church
Tzar Kaloyan's Tomb

Further down the road and across a stone bridge over the Yantra river, you will come upon a quiet old neighborhood with many 19th century houses and two magnificent churches, St. George and St. Dimitar. If you keep following the road, it will take you to the beautiful village of Arbanasi, overlooking the city from northeast. It is an architectural reserve, with many old houses, churches and monasteries.

St. Dimitar Church

Don't miss the Museum of National Revival and Assembly, the Archaeological museum and the Asen Dynasty monument.

The Asen dynasty monument

The best way to experience Veliko Tarnovo is to stay in the charming Old Town with its cobblestone alleys, beautifully restored old houses, craftsman workshops and souvenir stores.

The old houses on Gurko street
A cobblestone street in Old Town
Traditional Bulgarian pottery
The Museum of National Revival and Assembly

After a whole day of sightseeing it is only fair that you treat yourself to some fine dining. The Hadji Nikoli Restaurant is on the edge of Old Town, in a beautiful 19th century building with an art gallery on the second floor. The Lucky Man Restaurant (Shtastlivetsa in Bulgarian) is right in the center of the city, accross the street from the Mother Bulgaria monument. It has a great wine list, great menu and great service. Stratilat is a chic, memorable architectural gem with a neo-classical interior, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee, tea or dessert.

The statue of Bulgarian Statesman Stefan Stambolov, in front of the Stratilat Cafe

Main Attractions:

Tzarevetz fortress; the light show
Old Town
Museum of National Revival and Assembly
Archaeological Museum
40 Martyrs Church
Asen Dynasty Monument
St. George and St. Dimitar Churches
Arbanasi Village

The Trapezitza Hill fortress is still being restored and is not yet open for tourists
Old Town Panorama