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With a combination of quaint wooden houses clinging to the hillside, a historic fortress and some attractive National Revival era buildings, Veliko Tarnovo must be one of the most charming paces in Bulgaria. Although it is a firm favourite on the backpackers trail, I must confess to never having heard of the town until planning my trip around the Black Sea in 2006. Veliko Tarnovo is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Bulgaria and it's easy to see why; it really is picture postcard beautiful. However, the town has not succumbed to the tourist tackiness that many places have and, although visitors are well catered for, Veliko Tarnovo remains (mostly) unspoilt.
The town is a couple of hours from the capital, Sofia, in one direction, and slightly less from the Black Sea coast in the other. Getting to and from Veliko Tarnovo is easy, there are plenty of buses and trains making the town well connected with destinations all over the country. We arrived from Ruse, a town just over the border with Romania, a train journey of a couple of hours.
The Tourist Information Office is very central and can advise on accommodation as well as what sights to see. We wanted accommodation where we could cook for ourselves but the staff checked and said this accommodation was full. We got the impression that it would have been easier for them if we had wanted a conventional hotel, they didn't seem to want to help us much with accommodation but were fine with other questions. As luck would have it, we met Graham outside, a young Englishman who had that very week opened a hostel in town and was looking for guests. Although the hostel had four bed dorms we could have one to ourselves and there were also cooking facilities. (you may have seen Graham on television as he was featured on Channel Four's "A Place in the Sun" when looking for a property for his hostel). Veliko Tarnovo has plenty of hotel accommodation and lots of hotels too. There are now quite a few boutique style hotels and more upmarket B&Bs and the accommodation scene in the town can certainly be said to have something for everyone.
With practical matters sorted, it's time to look at what the town has to offer. The town stands above the River Yantra which meanders pleasantly around three hills - Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora. On these hills you will find the oldest buildings. Tsarevets is basically a fortress that housed the palaces of the Bulgarian Emperors and the Patriarchate. You can buy a guide booklet at the entrance and there is a collection of gift shops housed in some wooden sheds near the entrance. You walk across a stone bridge over the river to enter the fortress. Underneath the bridge at one end was a huge pile of rubbish; it was very disappointing to see this eyesore in such a lovely and historic place. It surprised me that the local authorities did not do something about it especially considering how many foreign visitors must pass by it. We didn't take a guided tour but I would recommend the book because it explains what you are looking at and you would be looking at piles of stones otherwise. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria - then the most powerful state in south eastern Europe - in medieval times and once you understand what you're looking at it becomes clear that this was an impressive and important fortress.
An interesting part of town is the Asen's Quarter (Asenova Mahala) which is situated down in the valley between two hills. You can get to this area by crossing the Bishops Bridge. Just behind the Asens monument (dedicated to the establishment of the Second Empire in 1185) is the State Art Museum. The bulk of the collection is made up of paintings of Veliko Tarnovo and the surrounding area.
In the Varosha district you'll find the "Samovodska Charshiya" In the latter part of the 19th century, the Samovodska Charshiya developed as an economic centre. Women from the nearby village of Samovodene used to come to Veliko Tarnovo on market day to sell their vegetables, hence the name "Samovodene Market". During the Revival period this area became home to craftsmen and there were also several inns. In the mid 1980s it was decided that the rebuilding of these workshops and the development of traditional crafts would be a good way of attracting tourists to the town. Nowadays you can see the workshops of craftsmen such as potters, icon painters and carpenters and watch the craftsmen at work as well as buy handmade items. There is a brilliant bakery selling freshly made Turkish pastries which are delicious.
Gurko Street is one of the highlights of Veliko Tarnovo. This street overlooks the three hills and the river that meanders around them. We could see this street from the windows of our hostel and houses look to be built on top of each other giving the impression that they are piled up and could topple at any moment. Many of these houses have been or are being restored; some restored ones are now small hotels. On this street we visited the "Sarafkina House"; it was built in the 1860s by a rich Turkish moneylender and merchant and is now a museum. Part of it displays recreations of typical rooms of the period; the rest has exhibits relating to local crafts and an interesting costume collection.
Housed in the former Turkish Town Hall, the Museum of the National Revival and Constituent Assembly commemorates the writing of the first constitution of Bulgaria. Unfortunately none of the exhibits relating to this historic event were captioned in English but we did like the collection of beautifully painted icons in the basement. Behind this is the Museum of Contemporary Bulgarian History which sounded promising but the Lonely Planet told us it had no captions in English and was best avoided. We still found plenty to do. There are some lovely churches to explore and you could wander around the streets of the old town for hours on end discovering little lanes and interesting features on the houses. We did venture out of town, though, and took a taxi to the village of Arbanasi where some of Bulgaria's wealthiest people live in vast gated properties. It's interesting enough to wander around the streets admiring these houses but that isn't the attraction of this village. Around ninety churches, houses and monasteries in this village have protection for having historic and cultural significance. The village was first settled by Albanians in the fifteenth century; in the sixteenth century it prospered when Sultan Suleyman "gave "the town to his son-in-law. It was an important trading town and this is why so many luxurious summer houses were built here. Alas, the village was almost totally destroyed in the late eighteenth century by Turkish gangs. Not all the sites are open to the public but we visited a working convent and got to see the wonderfully ornate altar inside the church there and we saw some magnificent murals in the Nativity Church. We also visited Konstantsalieva House which dates from the seventeenth century; it's in the Bulgarian Revival style and contains recreations of rooms from the period. You can buy a joint ticket that gets you admission to all of the attractions in the village from each of the individual sites. You can also get a map of the village which is a help as there are no signposts.
As it receives so many visitors, it will come as no surprise to know that Veliko Tarnovo has plenty of places for eat and drink, and, as there are lots of students here, you can find plenty of cheap places to eat. Restaurant Rich has fantastic views over the three hills and is one of the more upmarket restaurants in town. Nearby Starata Mehana is also good and slightly less expensive. If you know Bulgaria you may have encountered the "Happy Bar and Grill" chain. Here "Mustang Food" is the equivalent, serving just about anything you can think of and doing none of it brilliantly. This is the place for pizza, burgers, chilli, pasta, steaks, grills - you name it, they do it.
We found the bars catering mainly for the younger crowd and tended to eat a little later, and making a night of it in restaurants instead. However, one popular nighttime activity is the Sound and Light Show (eat your heart out, Jean Michel Jarre) in which Tsarevets Hill is illuminated in a rainbow of colours. This happens on public holidays but can be arranged for tourists - apparently if enough tourists pay a certain amount each it will be put on. You can ask at the Tourist Information Office for more information. This took place when we were there and we watched it from the terrace of a bar just behind the main street - for free!
Veliko Tarnovo is an exceptionally pretty and very interesting town that really demands a visit if you are in Bulgaria for any length of time. Tourists are well catered for and there is plenty to see and do. It is certainly different in that the local authorities have seen something worth developing and promoting in the town, its history and its buildings and have done this sympathetically and with a lot of common sense. There are lots of other places of touristic value in Bulgaria that have not been looked after or are poorly promoted. If only they would now do something about the piles of rubbish hidden behind walls and under bridges, and the packs of stray dogs; none of the dogs were fierce or threatening, but they do come and beg when you are eating outdoors and while I like dogs, many people don't.
At around three hours from the coast Veliko Tarnovo is perhaps a little too far for a day trip for visitors staying at the beach, though I do know some companies offer trips as far away as the capital. However, if you are travelling independently I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this charming town.
IN THE SUMMER the trees are lush and green, temperatures sore in the high 30s, and the local girls strut up and down in their tightest mini-skirts and impossible tans. In the winter you can clearly see the strata of rock in the hills through the skeletal trees, and the landscape is buried under snow for many weeks.
I'm in Veliko Turnovo, tucked away in the northern foothills of the "Old Mountains" (or "Stara Planina"). The town nestles upon the slopes of four rugged looking hills, in the beautiful unspoilt terrain which is northern Bulgaria, and the tranquil Yantra River weaves through the hills in a swooping horse-shoe formation, like a child's drawing of a meandering river. For me Veliko Turnovo is a town of contrasts and is also where I've chosen to live. I know there's only a very small chance that you'll make it here on holiday, but I'd like to show you around a bit and tell you about some of my favourite places here.
Veliko Turnovo actually means "Great Turnovo", and sure enough there is a "Little Turnovo" somewhere near the Black Sea. I'll refer to it as Turnovo for brevity's sake in this review. (When I first came here I used to refer to it as just "Veliko", until I realized that that was a bit like referring to Great Britain as just "Great!"). Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, like the Russians do, (with a couple of differences), and in fact this alphabet was actually invented by a couple of Bulgarians-Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius. The Bulgarians are exceptionally proud of this fact and there is a national holiday every year on May 24th to commemorate the day the alphabet was invented. (This is also known as "Bulgarian Culture Day"). Goodness knows how they can pin it down to one day when it was created in the 9th century, but there you go! In Veliko Turnovo the university, which is one of the largest in the country, is named after these two saints. When you transliterate the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet there are two possibilities- "Turnovo" and "Tarnovo". So if you're searching for anything to do with this town on the Internet it would serve you well to try both spellings. The actual pronunciation is closer to Turnovo, so I'm using this spelling here. Wanted to show you how the name looks in Cyrillic, but Dooyoo won't support the characters :o(
Neolithic evidence dating back more than 7000 years has been found on one of Turnovo's four hills, now called Tsaravets. The hill is strategic, almost encircled completely by the Yantra River and with difficult steep slopes, and lends itself easily to fortified constructions. The Romans also put up some hefty walls, and the Byzantines followed suit in the 5th century with a citadel. It became the capital of Bulgaria during the Second Bulgarian Empire and an extremely influential town in terms of trade at this time. In the 14th century the Turks took possession of Turnovo and destroyed the fortress, although they left lots of bits behind which you can now visit (see later in this review). Bulgaria finally shook off what it refers to as the "yoke" of the Turks in 1879, and Turnovo was chosen as an apt place to sign the new constitution, but Sofia was made the capital.
********Man about Town********
If you come to Turnovo, you'll probably have flown either from Sofia, the capital, or Varna, by the seaside. You could hire a car, but the roads are risky and signs sporadic. The easiest way, from either starting point, is by coach. A one-way adult fare is 13lv (£4.80) from Sofia (241km) or Varna (228km) (about 3 hrs). There are no loos on the buses! There are two bus stations, and it's sometimes pot-luck which one you'll end up at, but most of the time you'll be deposited close to the town centre, next to an ugly communist monstrosity called Hotel Etar. The other bus station is about 1km out of town, but it's easy to hail a cab to take you into town- cost is 1 lv (30p). Unless you're not mobile, Turnovo is easy to explore on foot. (If you do have mobility restrictions Turnovo is a potential nightmare- Bulgaria as a whole has not embraced wheelchair/buggy access anywhere, and Turnovo is all hill.)
As you walk uphill (mild incline) from the bus station, you'll pass numerous pubs, shops and restaurants. Turnovo is quite bustling commercially, and is a better shopping town than the capital in my view. There is one main road, which you follow round to the right. (I adore Turnovo for its simple road layout- I have worse sense of direction than a compass on the moon, but in Turnovo there is only ever one main road (which I call the High Street), and it follows the river, so you can always see where you are). The road will take you past endless clothes shops first of all. They are very easy on the UK pocket with the average price of a T-shirt being around 15 lv (£5) and a pair of jeans about 30 lv (a tenner). (But most brand names are fakes).
Don't be put off if you're not into clothes shopping, as this road soon turns into a beautiful oldy worldy cobblestone path, and the architecture is stunning. The buildings are in the traditional Bulgarian style, which means mostly two-storey buildings with balconies adorned with flowers, slightly off-square walls, small-paned windows, red tiled roofs and narrow streets. The area has had a lot of investment in recent years, with many of the buildings being restored to their former beauty. Most buildings here are shops, selling antiques (old Bulgarian chests, weird musical instruments and authentic peasant costumes), artwork (paintings of the rich countryside in every possible hue), or bars/restaurants. Not surprisingly, this area does attract a lot of tourists and the prices reflect this. If you press on to the end of the road you'll enter the "real" old town, where people still live in these old crumbly houses. This area has much less to offer the tourist in terms of museums or cafes, but you can see how people really live. If you manage to get invited into one of these houses you'll be amazed. They are generally tiny inside with a central wood stove which heats the whole house. It's normal for 3 generations to live in the same small house, with all of the rooms used as bedrooms at night. The ceilings are sometimes woefully low, subsidence is evident, and the décor is usually pre-1975. You have to remember that aside from the tourist centre, Turnovo is essentially a poor provincial town, although it's easy to forget sometimes. Most people have little money to spend on home improvements or even essential repairs in some cases.
If you carry on through the old town you'll end up at the arched entrance to the 12th-13th century Tsaravets fortress. The entrance fee is 4 lv for an adult (£1.30), unless you have a Bulgarian ID card, in which case it's 1 lv. (Much of Bulgaria operates a dual pricing system due to the low wages the locals receive). You should allow about 2 hours to see everything. The walls and some other structures have been restored, but most of what there is to see is ruins. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place though, and well worth a visit. In its heyday there was a massive town within the walls, and you can see the foundations of many houses, churches and monasteries. A lot of the restoration was done in the 80s and sadly is falling apart already. The entrance fee is so low that it's hardly surprising that they can't afford to keep up the maintenance. I would advise taking a guide book to learn a bit more about what you can see, as the signs are only in Bulgarian and German and there are no guided tours. My favourite bit is "Execution Rock"- a precarious drop where they used to chuck traitors off to drown in the river .. Wear good shoes as you could end up scrambling when paths suddenly disintegrate into wilderness. At nightfall, in the summer, there is often a sound and light show with Tsaravets as the focal point. It's extremely difficult to find out when/if it's on, but if you manage to catch it, it's wonderful.
******Other Things to While Away the Days******
There are several museums and 6 lovely churches to visit, parks, markets and countryside to explore. The State Art Museum is visible from most of the riverside restaurants and is an imposing structure, and worth a visit inside and out. I hope from my map you can see the green bits which are all wonderful for strolling, cycling (if you don't mind uphill pedalling) and picnics. East of the town there is a great open market with beautifully coloured fruit and veg stalls. Dotted around the town are bits of useful information for the tourist, in English as well as Bulgarian and German. It's an ideal place to stroll around, stop off for coffees at any of the numerous cafes and generally relax.
You're probably quite peckish by now, so follow the path you took back into town, and you'll find plenty of restaurants along the way. Almost all of them sell typical Bulgarian fare, which mainly consists of salads, pork dishes and stews and some sort of vegetable side dish. (It's normal to have a salad as a starter, with a glass of "rakia" the local fire-water). Turnovo has NO McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, or anything like them. You can find kebabs though, and unlike the GB version they are delicious. Pizza is easy to find- the Bulgarians usually douse it in ketchup and mayonnaise. Many restaurants have balconies overlooking the river and opposing hills, and the view is absolutely stunning. I'd recommend a meal with a view as an essential part of your visit. Two possibilities are "Ego" (BG dishes, pizza, pasta, average bill per head including drink- 15 lv (£5)), or "Shtaslivitsa" (excellent BG dishes, pizza, booking often necessary, 20 lv per head (£7.30)). Eating and drinking is one of the cheapest things you can do. The average price of a draft beer (bira na livna) is 1.50 lv (50p) (waheyyyyyy!). But bear in mind that Bulgarians generally respect their alcohol a bit better than us Brits, and it is not acceptable to get drunk and make a fool of yourself in public.
Bars are in abundance and of varying atmospheres. If you like to sit outside, enjoying the view and chatting with friends, then I'd recommend Maximus piano bar terrace (they rarely actually play the piano!) on the old town side of the High Street.. If you want to meet other British people there's a pub called Andres, but to be honest I avoid it-I'm not here to meet Brits-I can do that in Britain! A new bar has opened on the newer (western) half of the High Street which is above the theatre and has a large balcony overlooking the High Street. It's ok if you want cocktails and to see and be seen, but a bit pricier than most bars. There are lots of night clubs- for example, "Scream" which is underneath Ego pizza restaurant (4 lv entry, beer about 2.50). Night clubs are generally small by British standards, and less drunken, which means less wild dance moves. Clientele are Young. I'm 32 and feel old if I go. As for the theatre, there's not much to tickle your fancy unless you speak Bulgarian.
Just a quick word about the currency, which is the LEV, (plural LEVA), divided into 100 stotinki. Although there was some pretty wild inflation in the early 90s, the Lev (Lv) is tied to the Euro now, so is relatively stable. Cashpoints are widely available, as are bureau de changes. NEVER change money in the street if approached- you may receive old, out-of-circulation notes, and will certainly not get a fair exchange rate. Many bureau-changes advertise themselves as "no commission", but in fact it is illegal for any to charge it. If you put your UK card in a cashpoint you'll have the option to choose English, so don't worry that you won't understand the instructions! The notes come in 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 denominations, but it's hard to change large notes and you're unlikely to spend large wads unless you want to buy art, so break big notes when you can. Shopkeepers round up, but not down. So if your Coke and Snickers comes to 98 stotinki, don't expect any change from your 1 lev. Current exchange rate is about 2.7 leva to the pound.
If you need to get a taxi around Turnovo, the general price is 1 lv (30p) from the edge of town to the centre, or 1.50-2 lv from one side of town to the other. ALWAYS check the advertised fare before you get in a taxi (displayed in the window). The price should be about 0.35-0.37 lv per km. There are rogues who display 3.50/km and hope you won't notice. I'm ashamed to say I have been caught out with this, despite knowing about it. There are taxis everywhere. No need to book in most places, but your hotel will happily do so if you want to be on the safe side.
This has been a sore point for Turnovians in 2005. Usually the summer is glorious, baking hot, but not too humid thanks to the winds of the hills and the river. But this year has seen the worst rains in the last 50 years. (Bulgaria, of course, is not alone in experiencing recent freak weather). The Yantra River rose alarmingly during July and August, flooding many waterside houses and damaging a major bridge. Normally, though, the summer highs are in the upper 30s, and winter plummets to about -5 as an average, with many days much colder. The town is magical when covered in snow. Spring and autumn are pleasant, with T-shirt weather during the day and cool evenings. Insect repellent is useful in the summer.
There is no shortage of hotels in Turnovo, except at extra-peak times like New Year's Eve. I've stayed at 4 hotels here; Etar (or Etur), Comfort, Millenium (sic) and Central. Etar is cheap and nasty and I wouldn't recommend it. The other 3 are great. Comfort is in the old town, Central is 2 doors down from my house and Millenium is in the new town (10 minutes walk to the old town). Prices depend, obviously, on time of year (and whether you have Bulgarian ID), but the average is 40-60 Euros for a double room (£25-40); not that cheap compared to other things here. You may be perturbed by the "wet" bathroom which is typical here- usually there is a showerhead which just sprays into the bathroom without a bath or shower cubicle. Plumbing is not a forte, and toilets often leak onto the floor. Don't bother complaining if they do, it's normal! At least the floor gets frequent cleaning thanks to the shower!
Veliko Turnovo is not a dangerous place. You are always at risk wherever you are in the world if you look like a tourist, so try not to. There are some very very poor people here who might resent displayed wealth, but I wouldn't say it's a problem. The biggest danger you'll have, (and this goes for all Bulgaria), is getting ripped off because you're British. Dual pricing for foreigners is standard and legal in museums and hotels, (although not for much longer if BG enters the EU), but you might get charged more for items in shops just because you're not Bulgarian. My advice would be just to accept this. You will still be paying considerably less than you would at home, and you will be improving the economy of the country in a small way. If you argue you'll just create bad feeling and you'll never reduce the price. The only way you can do that is by saying something in Bulgarian (now there's an incentive!). Many of my UK friends here disagree with me on this, but that's my view. Women are safe and will not be hassled. Gays and lesbians are not catered for as a separate group; being out here is probably like it was in the UK in the 70s. Elderly people are respected, children adored. You will always be pushed to the front of the queue if you have small kids. Disabled people are left to fend for themselves I'm afraid.
The post office is just up the road from the bus station and a stamp (marka) for England (Anglia) costs 1 lv (30p). You can't buy stamps from anywhere except the post-office (again, reminiscent of pre-1970s Britain!).
They work fine. Check your tariff though, as Bulgaria is not yet in the EU, higher charges apply.
******Newspapers in English******
Sorry, but there aren't any. Lots of Internet cafes though, so you can stay in touch. Surfing the net costs about 1lv (30p) per hour.
· At the moment of writing, a return flight from Heathrow to Sofia costs £210 (British Airways, www.ba.co.uk). Similar price to Varna (BG Air, http://www.air.bg/ from Gatwick, or Condor www1.condor.com (site was down when I checked, but I read tickets are 29 Euros)). Also check out wizz-air.com they have tickets for about £30, but via Hungary and at terrible times of day.
· Bank holidays here are 1st Jan, 3rd Mar, Easter (Orthodox-different to ours), 6th May, 24th May, 6th Sep, 22nd Sep, 1st Nov, 25th & 26th Dec.
· The Bulgarian "National Book" about their history is called "Under the Yoke", by Ivan Vazov, 1888. It's been translated (badly) into English.
· The best map of Turnovo is published by Domino and available at most newspaper stands. It's a big fold out one, tested by GPS and costs about 3lv (£1). It includes a street index and lists of useful places like hospitals and banks.
Finally, if you do stop by, come and say hello! My house/business is on the map below!
Some useful websites:
www.mybulgaria.info -forums property for sale, visa info
http://www.volgawriter.com/VW%20Cyrillic.htm - history of Cyrillic
http://www.velikoturnovo.info/ -Veliko Turnovo website
Apologies to those who've already read this on Ciao- I'm testing out Dooyoo!
Alte Hauptstadt Bulgariens.