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Published: October 5th 2016
Tsarevets Fortress is brilliantly lit up during the nightly light show.
It was an annoying bus ride. There was a kid behind me kicking my seat and grabbing my headrest, almmost giving me whiplash each time. I shoot an angry look back at him but he nor his father sitting next to him seem to care. I don't have a spare seat next to me this time so my heavy, bukly rucksack has to sit between my legs. The air coming out of the vents is smelly, as if it has come through some dude's sweaty socks first.
So I was glad when the four hour journey came to an end.
I liked the hostel I stayed at in Sofia
so much, that I decided to stay at its sister hostel here in Veliko Tarnovo. It was also nice here, but definitely more quiet and relaxed. The free dinner and beer is a great idea too, as it gets everyone in the hostel together. With a nice outdoor area in a quiet spot close to the river and to nature, it seemed like a great place to chill out for a few days too.
Also like Sofia, there was a free walking tour here as well. There was a lot
Ulitsa Georgi S. Rakovski
The old craftmen's street in Veliko Tarnovo.
of history to listen through, but Veliko Tarnovo plays a very important role in Bulgaria's history.
The historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the city became one of the most important and influential in Eastern Europe - veliko
in fact means "great" in Bulgarian. It was also where uprisings against the Ottoman Empire were plotted and was where Bulgaria's first constitution - the most liberal in Europe at the time - was ratified when it was finally liberated. The tour was very informative.
Among other things, I also learned that Cyrillic was invented in Bulgaria (not Russia!), that Kolyu Ficheto designed half of the city including the famous "monkey house" and that Bulgaria is the world's biggest rose oil exporter (I thought it would have been the world's biggest sunflower oil exporter, given how many fields of sunflowers I saw between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.
Aesthetically, Veliko Tarnovo is a beautiful hillside town that evoked Berat
but with enough colours to remind you of the Cinque Terre
. It's all very scenic - I love the way that the houses seem to cascade down the hillside with the river down below in a small gorge. The view from the town's
The Bulgarian UFO
Unfortunately, it was impossible to get inside.
war monument on a little peninsula resembling an island on the other side of the gorge is pretty unique too, giving you a 270-degree view of the town.
There are two roads considered the town's most beautiful; the craftsmen's road full of workshops and these days, souvenir shops, that give you that cute, medieval, cobblestone lane feel; and the riverside General Grouko Road, that gives you that classic Eastern European village feel.
Arguably the town's signature sight is Tsarevets Fortress, which has amazing views from its majestic location atop a hill. Tsarevets
means "king's hill" - although with much of the former citadel in ruins, the highlight is the church at the fortress's highest point which has the most unique frescoes and paintings I think I have ever seen inside a church. The church was rebuilt during Communist times and with the anti-religious attitudes the Communists had, the church was to be decorated without any religious paintings. Instead, medieval stories were painted on the walls inside and with the paintings having been done in 1985, it looks as if street artists were let loose inside. So unique and cool!
Most evenings, there is an awesome light show put on
View Of Monument & Veliko Tarnovo
View of the war hero memorial on the right and the town in the background, from a bridge over the gorge.
which can be seen from the street where the entire fortress is illuminated in various colours. I went every night I was there and on the second night, the show went on for thirty minutes complete with music. I have to say it was very well done considering how much lighting is involved.
On my third day in Veliko Tarnovo, I rented a car with three others from the hostel; crazy Aussie Hayley, chilled Aussie Scott and deadpan Canadian Allie. I had actually briefly talked to Hayley and Allie back in Sofia as we were in the same dorm there and they seemed to complement each other well as travelling partners. Hayley was that classic, loud, energetic, full-on, Aussie female traveller you meet with the croaky voice from too many nights out and is not sure what she's going to do next; Allie was the quiet, reserved type who would sometimes go with Hayley's flow but at other times talk some rational sense into her.
We took the car out a rock monastery that was fairly cool but I've seen churches built into the rocks like this before
. There were more churches further along the path but the path soon finished and we would've had to
Former Communist Party HQ in a building and setting that resembles a Bond villain lair. Note the iron torch monument in the foreground.
go bush to get to them - and they weren't even open to the public. And I'm not sure if the whole thing was worth the two hour detour because the main thing I wanted to see on this day trip was the "Bulgarian UFO".
Built atop a hill in the middle of the country which was the site of a famous battle between Bulgarian rebels and the Ottomans, this brutal, concrete flying saucer shaped building is one of the more unusual you will ever see. Walking up to this former Communist headquarters, it felt like we were approaching the Eagle's Nest or some sort of Bond villain lair, like the headquarters of SPECTRE or something. There was definitely an exciting sense of anticipation as I had seen photos of the auditorium inside and it really does look like something out of Dr Strangelove. Also adding to its sense of mystery and intrigue is the fact that it had been abandoned for years - the building is in such a decrepit and dilapidated state that the government has boarded it up to stop tourists from getting inside and potentially hurting or killing themselves. But there were tales on the
Ulitsa General Gouko
The pretty riverside street regarded as Veliko Tarnovo's most beautiful.
rumour mill that there are secret ways to get in - so all of these factors combined only to heighten the sense of expectancy.
As hard as we looked however, the local law enforcement has done a pretty good job of boarding the place up - there was no way of getting in without a ladder, at least. And so the dream was crushed but we did half-expect it. With loads of other tourists milling around the building, if there was a way in then we'd all be inside. Nevertheless it is quite the sight to see and I would say it was worth the trip, as it only cost us 10€ each to rent the car for the day. I was a little worried about the 100€ deposit however; we could only drop the car off the following day and with Hayley and Scott leaving early the next morning, Allie and I would have to pay Hayley and Scott their deposits and then hope to get reimbursed after dropping the car off. What if we don't get the money back? And after getting the money back, what will I do with all this leva
with just one more
Frescoes Inside Church In Tsarevets
Looking more like street art than a traditional fresco, I thought that this was something cool and different.
day in Bulgaria?
I have done really well financially here in Bulgaria and I was eager to ensure I kept the huge savings that I've made. I managed to go 56€ under budget while in Bulgaria - that is big money for a backpacker, almost two days' budget. That was why I was so nervy about the car deposit.
It all worked out in the end however and I booked an extra night just to chill, since the hostel and 'VT' seemed like such good places to do so.
On my last day, the only thing of note that I did was to visit the residential neighbourhood of Asenov, which is replete with historical and historically important churches. St Dimitar's Church was from where the brothers Assen and Petar declared their ultimately successful rebellion against the Byzantine Empire in 1185 and the Forty Martyrs Church is the resting place of important Tsars and saints.
Some last observations on Bulgaria;
- As part of the EU, things certainly seem well-ordered and better organised here than in other countries in the Balkans.
- Whereas unfinished buildings tended to be the order of the day in Albania and Macedonia, it seems
Ruins Of Tsarevets
Most of the citadel lies in ruins.
it's abandoned buildings here in Bulgaria as we drove through the identikit, concrete, square, Communist towns in the Bulgarian countryside.
- With its proximity to Turkey, I guess it is no surprise that ayran
and yogurt is big here.
- All Balkan people are basically the same - even the walking tour guide admitted as such - but Bulgarians seem to follow the rules more than their Balkans brothers...
Overall, I've really enjoyed Bulgaria. It seems exceptionally well set up for tourism, there is a decent amount of things to see and places to go, yet things are still ridiculously cheap - for the price of a pint of beer in London, I can buy almost ten litres of beer here. Car rental was just 20€ a day.
The people here have been the friendliest that I have encountered in the Balkans too.
I didn't make it to he supposedly lively and cultural second city of Plovdiv or the Black Sea coast while I've been here - a good excuse for me to come back one day.
But for now it is time to change countries again. Coming up: Romania.
До скоро! (Do skoro!),
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