Veliko Tarnovo - The City of the Tsars

The Yantra River
We only meant to spend one day in the "city of the Tsars", Bulgaria's former capital, but as with everything in Bulgaria, it surprised and enchanted us, so we extended our stay to 3 days. One day was spent exploring Buzludzha, while the rest were passed exploring the mountainous historic village.

After we explored Buzludzha, we wanted to go on the free city walking tour in order to fully appreciate the history around us, but it was the day after Halloween and the guide was a no-show - I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Instead we gave ourselves our own tour. Veliko Tărnovo, as with the rest of Bugaria, dates back to antiquity - 5 thousand millennia to be exact. The city sprawls out across three hills (Tsaravets, Sveta Gora, and Trapezitsa) and nuzzles its way between the lazy twists and turns of the Yantra River.

Due to its mountainous location and access to water, Veliko Tărnovo made a prime fortification location and was Bulgaria's largest fortification between the Medieval years 1100 and 1300, and during these years of the Second Bulgarian state, Veliko Tărnovo served as Bulgaria's capital. During this time, Kings Assen the 1st, Peter, Kaloyan and Ivan Assen the 2nd ruled over Veliko Tărnovo as it turned into an important political, economic and cultural hub for Bulgaria. The Second Bulgarian State would later cease to exist, but their memory is not forgotten. To mark the 800th anniversary of their rule, an enormous monument dedicated to each of the four Kings was erected in the crook of the Yantra River, able to be viewed from nearly any corner of the city center.

Monument of the Assens
The Kings during the second Bulgarian State lived like, well, Kings. Atop Tsarevets hill sits Tsarevets fortress, which used to house a royal palace so extravagant it was compared to Rome and Constantinople. Besides being a stronghold, Tsarevets held a palace with a throne room, residential quarters, monasteries, churches, and crafts shops, as well as a tower, which has been rebuilt and now stands tall among the ruins. Also on Tsarevets hill is Executioners Rock where traitors where pushed into the Yantra River below. When the Ottoman Empire set its sights on Veliko Tărnovo, they besieged the fortress for three weeks before finally burning it all down, thus ending the Bulgarian state and commencing Ottoman rule. The fortress remains in ruins today, with the lone tower standing above the city as a reminder of the city's great past.

Tsarevets Fortress
In 1393 the Ottoman Empire captured Veliko Tărnovo and years later the whole country itself. And so they stayed under Ottoman rule until 1876 when Bulgarians launched the April Uprising and demanded independence. In an attempt to Europeanize Bulgaria, the capital was changed to Sofia, but today Veliko Tărnovo remains and important center of education and art.

Veliko Tărnovo is small, but quaint. It surprised me with how adorable it is nestled into the rolling hills and divided by the winding river. The hostel we stayed at was awesome - great free breakfasts and dinners, a cozy living room, and spacious outdoor patios - and the other backpackers made it even better. Not to mention, every meal we ate in Veliko Tărnovo was top notch and dirt cheap. Certain circumstances and experiences make specific places special, an Veliko Tărnovo, like Sofia, had that special something that made me fall in love with it. Bulgaria, I think I love you!

While Veliko Tărnovo was amazing, and the Buzludzha trip was crazy, it eventually came time for us to move on to what is considered the oldest city in Europe: Plovdiv, Bulgaria. We take yet another step back in history to literally the very birth place of European civilization before moving East into Asia.


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