I’d planned to stay three nights in Veliko Tarnovo, but I fell in love with the town and just kept not leaving. For quite a few days I planned to leave, but kept finding excuses to stay. It wasn’t much of a challenge.
Veliko Tarnovo [Велико Търново] was the royal capital during the Second Bulgarian Empire, a medieval Bulgarian kingdom in the period 1185 – 1422 CE. As this shows, people have been living there for a while now. Archaeological evidence actually indicates a human presence as early as 3000 BCE. The town today is a magical living thing, with winding alleys and narrow staircases, old white-painted houses that look as though they were built into the cliff, and beautiful wooden architecture. The main part of Veliko Tarnovo wraps around a horseshoe bend in the Yantra River, and the river here winds so tightly that the fortress sits high on a peninsula at another bend. It’s truly a beautiful town, and one that’s worth describing in pictures.
The town is not all ‘old’ – while parts of the town make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, Veliko Tarnovo also boasts one of the most modern shopping malls in Bulgaria, and if you walk down the western end of Stefan Stambolov St you could be just about anywhere with its designer shops, fancy restaurants and happening bars. I must admit though, it was the old part of town that charmed me; the part with white-painted houses and dark wooden roofs, where little old ladies in oversized cardigans walked home with their shopping; where dogs barked so ferociously I thought I might be heading towards a drug den; where overgrown and abandoned churches crumble slowly with the onslaught of time; where cobblestone streets sprout slippery green grass, and stray cats sit patiently on every other fence.
I loved the old artist’s quarter around Rakovski street, where beautiful old buildings, many carefully restored, house everything from tacky souvenir shops to expensive ateliers selling divine hand painted ceramics. As you go further up there are a number of artist’s studios where men drink tea, smoke cigarettes, chat with you and paint traditional icons all at once. For some reason, despite not being religious, I really like icons. There’s something about the Orthodox style of religious art that is magical, despite that they are flat and unnatural and usually dripping in gold. Perhaps it’s the Byzantine influence – I love the Byzantine style, and after the fall of Constantinople to Islam it seems that it was best preserved in the religious art of eastern Europe. My one regret is that I didn’t buy an icon; I found one I loved, but it didn’t fit in my budget and by the time I decided ‘stuff it, I want it anyway’ – it was gone. And I didn’t want the smaller, fits-in-my-budget version. It just wasn’t the same.
I did buy some hand-painted teacups and saucers, and after going back and forth trying to decide if they were tacky or adorable, I settled on adorable and went to a shop where I’d earlier met a lovely older woman who spoke no English but proceeded to explain at great length what I assume was the process of manufacture and where they came from. Alas, I’ve recently discovered that they didn’t all make it back to Australia in one piece; two saucers and a cup were sacrificed to the treacherous god of international post.
I didn’t find anything to dislike about Veliko Tarnovo; sure, it would have been nice if the weather was better – warm and sunny instead of absolutely bloody freezing – but I’m the moron who thought that still being in Europe in November was a good idea, and the upside is that tourists were few and far between. I did have a nice surprise – for the first time since leaving Budapest, I was able to find CIDER. This meant that it was time for a break from the red wine and local poisons I’d been drinking. You wouldn’t believe my excitement when, passing a fridge in a little grocery store I thought I spotted the word ‘Somersby’ out of the corner of my eye and, taking a step back, found that my eyes had not betrayed me and there really was a line of crisp and cold bottles of deliciousness in front of me.
And, of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the hostel I stayed at was wonderful. Not only did it include breakfast, but also dinner and a beer [that I donated to a fellow traveller each night, not drinking the toxic brew myself] for the low price of €10 per night. The staff were wonderful, laughing at me when I kept promising to leave ‘tomorrow’ for three days running, and again when pointing out that the thing I’d thought was a fan and left off, while freezing at night with three blankets, was actually a heater. Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo is definitely the place to stay, and including dinner meant I had more money for important things like cider.
They also gave good recommendations for restaurants with the perfect combination of English menus, low prices, and amazing local food. Shtastlivetsa was simply so good that I had to go back again, and following their suggestion for one of the sache dishes, served on a sizzling hot pan, this was the result:
The only problem was that when I ordered the chicken with vegetables sache, I didn’t expect that the vegetables would be 80% pickles. This is the wrong part of the world for someone who hates pickles. Excluding the offensive chunks of green disgustingness, the dish was absolutely delicious. And when they asked if I would like some garlic bread…I didn’t expect it to be a large pizza! How terrible that I just had to take half of it with me to eat later.
If you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned things like the fortress… well, there’ll be more on Veliko Tarnovo to come. It was far too fabulous for just one post, and I’m pretty terrible at being brief!