Tsaravets Fortress is the ‘main attraction’ in Veliko Tarnovo, and this is not without cause. As I’ve mentioned, Veliko Tarnovo [called plain old Tarnovo back then] was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire from the late twelfth to fourteenth centuries. The fortress, partly restored, is what remains of the old royal palace and defensive bulwarks and sits atop a hill also known, creatively, as Tsaravets. More defensive structures can be found on the neighbouring hill, Trapezitsa.
It was only a ten minute walk from my hostel to the fortress, and, being outside the summer peak season, I had the place almost to myself. You enter via the main gate, where back in the good old medieval days there was a heavy drawbridge. Alas, today the drawbridge is no more; instead a permanent rigid bridge spans the gap. Crossing the bridge you have a lovely view of the town behind you, while looking ahead the tall thick fortress walls would look a little foreboding if it wasn’t for the fact that behind them lies trees and ruins rather than a powerful fortified city.
I was there in late autumn, and the trees throughout the fortress grounds bore vibrant red and gold leaves. Little remains of the old fortress aside from the defensive walls, some foundations and the heavily restored church on the top of the hill, and it feels like you’re wandering through a well-kept park.
I have to say that I really liked the signs they had around the place warning you about the dangers of the walls and that certain behaviour was forbidden. My understanding is that you cannot sit on the walls, facing either inwards or outwards, and that practising ballet on the walls is also not allowed. According, I refrained from pirouetting my way along the thick, sometimes crumbling, old walls.
On top of the hill in the centre of the fortress stands the restored Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God – just the name is a bit of a mouthful. This was reconstructed on the grounds of a much older church in the 1970s, during the Communist era. And boy is that apparent! The interior boasts a suspended altar, a brass chandelier and the most disturbing frescoes that I’ve ever seen. I found it quite strange that the church would be rebuilt during the Communist period, and I’ve wondered whether they chose to paint the interior in the style they did because of their disdain for religion, or whether it was just another way of manifesting the state ideology.
I’ve never seen oppressive, ominous and downright frightening paintings in a church before. Not only traditional religious scenes are depicted [in a very modernist way], but important moments in Bulgarian history. Even the brass light fitting, in its simplicity and austerity, seems to condemn the place. Maybe I’m reading it all wrong; these are just my impressions.
I spent some time wandering around the grounds, and had a little bit of a picnic [pears and chocolate – hardly a proper meal] at the old Execution Rock, where traitors would be executed in a very simple manner – by being shoved over the edge of the cliff to fall to their death. It was quite a nice spot, as strange as that sounds, surrounded by trees with strange fluffy flowers.
During summer there is a sound and light show at the fortress every night. Outside summer, it runs occasionally – when enough people pay to see it basically. One of the guys who worked at the hostel received a call one night I was there to say that the show was happening, and if we wanted we could head up there to watch it. So myself and two others from the hostel headed up there. We missed three quarters of it, as while I was ready to go the other two took their sweet time about it. The show is supposed to portray the fall of Tarnovo to the Ottomans and other significant historical events; from what I could tell it was more about shining brightly coloured lights on things and having some sound effects to go with it. I think it would have made more sense if I’d seen the whole thing. Regardless, I really enjoyed it – it was something different, and it didn’t cost a cent.
Plus, the colourful lights were pretty.