Veliko Tarnovo: ancient fortress capital

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bulgaria doesn't make the headlines much. All I knew about the place, mainly from childhood, was learned from TV news ("Bulgarian weightlifting team caught using steroids at the Olympics - again") and radio comedy spots featuring colourful characters such as Bogdan the Turnip Boy - a country lad so poor that he lived in a turnip.

Whilst there is a Mt Bogdan in central Bulgaria and the country in general is pretty poor, it was obvious that I shouldn't rely too heavily on these dubious sources of information. After all, the country has emerged from the suffocating embrace of the Iron Curtain and is at this very moment being considered for inclusion in the European Union. However information about it is still pretty sketchy so what better way to find out than dig a little deeper by heading for the heartlands? You only live once after all...

Apparently the average monthly wage here is around about $US150 per month, which helps partially explain the dubious reputation for tourist safety here and in neighbouring areas. Still, what happened to me last entry could have happened anywhere on my travels so let's leave it at that. What I did find out though on travels from Plovdiv to ancient capital of Veliko Tarnovo is that it is full of quite spectacular countryside and plenty of agricultural activity, which should provide some basis for self-sufficiency and growth now that the country is embracing a more efficient economic system

Once I'd arrived at Veliko Tarnovo (VT from now on), I also found that Australians are leading the charge to this new frontier - of the eight or ten guests at the hostel half were Australian backpackers! And two of those were from the North Shore in Sydney and grew up in the suburb next to that which I grew up in. The world is tiny sometimes.

Anyway, as you can see by the pictures above, VT is a mountain town and is a pretty dramatic scene all around. A number of deep snaking valleys converge on a central heavily fortified hill which was the medieval capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom for over 200 years from 1185 to 1393. The serpentine river, that flows by with a width of probably 50 metres, protects the citadel on three sides and has cut deep gorges over time resulting in sizable cliffs that add to the strategic value and striking natural effects.

The citadel is known as the Tsaravets Fortress and is absolutely huge. It was built over earlier Thracian, Roman and Byzantine settlements and you can still see an odd column or two standing in the vast ruins. Half a dozen churches have been razed to their foundations around the site, and there is the remains of a number of towers, gates and palace structures to wander through too.

Unfortunately much that is above knee height has been reconstructed and it's pretty obvious what's brand new and what's not. Another point of interest is the Execution Rock at the north end of the hill, off which the guilty of the Middle Ages were thrown for a variety of misdemeanours.

At the peak is the Patriarch's Church, flash and new too, which was internally decorated to the extreme by a local artist in 1985. It's about the most unusual religious design I've seen and well worth the extra couple of bucks to take photos. Think apocalyptic Revelations imagery executed in spray-paint with a brooding seventies-era brownish colour scheme and matching tubular fittings. Deliciously ugly. The artist even painted himself into one of the scenes and was very flattering about it as well.

That didn't quite sate my religious fervour however so off I went to the neighbouring town of Arbanassi, to what Lonely Planet calls 'one of Bulgaria's most interesting churches'. Set like a barn on a gentle slope of grass and spring flowers, it has a deliberately low profile to remain inconspicuous in the time of the Ottoman overlords. Inside however it's a floor-to-ceiling explosion of orthodox iconography with clearly discernable Old Testament imagery such as Noah's Ark and the Garden of Eden. Jesus, saints and holy warriors - all with the obligatory golden haloes - also figure prominently.

Every square inch of the place excepting the cobblestone floor is covered in these highly intricate works and you marvel at the completeness of them as none seem to have been defiled over the ages (as in many other countries). Time is taking its toll however and many band-aid like strips can be seen in certain areas, seemingly holding cracks together, but the sights were salient nonetheless.

VT is a more relaxed place than Plovdiv which combined with the scenery to result in an environemt that I definitely appreciated. After a couple of sights it was enough to wander the streets slurping a 30 cent ice cream whilst admiring the mangled street cobbling and old style houses, or to sit around and have a couple of beers with a very chilled group of fellow travellers in the early evening. The largest pizza I've ever eaten (complete with cucumber cooked right on top) with a half-bottle of local Cabernet Sauvignon rang in at the princely sum of $5.50 (Euro). The weather is fine and the women are gorgeous - I love this place!

And to top it all off they do a very impressive light show over the citadel when enough tourists pay for it (and if a tour bus is in town that's every night). It's hard to get a photo of but it runs for maybe 15 minutes in the entire spectrum of colours and it's a great effort for such a small place. Thanks VT for a very nice way to top the stop off and I can see why a lot of foreigners are buying into the area these days. Properties from 4000 Pounds Sterling eh...? Hmmm.

Next entry -> stripy Rila Monastery

Old Rossian Proverb

Sometimes the best offence is defence.
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