Bulgaria's middle aged capital

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Sep 30, 2010

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Flag of Bulgaria  , Veliko Turnovo,
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Veliko Tarnovo is, the somewhat questionable English of the tourist brochure assures us, the middle aged capital of Bulgaria. I think what they are trying to say is that Veliko Tarnovo was the capital during the middle ages. The landscape is all hills and valleys so walking around Veliko without getting lost is a challenge, map or no map.
Tsaravets fortress is located on one of the hills, surrounded on 3 sides by the curve of the river and connected by a convenient rock formation ramp that is patched up in places with wooden bridges. The walls and entrance gates have all been rebuilt, making for a grand appearance from the town square. Inside, I'm not sure where they fit the people in as the whole place seems to have been churches, with two rebuilt and ruins of 12 more. These were pretty quickly destroyed by the invading Ottomans who built mosques instead.

The real adventure began when we picked up our hire car and took to the roads - thankfully mostly fairly quiet out of Veliko, as Bulgarians are not always the most predictable of drivers. Our first stop, well, actually our third if you count the bits where we got lost (road signs being a critically endangered species in these parts) was the town of Emen. On a ridge above the town, a hiking path follows along the top of a winding canyon past two very sketchy looking wooden bridge arrangements by which the canyon can be crossed by people with no fear of heights. At the end of the trail is a waterfall.

A short distance from Veliko, which turns out to be 5km once you descend into the valley, wind around the hill and river a bit, and then climb the next hill, is the town of Arbanasi. Originally a merchants town, the stone mansions somewhat resembling minor fortresses have all been thoroughly renovated and generally sport a BMW or two in the driveway. The town is famous for its churches, disguised to look like ordinary buildings from the outside so as not to draw the attention of the invading Ottomans. The job was possibly done a little too well though, as we didn't actually manage to find some of them either, although it was pouring with rain at the time.

The highlight of the area for me was a long drive 70km South... the road winds through the mountains, so it took us about 2 hours driving. On the way we went through Shipka pass, a high point in the mountains with great views of the surrounding area from a huge multistory monument.
On approach, our first glimpse was a modern, stylised grey statue (read "communist style") of giant hands holding a torch, which has as its backdrop a mountain, crowned with a UFO shaped building. Yes, a UFO, originally built as a testament to the wonders of communism finished in glowing red gold with a tower topped with a giant stained glass red star. The copper covering is now long gone, thanks looters, leaving a concrete alien monolith atop the barren hill - an aptness that would probably have former communist leaders rolling in their graves. We approached via a paved path up the steep hill, through wild raspberry bushes brambles only to find that the building looks even stranger up close. The front of the UFO was once a shallow auditorium flanked by statues which are now a twisted mess of rusted iron and weather worn concrete in no recognisable shape. The current use of the area appears to be as grazing area for the local horse herd.
The way into the UFO is through a smashed-out window. Downstairs are eerie rooms, dark even under torchlight, the floors a mess of rubble. The stairs upward are covered in rubble and powdery remnants of red fabric, all that remains of the decaying plush velvet that once lined the roofs. Emerging into the chamber of the UFO reveals a panorama of glittering mosaic, espousing the wonders of communism, still surprisingly complete and intact. The relentless echoing dripping of water, result of yesterdays downpour still pooled on the floor, brought realisation that although the roof looks complete from outside, it is just a bare concrete shell over rusted twists of metal... the little voice in the back of my mind was muttering about 'not structurally sound' the whole time we were in there, and that is before I even start on the soggy piles of asbestos heaped over the floor. More mosaics decorate the balcony (it was a room, but the windows were long ago smashed).

The area around Veliko Tarnovo is famous for its monasteries, complete with woodcarvings and painted frescoes by local artists. I can't profess to be a connoisseur of monasteries, even after visiting three of them. I think I spent longer admiring the peaceful garden surroundings and spectacular locations on ridges below rocky cliffs than I did gazing at frescoes of the something or other of the virgin Mary.

Our final stop was Bacho Kiro Cave, a pleasant stream side 500m walk behind Dryanovo monastery. The cave is 1200m in depth, although as we discovered, our ticket only allowed us into the first few rooms past the 'entrance hall' which disappointingly did not include the 'bear meadow' where a cave bear skeleton has been found. We asked at the ticket office if we could see the longer route through the cave which had them looking at us in puzzlement. They hesitatingly sold us two new tickets, peering at the mad foreigners who liked the cave so much they not only wanted to see it again, but to pay for it again. Eventually we established that the longer route was only open on tours, minimum 5 people. They gave us back our second lot of money, looking relieved that we were not mad after all.

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