by Vance Petrunoff; photography by Dr Kalin Vasilev

Following the footsteps of freedom from Veliko Tarnovo to Velchevo village

velchova zavera hike 4.jpg

Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835. The Velchova Zavera Hike is not just a physical trek but a symbol of remembering the past and celebrating the spirit of freedom.

The eponymous event, the Velchova Zavera was organised by charismatic entrepreneur, Velcho Atanasov. The abbot of the nearby Plakovo Monastery supported the rebellion and its military leader was a prominent figure in Bulgaria at the time. Captain Georgi Mamarchev was serving in the Russian army and had gained invaluable military experience as leader of units of Bulgarian volunteers fighting on Russia's side in its early 19th century wars with the Ottoman Empire.

The plotters were inspired by the Greek rebellion of 1821 that led to the Greek War of Independence and, ultimately, to the restoration of Greek sovereignty, in 1832. Velcho and his co-conspirators were hoping to replicate this in Bulgaria.

However, the rebellion was betrayed by another Bulgarian from Elena. Velcho and most of the conspirators were publicly executed, hanged at the four gates of Tarnovo, and at a square just below the town's Bulgarian quarter. Being a Russian officer, Captain Georgi Mamarchev was spared. He was exiled to the island of Samos in Greece because the Ottoman authorities did not want to escalate tensions with Russia. The abbot of Plakovo Monastery was tortured to death and the monastery was burned.

In 1935, to mark the 100th anniversary of Velchova Zavera, a monument to the event was built at the square where some of the conspirators were hanged. King Boris III and the Bulgarian Army staff attended the event.

In Communist Bulgaria, the importance of Velchova Zavera was somewhat downplayed since Russia silently betrayed the Zavera. The rebels had expected the tsar to send his army across the Danube and help them. It did not happen due to the warming of relations between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

The modern-day commemoration of the rebellion, initiated in 2020 with the memorial hike, goes beyond mere remembrance. It is a bridge between past and present, where young people actively engage with history through their physical journey.

Plakovo Monastery was a centre of the 1835 conspiracy

The starting point of Velchova Zavera Hike is in Veliko Tarnovo. Participants, hikers and cyclists go in two columns, one on foot over the hills and the second on bicycles on asphalt country roads. The goal is the quaint village of Velchevo named after Velcho Atanasov. The distance is about 16 km and the hike is of medium difficulty, so kids and baby boomers are in tow.

The day begins with the hikers laying flowers at the monument of Velchova Zavera in Veliko Tarnovo at 8 am. They then descend a narrow street, crossing the Yantra river, and wind through the scenic hills, symbolically following the path of defiance chosen by their ancestors and taking the dirt path towards the foothills of the Elena part of the Stara Planina mountain range.

The bicycle ride begins a few hours later at a separate location away from the busy city centre, as participants aim to convene by 1 pm at the village square and they can make the distance much quicker. Near the village is the adorable albeit small Plakovo Monastery where the rebels had numerous planning meetings and where the plot was crushed by the Ottoman army. Several monasteries in the region, including the Dryanovo, Preobrazhenski and Petropavlovski, were used by the zavera organisers for meetings and are worth visiting.

The sports part of the event is organised by Dr Kalin Vasilev, a passionate advocate for healthy living, founder of TurnovoRuns and a recipient of the 2023 EU's Local Heroes award. The event is supported by the six terms Velchevo mayor Mustan Yusmenov, paradoxically the only ethnic Turk in the village, and locals, including the author of this article.

The hike culminates in a gathering at the village square, where participants share stories, dance the horo, have lunch provided by the sponsors, learn more about the rebellion, and celebrate their connection to the past. This healthy and fun event instils in them a sense of national pride and responsibility, reminding them that freedom is not a given but a precious gift earned through sacrifice and resilience.

By 3 pm all hikers are bussed back to Veliko Tarnovo with buses provided for free by the regional municipality.

Come join us, if you can – even if you are a foreigner. So far, Americans, Japanese, Germans, Britons and Belgians have joined the hike. It is not a race, it is just a shared historical experience. In 2035 Bulgaria will be celebrating Velchova Zavera's 200th anniversary and by that time we expect thousands to join the festivities in Veliko Tarnovo and Velchevo.

"Velchova" means that which belong's to Velcho (a male name). "Zavera" is an old-fashioned Bulgarian word for "conspiracy," "plot," "collusion," "connivance" – but with a positive connotation


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