Thursday, August 8, 2013

Veliko Tarnovo In All Its Balkan (Plum) Glory

Like any good Communist era statue,
this one is soldier is holding a gun
En route from Thessaloniki to Bucharest, we spent a night in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.  This was by no means the half way point between the two cities and the narrow winding roads and unmarked detours (or maybe they were marked in Bulgaria's Cyrillic language making them unrecognizable to us) made the drive feel much longer than it actually was, but we wanted to see as much of the country as we could during our short stay.  And a stop here gave us another small taste of Bulgaria and her long and rich history.

First a brief geography and history lesson:  Veliko Tarnovo is located in an oxbow of the Yantra River in north central Bulgaria.  Today it is an important economic, cultural, educational, and civic center for Northern Bulgaria but the city itself has a long and important history dating back to the Middle Ages.  During the Bzyantine Empire it was the largest Bulgarian stronghold and was home to approximately 15,000 inhabitants.  The city was considered by many to be a "third Rome" because of its cultural influence over the rest of Eastern Europe.  Veliko Tarnovo continued to grow for 200 years until it was seized and the entire Bulgarian Empire destroyed by the conquering Ottoman Empire. After surviving 480 years of Ottoman occupation, in 1877, Veliko Tarnovo was liberated and two years later with the ratification of their first constitution, the Bulgarian Parliament was officially moved to Sofia.  Today, a drive, or walk, through Veliko Tarnovo reveals evidence of all of the chapters of her long history.

Everything we had read and heard told us that this former capitol city would be filled with charming architecture, impressive churches and a fortress whose size would rival all those we had previously visited.  We told ourselves that this would make the long drive well worth it.  After kilometer upon kilometer of rolling farm land filled with sunflowers and corn, Veliko Tarnovo seemed to pop up on the horizon out of no where.  First we encountered the blocky concrete high rises on the outskirts of the city that are the hallmark of all former Communist cities.  They are purely utilitarian and there is absolutely nothing aesthetically pleasing about them.  As we exited the main road and passed run down store fronts and abandoned buildings with little architectural character, I began to have my doubts about this overnight stop.  Was this place all that it was cracked up to be?

Night view from our hotel balcony
The view from our hotel balcony was impressive, and by far the best part of our overnight accommodations.  I know we are in the Balkans but everything about the hotel screamed over the top Balkan. (I have to remember that much of Eastern Europe essentially slept through the 1980s without having the benefit of western cultural influences).  The best word to describe the hotel is "purple".  Or plum to be exact.  We were greeted by a male valet wearing a shiny plum shirt and checked in by a female desk clerk wearing an identical plum outfit.  From the shag wall-to-wall carpeting on the room of our floor to the velour love seat and matching throw pillows and accent blanket on the bed, just about everything was plum.  Even the walls were covered with an ornate plum colored wallpaper that took me back in time fifty or so years.  The lamps, while not plum, were made of a silver reflective plastic that gave the room a misguided retro feel.  I started to think I was smelling over ripe plums but I think it was just the too floral room freshener scent that permeated the entire hotel.  (I was also a bit creeped out by the offer of his and hers full body waxing sessions at the attached spa............).  Yes, we were definitely in the heart of the Balkans.  We reminded ourselves that it was just for one night then quickly escaped outside to the balcony where we took in the impressive view of the fortress below us.

The northern wall of the fortress
Daybreak revealed the quaint city we had been promised.  Sprawl from the current times and recent Communist era past was confined to the outskirts of the city with the traditional city being protected along the river below.  Today, Veliko Tarnovo is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site for a reason.  Red tiled roofs dotted the horizon while traditional Bulgarian houses lined the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city.  As we discovered during our trek into the fortress however, the old city is far from pristine.  Preserved and rehabilitated buildings shared sidewalk space with abandoned and trash filled ones smelling suspiciously like stale urine.  The stench marred the experience but we carried on in the hot sun up the hill and into the fortress itself.

Shaped like a triangle mirroring the curve of the river, the Tsarevets Fortress was originally home to 400 houses and 18 churches built between the 5th and 12th Centuries.  The original fortress walls were crumbling and numerous signs in both Bulgarian and English warned us of the dangers of falling through holes or off of the walls themselves.  (If this was the United States all access to the walls would have been cordoned off in order to prevent even the slightest possibility of someone falling).  Today few of the original structures still exist but it was nice to see that restoration efforts are underway for those that are.  At the top of the hill the well preserved Sarevets Patriach's Chapel was spartan, dark, mildly ominous and smelled strongly of incense.  Middle Age churches certainly weren't places of enlightenment and cheer.  Although the blazing sun was a deterrent, cobblestone paths zigzagged across the green expanses of the fortress providing plenty of opportunities to explore.  During select summer evenings there are multi-colored light shows that illuminate the fortress grounds.  There wasn't one the night of our visit but they are apparently a must see if the opportunity arises.  Perhaps the next time we road trip through Bulgaria we will have the opportunity to check one out.

This puts a whole new meaning on the term "being at the
pointy end of the stick"

Sarevets Patriach's Chapel


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