Veliko Tarnovo: Bulgaria’s City of the Tsars

By Chris Deliso

(Note: this article was originally published in BBC History magazine.)

No place in Bulgaria has quite the ambiance of Veliko Tarnovo, famed ‘City of the Tsars.’ The grandest of Bulgaria’s mediaeval capitals, its remains today include an evocative old quarter with traditional artisans’ shops, numerous well-frescoed churches, and the enormous Tsarevets Fortress, brought vividly to life at night amidst a flood of colour and rumbling music (the so-called ‘Sound and Light Show’).

Encircled by protective hills along the winding Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo enjoys a spectacular setting, and naturally a strategic one. The Romans built the first substantial fortifications, which Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) later enhanced. However, Bulgarian Slav tribes arrived in the seventh century, and Tarnovgrad (as the city became known), would become prominent during the wars between Bulgaria and Byzantium over the next few centuries. It was a hotbed of revolt under brothers Petar and Asen, who established the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. Being the capital, Veliko Tarnovo flourished, leading Western Crusaders, Byzantine emperors, Bulgarian pretenders to the throne and the Khans of the Golden Horde to intrigue for influence. The Ottomans captured Veliko Tarnovo in 1393, and were only expelled with the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.

Veliko Tarnovo today has a youthful feel, due to its prestigious university. Tourists include backpackers, tour groups and weekending couples. Tarnovo’s increasing popularity means a wealth of accommodation options, ranging from youth hostels and guest houses to boutique hotels and five-star places. Some enjoy stunning views over the river and fortress.

History lies under every stone in Veliko Tarnovo, as you will see while wandering Trapezitsa Hill, where archaeologists contain excavating ruined churches and royal residences. In town, visit the Church of the Forty Martyrs, Church of Sveti Petar & Pavle, and Church of Sveti Dimitar, all dating from the 12th-14th centuries and containing valuable mediaeval wall paintings.

Tsarevets Fortress, however, is clearly the main attraction. Its impressive walls contain ruins of dwellings, churches and shops. The extensive palace ruins and the partially restored patriarchal residence indicate the grand scale of that bygone empire.

Nevertheless, for many the most interesting spots here are those associated with violent legends, such as ‘Execution Rock,’ from which traitors were hurled into the Yantra. Even Count Baldwin of Flanders, a leader of the infamous Fourth Crusade, has lent his name to a Tsarevets tower, where he was allegedly imprisoned and killed in 1205. Having aided the overthrow of Christian Constantinople a year earlier, Baldwin’s execution at the hands of the Bulgarians is regarded by some as ironically fitting.