Medieval Bulgaria

VELIKO TARNOVO CHURCHES

In the Middle Ages, Tarnovo was not only a political and administrative capital, but also a major religious centre. In and around it were dozens of churches and monasteries, where priests and monks of all ranks were busy with prayer, philosophy, and writing. The Ottoman invasion of the 14th century brought all this to an end, but some of the churches survived. You will find them clustered around Tsarevets hill, where the main fortress of mediaeval Tarnovo used to be. All of them are now museums.

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WHO WAS KRALI MARKO?

For centuries, legends and epic songs were told and sung; they spread, transformed and became more and more elaborate, telling the story of the larger-than-life Krali Marko. The owner of a wondrous spotted horse, he encountered fairies, braved invaders and traitors, participated in heroic competitions, and freed thousands of enslaved men and women. It is hardly a surprise, then, that a number of locations in modern Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia bear his name.

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BACHKOVO MONASTERY

Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.

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ASENOVA FORTRESS: MEDIEVAL REMAINS ON EDGE OF RHODOPE

The Asenova Fortress is about 3 km south of Asenovgrad, on the road to Smolyan, and impresses from afar. A tiny church is perched on a steep rock overlooking the narrow gorge of the Chepelarska River. A winding road leads up to the height, where the remains of the castle are. The church, Holy Mother of Christ, is the best preserved building in the complex: a brick-and-mortar confection in the Byzantine style popular across the Balkans in the 12th-14th centuries.

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BELOGRADCHIK ROCKS

In the 1870s, while travelling to Belogradchik, a tiny town in Bulgaria's northwest, Austro-Hungarian traveller and scientist Felix Kanitz was in two minds. Kanitz had read the boastful 1841 description of the magnificent beauty of the Belogradchik Rocks by Frenchman Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui, and he could scarcely believe it. It sounded too beautiful to be true and the lack of accounts by other Western travellers added to his suspicions.

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'RED' FORT BY A 'BLACK' RIVER

In Bulgarian, cherven with the stress on the second "e" means red. When pronounced with the stress on the first "e," however, the name of the colour becomes the name of one of the best places in Bulgaria to be when spring is in full bloom and the unbearable dreariness of urban life overwhelms you.

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GOOD CAPE

Wherever you reach some higher ground in Bulgaria there will be a legend about it. And in 90 percent of the cases it will be about some brave Bulgarian maidens who jumped off it to avoid being "enslaved" by Turks.

Kaliakra is no exception.

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TALE OF THREE-AND-A-HALF ISLES

First-time visitors to Bulgaria will probably be amazed to discover one of the striking differences between Bulgaria and its neighbouring Greece and Turkey is that it has no real islands to speak of. Nothing like Greece's thousands of isles and sea rocks, nothing even like Turkey's limited but still significant selection of offshore territories. When God bestowed all its natural wonders on Bulgaria he was very economical with islands. Sad, but true.

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BOYANA CHURCH

Shivering in the biting cold of the Boyana Church, you look at the 13th Century portrait of Desislava and you wonder if this image, painted 100 years before Giotto revolutionised medieval art, is truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has Desislava (and the tourists around you) fallen victim of hype?

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SPLENDOUR BEFORE THE STORM

One of the most popular images associated with Bulgaria is the Tsarevets Hill in Veliko Tarnovo. Proud Bulgarians regard it as one of the important symbols of their statehood – to the point that they have made it the centrepiece of a sound and light show. It served as the capital of the restored Bulgarian kingdom from the time of the liberation from Byzantine rule until the Ottoman conquest, a kingdom that at one point stretched between three seas.

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TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

You may think that Bulgarians are non-violent, peace-loving people who hate sending troops to Iraq. You are wrong. Many Bulgarians believed that King Simeon's aggressive wars (see Vagabond 10) marked a high point in the country's history and that the 40 years of calm under his successor, King Peter, were a period of decline that actually led to the fall of Bulgaria under Byzantine rule. However, the long years of peace enabled the country to resist for decades before losing its political independence in 1018.

HALF A COUNTRY FOR A PRINCESS

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THE EARLY YEARS

NOT EXACTLY BARBARIANS

"The Bulgarians are not savages and barbarians!" Georgi Dimitrov said rhetorically in his defence speech at the Leipzig trial in 1934, when he was charged with setting the Reichstag on fire. The man who became Bulgaria's first Communist dictator 10 years later, unknowingly expressed the oldest and most deeply rooted conviction of the Bulgarians, namely that they are an exceptionally gifted and civilised people who should not be underestimated.

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HOW THE BULGARIANS BECAME EUROPEANS

During the years when Bulgaria's membership of the EU seemed but a beautiful daydream people would often take comfort in the thought "So what! We've been Europeans for 1,300 years." In 681AD the Byzantine Empire had to make a treaty with a young, steadfast confederacy formed alongside the Danube and thus admit the political existence of Bulgaria. But the Bulgarians of the 7th Century were not exactly the Bulgarians you see today walking the streets of Sofia or Sozopol.

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