by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's old capital is vibrant, charming and picturesque

veliko tarnovo vista.jpg

Perched on a twisty meander of the Yantra River, where the hills of the Danube Plain meet the northern slopes of the Stara Planina, Veliko Tarnovo has unparalleled topography in Bulgaria, and possibly the Balkans. Traditional 19th century houses cling above the steep river bends, connected by alleys and steps that defy both gravity and everyday convenience – but living in Tarnovo has never been about convenience.

The town grew up in the early Middle Ages as a fortified settlement that provided safety in those turbulent times of frequent Barbarian raids and a collapsing Roman Empire. It transformed from a meagre fort into one of southeastern Europe's most important cities after 1185, when two local noblemen, the brothers Asen and Petar, rebelled against the emperor in Constantinople and freed Bulgaria from almost two centuries of Byzantine rule. Tarnovo became the capital, and remained Bulgaria's political, religious and cultural centre until the Ottomans took over in 1393.

The monument to the Asenevtsi Brothers was erected in the 1980s, for the anniversary of their rebellion in 1185

The Ottomans settled in Tarnovo's medieval core, on Tsarevets hill. Over time the palaces, fortifications and churches of the former Bulgarian capital disappeared under a layer of later houses and mosques. The Bulgarian residents of the city settled on the hills around, where space was in short supply, but they made the most of it. Gradually, Tarnovo's inimitable urbanscape of two- and three-storey houses clutching on to the hills, like limpets on a rock, appeared.

When the Bulgarian state was restored, in 1878, Tarnovo was considered for the capital again, but Sofia was chosen instead. Tarnovo, however, remained a powerful symbol of national pride, an idealised image of what the new Bulgaria could achieve. In 1908, the nation's formal independence from the Ottomans was proclaimed in Tarnovo.

The Baldwin Tower is one of Tsarevets's most recognisable sights, but it is a recent construction. It was built in the 1930s with another medieval fort, Cherven near Ruse, used as a model

The problem was that Tarnovo's medieval core did not look appropriately majestic. There were few visible traces of the site where great Bulgarian kings had reigned, where elaborate literary works were created, and noblemen plotted coups. In the 1930s, parts of Tarnovo's fortifications were restored.In 1965, the adjective Veliko, or Great, was added to Tarnovo's name, to underline its historical importance. The rebuilding continued under Communism, in the 1980s, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Asen and Petar's rebellion. Works went on in the 2010s, to attract more tourists.

Today, the city balances precariously between its genuine heritage and what has been restored, a staple of tourist itineraries and patriotic propaganda.

The Asenevtsi rebellion was declared during the consecration of St Dimitar Church

The most delightful part of any visit to Tarnovo is wandering aimlessly around its traditional quarter, which has been repeatedly restored, with varying success, since the late 1970s. Gurko Street is famed for its old houses hanging over the steep bank of the Yantra, while traditional craft workshops line Samovodska Charshiya, or marketplace. The most impressive building from the revival era is the Hadzhi Nikoli Inn. Designed by the famous 19th century builder Kolyu Ficheto, it used to host merchants and visitors to the city. After decades of abandonment it was purchased by a visionary American investor and now houses an art gallery and a restaurant.

Statue of Mother Bulgaria, a detail of Asenevtsi Monument

To get a proper idea of old Tarnovo's gravity defying layout, you have to leave the traditional quarter and cross the Yantra via one of Bulgaria's oldest wrought iron bridges. The best views of the old town are from the 1980s monument of four gigantic horsemen surrounding an upright sword: a rendering of the great Bulgarian kings from the Asen dynasty.

The gates, towers and walls on Tsarevets Hill are the best known image of Tarnovo, but for decades experts have questioned the authenticity of their reconstruction. The most contentious building is the Patriarchate Church on the highest point. Built from scratch in the 1980s, the murals inside are in no way related the Eastern Orthodox canon. Instead of religious scenes, they tell the history of the Bulgarian people in a stylistic mix of modernism and expressionism. Where the altar should have been there is an image not of the Mother of God but a stylised likeness of Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and the mastermind behind Bulgaria's Communist-era nationalism and rebuilding of medieval fortresses. Some consider the frescoes in the Patriarchate Church, which has not been consecrated as a place of worship but operates as a museum site, exceptional art but others perceive them as megalomaniacal sacrilege.

The first Bulgarian Constitution was adopted in Tarnovo, in 1879, by this nation’s first National Assembly

Until the 2010s, Tsarevets was the only place in Tarnovo affected by the dubious reconstruction of historical buildings. Then, in a bid to boost tourism, the authorities restored parts of the fortifications on a neighbouring hill, Trapezitsa. You can climb this hill on foot or by a funicular with a rather eccentric timetable that starts from the beautiful, but non-operational 19th century train station.

The handful of medieval churches at the foot of Tsarevets hill were also restored at different stages. The beautiful, toy-like St Demetrius, where in 1185 Asen and Petar announced they would no longer obey the emperor, was completely rebuilt in the 1980s.

The new Bulgarian Parliament met in the building of the former Ottoman administration, built by the famed master builder, Kolyu Ficheto

Despite its off-putting pseudo-medieval facade, Ss 40 Martyrs preserves genuine traces of its past. The church was built in 1230 by King Ivan Asen II to celebrate a major military victory. To demonstrate continuity with early medieval Bulgaria, the king placed inside the church several inscriptions by pagan Bulgarian rulers.

The best preserved medieval Tarnovo church is also the least known and visited. From the outside, Ss Peter and Paul does not look like much, and it can only be visited by booking in advance, on account of the rare medieval murals preserved in this unremarkable early 13th century building.

Stefan Stambolov, one of modern Bulgaria’s most prominent politicians, was born in Tarnovo

In common with every important city boasting centuries of continuous inhabitation, Tarnovo has accumulated a thick layer of curious details and stories. The city's topography means that to explore it to the full, you must walk a lot, easily exceeding the 10,000 steps a day recommended for a healthy lifestyle. Your reward will be that you will soon discover that there is yet another Tarnovo delight, as when you get tired just take a seat in one of the excellent local bars and restaurants, preferably one with a view over the stunning meandering course of the Yantra.

The Stambolov Bridge was finished in 1899, 1900 or 1904 (accounts vary) and was made by a Viennese company specialising in wrought iron construction


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