Veliko Tarnovo Overview and Travel Guide
31.07.2012 § 2 Comments
This is the catch-all post for anyone interested in visiting Veliko Tarnovo. Here I will link to all the individual articles of interest, as well as provide basic practical information about your visit.
In the foothills of the Balkan mountains, around the twists and turns of the Yantra river rise three hills: Tzarevetz, Sveta Gora and Trapezitza. Perched atop these hills and reflected in the river are the houses and castle walls of Veliko Tarnovo – the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and once the beating cultural heart of South-Eastern Europe.
Buses to Veliko Tarnovo run several times a day from Sofia, with the journey taking less than 3.5 hrs, as well as from other major cities. Be aware that buses from different destinations arrive at different bus stations in and around the city, so I wouldn’t use Veliko Tarnovo as an intermediate stop on a more complex journey. Buses from Sofia tend to come in outside Hotel Etar, which is in the very heart of the city and walking distance to many hostels and the Old town.
The nearby city of Gorna Oryahovica is a transit hub and on the main Sofia – Varna rail line. Sadly, Veliko Tarnovo is not, which means a change of trains at Gorna Oryahovica if you’re coming from Sofia. The trip will be slightly longer, but a bit less expensive. If you’re coming from Ruse or Stara Zagora, however, you may be able to get a direct train. The city’s train station is about a 15 minute walk from the centre of town.
Veliko Tarnovo is accessible through any number of mountain passes from the south (I recommend the Pass of the Republic or Shipka Pass), and it lies on the partially completed Hemus motorway, making the first 120 km or so of your trip quite comfortable. The road that takes over from the motorway is also in decent shape.
The city’s Tourist Information Centre is a good first stop, especially if you didn’t print this guide before coming *wink*. You’ll find it at 5 Hristo Botev street, near the post office, hotel Etar and “kino Poltava” (this is an ancient reference to a now-defunct cinema that cabbies will understand anyway. You should get a map of the city while you’re at it, it will be invaluable.
They will also be able to give you an idea of which hostels in the area have beds and have received decent reviews.
Taxis in Veliko Tarnovo are generally reliable, with few to none phantom companies, and they follow the same etiquette and rules as Sofia’s taxis. Pay close attention to the rates (they will be slightly higher due to the smaller size of the city) and make sure the meter is on when you get in.
Veliko Tarnovo is a city perched on three steep hills. The joke is that every street in Veliko Tarnovo leads strictly uphill. This is largely true (well, you will be going downhill sometimes), and visitors should be aware that distances that seem short on a flat map may involve scrambling up and down stairs or cobbled streets, so wear comfortable shoes. Not flip-flops, and do your best to avoid high heels.
Rather than giving you specific walking routes, I will endeavour to tell you what there is to do in each of the city’s five neighbourhoods, giving you must-see sights but also letting you explore on your own.
The Old Town
The Revival-era Old Town is home to winding cobbled streets, houses perched on hills, and cafés with patios with views across the river to the Sveta Gora hills. It provides the link between the historical fortress at Tzarevetz and the New Town. Alongside modern shopping and 24-hour alcohol and souvenir shops, the main attractions here are the small, but quaint Revival-era shopping avenue Samovodskata Charshia (Rakovski St. on maps).
You’ll find the private Inn of Hadji Nikoli gallery/restaurant/museum there, as well as the main city cathedral, as well as a cluster of museums around the old town hall (a revival museum with a collection of rare icons, a prison museum, and the archaeological museum). Another interesting street to peruse, much, much lower on the sloping banks of the Yantra river, is Gurko Street, which has more authentic 19th century houses, as well as artisan shops and several guest houses and hostels.
- The Inn of Hadji Nikoli
- Samovodskata Charshia
The New Town
The New Town encompasses almost everything to the west of the Old Town. The area immediately adjacent to the Old Town, the ones most useful to a traveller, would be the modern shopping Vasil Levski street, along which you will find the main square by the Post Office, City Hall, the Musical-Dramatic Theatre, multiple cafés, bars, etc. The New Town provides the link between Old Town and Sveta Gora. There is a war memorial across from the post office known as the Майка България (Mother Bulgaria) monument. Behind it is the Marno Pole city park, where well-lit fountains, tree-shaded walkways, several playgrounds, cool water spouts and the occasional festival stage await you.
If you take Vasil Levski far enough, it will take you to the entrance of the city’s largest produce market, where you can find seasonal fruits and veggies at great prices. In addition, around the periphery of the city there are many big chain stores such as LIDL, Praktiker, etc, and the city’s Central Mall, all of which taxis could easily take you to.
- The Tourist Information Centre
- Marno pole park
- The Mother Bulgaria monument
The hill of Sveta Gora, which used to contain most of medieval Veliko Tarnovo’s monasteries and churches, narrows out and hits the river at the iconic outcropping that houses the city’s art gallery and the massive monument to the four kings of the Asen dynasty. That thing with the four huge horsemen statues you’ve been seeing from every terrace in the Old Town, well that’s the Sveta Gora bank (known locally as “Borúna”). Behind the art gallery, up some 300 steps, lies a somewhat neglected, but thoroughly enjoyable wooded park, far shadier than Marno pole and suitable for a longer walk or a jog. This park lacks lighting and is a bit out of the way, so visit only during the day and preferably with a buddy.
The best way to get to Sveta Gora from the city is to take the bridge across from just below Hotel Etar in the New Town. From the bridge you will have a spectacular view of the Old Town, perched on the hill with the houses seemingly built on top of one another, and also reflected in the languid waters of the Yantra.
It is of this view that poet Hristo Gonevski wrote:
“And so two wondrous cities gleam
Wondrous, as if in a dream:
One united with the heavens,
The other fallen in the stream.”
- The Asens monument
- The view from the Yantra bridge
The hill of Tzarevetz was the core of the medieval fortress of Veliko Tarnovo. Restored from documents and foundation in the 1970’s, the hill is home to imposing fortress walls, a triple gate and the Patriarchal Church (which is a desanctified monument today) with an elevator to the top providing a great view of the city. One corner of the fortress lets visitors walk around the ruins of the royal palace, where the “Stage of the Centuries” festival occupies for operas and ballet performances at the end of July every year. On the south side of the fortress stands the Tower of Baldwin, which according to legend is where Baldwin I of Flanders spent his final days as a prisoner of Bulgaria’s tzar Kaloyan after the crushing defeat he inflicted on the Western crusaders near Adrianople in 1205. Entrance to the entire complex is 6 Leva (2 for students).
In addition, on a non-trivially known subset of summer evenings, visitors may have a chance to witness the Sound and Light show, which illuminates the entire hill, retelling the story of Bulgaria’s conquest, and is best seen from the square before the main gates. You can make a reservation for the show at + 359 885 080 865.
- The Baldwin tower
- The patriarchal church
- The royal palace
- The sound and light show
The road leading down and to the left from the main gate of Tzarevetz leads to a small, quiet neighbourhood below, with a couple of imposing churches and a bridge breaking up the two-storey skyline. That neighbourhood is known as “Asenova mahala” and was home to wealthy merchants, churches and residences in Medieval Veliko Tarnovo. The main things to see there are four wonderfully distinct churches.
St. 40 Martyrs church, found under the main bridge that spans the neighbourhood, is part of an archaeological complex and houses several unique relics of Medieval Bulgaria, including columns commemorating khan Omurtag and Ivan Asen II’s victory over the Byzantines in 1235, as well as the burial site of tzar Kaloyan, the third ruler of the Asen dynasty.
Further into the neighbourhood and quite out of the way, is the small St. Peter & Paul church, which has beautiful Orthodox and Catholic frescoes, as well as one of the only known depictions of Jesus’s half-brothers James and Jude. The church was last painted in the early 15th century by master Nikola, who later drew the inside of the Boyana church outside Sofia. Nikola had studied in Italy for a year and a half, making his paintings the closest to the Western Renaissance style, especially in the depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary above the entrance.
Two other churches, St. Dimitar, where the uprising of Asen & Peter was proclaimed, and St. George, are also worth seeing, although they have to be unlocked by the same person who sits at St. Peter & Paul, so I would start there.
- 40 Martyrs Church
- St Peter & Paul Church
There are a few exciting spots nearby and in the surrounding hills. Starting nearby, the village of Arbanassi is about an hour’s hike or a 5-8 Leva taxi ride away from the city. Arbanassi is a protected architectural reserve, full of Revival-era two-level houses. You’ll find two great churches and a pair of monasteries in the village. St. Nikolai monastery is especially worth a visit. There is also a slew of grand hotels and a horseback riding base there. The Preobrazhenie monastery is also nearby, some 7 km north of the city. It was built by Kolyu Ficheto and has an invaluable depiction of the Circle of Life by Zahari Zograf. The Bacho Kiro cave is worth a look if you like caves, and it’s linked to the Dryanovski monastery and the village of Bozhentsi by a hiking trail.
- Preobrazhenie monastery