Ancient, mediaeval and Ottoman forts evoke less-than-calm life
Why there are no old forts and fortresses in Bulgaria on the scale of Romania, Greece, Italy or the Western Balkans is a controversial issue. The sort of answers you will be getting will depend on who does the talking. Some will assert the "Turks" destroyed everything when they ruled over these territories in the 14-19th centuries. Others will, more level-headedly, point out that when the Ottomans were in control the Bulgarians lands were no longer a border zone and consequently forts and fortresses were no longer needed for defence purposes. Any way of the argument, the story of the Bulgarian fortifications through the centuries is as fascinating as visiting whatever remains of its ancient and mediaeval castles.
The turbulent history of the Bulgarian lands indicates that throughout the centuries people had to build fortifications to protect themselves from enemies. The ancient Thracians constructed strongholds on commanding heights and the Romans created a system of defences along the Danube River border as well as the major roads. In the Middle Ages, Bulgarian lords and kings resided in impregnable fortresses. This ended with the Ottoman conquest, as the Bulgarian lands were now far from the imperial borders and many older forts were abandoned. Their stones and boulders were reused as cheap construction material. In the 19th century sunset days of the empire, the Ottomans hired European engineers to construct modern fortifications in the Bulgarian lands which were now border territory.
Today, most of these fortifications are gone. The ancient Thracian forts have crumbled to low walls of rough boulders. Some of the Roman and mediaeval ones are in better condition, but they have suffered from another problem: over-reconstruction, a trend that has devastated the Bulgarian historical heritage in the past decade. Using EU funding, municipalities lay new walls and turrets over older foundations, claiming that they do this to attract tourists. Ottoman fortifications for their part were destroyed after Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878, as stipulated by international treaties: the Great Powers did not want the newly-recovered Bulgaria to possess modern forts. What remained of them is now, ironically, the fullest and most complete representation of how fortified Bulgaria used to look.
What you see today on Tsarevets Hill, in Veliko Tarnovo, is advertised as the stronghold and the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. This is true. Between the 12th and the 14th centuries, this steep hill on the Yantra River was the beating heart of the Bulgarian state. Here, and on the surrounding hills, massive fortifications guarded splendid churches, royal palaces and baronial mansions, merchants' and traders' quarters, and monasteries.
In 1393, however, the Ottomans conquered Tarnovo, and Tsarevets became... the Muslim neighbourhood. Much was lost from the mediaeval city, and when Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878 the hill which had embodied its century-long state tradition did not offer much in the way of defensive structures.
In the 1930s, when no one needed defensive structures any longer, some of the fortifications of Tsarevets were rebuilt from scratch to boost national pride. The project was revived in the late 1970s and the 1980s, while Bulgaria was in the grip of nationalist enthusiasm and lavish spending ahead of the celebrations of the 1,300th anniversary of its foundation. The walls on Tsarevets rose again, together with the royal palace and the patriarch church, which was decorated with Socialist Surrealism murals depicting the glory of the Bulgarian nation through the centuries – and especially under Communism.
The construction on new ruins in Tarnovo continued, in the 2010s, on the neighbouring Trapezitsa hill. Like elsewhere, these new ruins have nothing to do with historical fact but rather reflect the imagination of the contractors of the architects who designed them.
Provadia, in the northeast, is a town that looks drab, but it has one of the most atmospheric forts in Bulgaria. Extending over a narrow plateau, Ovech Fort was built by the Byzantines in the 4th century to protect their realms from the Barbarians. They ultimately failed, as Bulgaria was established nearby in the late 7th century by a people the Byzantines clearly saw as barbarian, the proto-Bulgarians.
The Bulgarians turned the fort into an important stronghold and in the first decades after the Ottoman invasion Ovech was the centre of the anti-Ottoman revolt led by Bulgarian princes Konstantin and Fruzhin. The fort was finally abandoned in the 17th century.
Today it is a picturesque stretch of rock covered with traces of walls, water cisterns and churches, and stunning views of the surrounding plain and plateaus.
Perched on a bend of the River Cherni Lom, the Cherven Fortress is the descendant of an earlier Byzantine fortification which, in the Middle Ages, grew into a major city. It had splendid churches, busy traders and craftsmen – and strong walls to protect them. A number of rock monasteries appeared at nearby Ivanovo, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress suffered heavily during the Ottoman invasion, and was destroyed in 1388. However, Cherven remained the main city in the area until the 18th century, when people gradually resettled on the banks of the Danube, in today's Ruse.
Cherven's most memorable structure is its three-storey defence tower. In the 1930s, it was used as a model for the reconstruction of the so-called Baldwin Tower, in Veliko Tarnovo's Tsarevets Fortress.
A strong fortification of white stone was built on this rocky terrace by the Black Sea in the 5th-6th centuries as the need for better protection from the Barbarians grew in Late Antiquity. After the Barbarians had taken the upper hand, the fortress was left largely to itself.
Until recently, the carefully maintained remains of this fortress were one of the best bits of the Yaylata archaeological and nature reserve, together with the plateau's red cliffs, lush steppe greenery, teeming wildlife, Sarmatian rock graves and 5th-6th centuries rock churches.
Recently, however, the Kavarna Municipality rebuilt the fort to make it more "attractive" to tourists.
Trayanovi Vrata Fort
The pass between the Sofia and the Thracian plains has been strategic for millennia, and in the 1st century AD the crucial Roman road, the Via Diagonalis, was built through it. Fortifications here appeared as late as the 3rd century, when the attacks on the empire by the Barbarians became more frequent, resulting in the need for better protection of vital routes. The importance of the pass remained even after the Romans disappeared from the scene. In 986, Bulgarian King Samuil (997-1014) defeated the army of Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976-1025) by the fortress then known as Shtipon.
Under the Ottomans, the old Roman paved road and the fortress became derelict, and people had to cross the pass tramping through mud.
The picturesque, ruins of the ancient fort slowly running to seed never failed to impress European travellers who happened to pass by. One of them, in the mid-15th century, was the first to call the fortification Trayanovi Vrata, or Trajan's Gate, and this name stuck.
Sadly, Trayanovi Vrata has become one of the victims of the recent craze for fortress "reconstruction."
Pernik, a short drive from Sofia, is known in modern Bulgaria for its struggling heavy industry inherited from the times of Communism, and the emblematic way the locals drive their Volkswagen Golfs.
The town's origins are older and are still visible in the Krakra Fortress. Built on the easily defended meanders of the river Struma in the 9th century, it guarded the important trade and military road to the Aegean. At the turn of the 10th and the 11th centuries it became a hotbed of Bulgarian resistance against the advancing Byzantine Empire. The local lord, Krakra, fought the invaders eagerly and with all of his might, but in 1017 he saw that resistance was futile and surrendered to Emperor Basil II. The fortress remained an important outpost until the end of the Middle Ages, when it was abandoned.
With a total area of 12 acres, Krakra is one of the largest fortresses in Bulgaria. Sadly, a recent "socialisation" saw the mediaeval remains overbuilt with fake bricks.
Ivaylovgrad is a stone's throw away from the border with Greece, and so it was during the 9th century, when a fortress was built on one of the last outcrops of the Rhodope Mountains. Bulgarians and Byzantines fought for centuries to control the castle, which also protected a lively city and was the seat of a bishopric. Life here continued even after the Ottoman invasion, when Lyutitsa Fort lost its military importance. People lingered among the abandoned fortifications until the 17th century, when they moved to the more fertile plain.
The layout today, with a strong rectangular wall, 13 towers and an inner citadel, is what remains from the 12-13th centuries.
The easiest fortress to visit from Sofia, Urvich is on a bend of the Iskar River on the road to Samokov. It was one of the strongest defensive points during the Ottoman invasion of the 14th century. The importance of this place has resulted into a number of legends becoming attached to it, concerning a mythical Bulgarian king who was said to have fought here with a wide range of enemies from near and far.
The first fortification to appear on the high, narrow and easily defended Cape Kaliakra, near Kavarna, was built in the 4th century BC. When the Romans arrived, in the 1st century AD, they enlarged and strengthened it. By the end of the 4th century, the fortress already had an inner and an outer city, plus a strong citadel at the tip of the cape. Kaliakra needed this – in the following two centuries it became a vital stronghold that withstood the attacks of the Barbarians. After the 7th century, it experienced a long period of decline, before becoming the capital of an influential autonomous Bulgarian principality, in the 14th century.
The fort eventually fell to the Ottomans and, predictably, a number of legends appeared. As is the case with any high rock over a precipice in Bulgaria, the most popular tells of the 40 maids of Kaliakra, who braided their hair together and jumped into the sea to avoid capture by the Ottomans. A monument to the girls now stands at the entrance of the fortress, together with a memorial to Russian Admiral Fyodor Ushakov. Ushakov won a crucial naval battle against the Ottomans near Cape Kaliakra, in 1791, that ultimately marked the beginning of the long decline of Ottoman influence in the Balkans. Visiting Russians are pleased to see this.
At the tip of the cape is the chapel, built in the 1990s, at the supposed grave of St Nicholas. According to legend, he was killed by the invading Ottomans.
Curiously, Kaliakra was also important for local Muslims. A Dervish monastic compound existed here, together with the grave of the venerated holy man Sarı Saltık.
Visiting Samuilova Fortress might seem like a waste of time. The humble remains of what used to be a major fortification can be explored in five minutes, and there is nothing spectacular there.
However, Samuilova Fortress is worth a visit because of its tragic history. It was built by the Bulgarian King Samuil, the powerful but ill-fated ruler who fought a life-or-death struggle for Bulgaria's independence. In 1014, near this fortress, King Samuil was defeated by Byzantine Emperor Basil II, a loss followed by what modern historians would term a war crime. The emperor ordered the Bulgarian prisoners – all 14,000 of them – to be blinded. One in a hundred was left with one eye, to lead the others. The crippled army was sent back to Samuil.
The Bulgarian king could not endure the sight of his blind soldiers, and died, supposedly of a heart attack. Four years later, Emperor Basil II overcame the last Bulgarian resistance. For the following two centuries there was no Bulgaria at all.