Veliko Târnovo, the city in Bulgaria where Romanian is the most heard language. “A Romanian place under cover”

If you plan to take a city break very close to Romania by car, then the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo is a really special and affordable destination.

Veliko Târnovo, a special and charming destination PHOTO Denis Grigorescu

According to the local authorities' statistics, over 100,000 Romanians come to Veliko Târnovo every year on average – and they have every reason to do so. In Veliko Târnovo, the accommodation prices and conditions are very good, the service in the restaurants is impeccable, the waiters all know English, the food is very good, both for the price and the taste – an example of impeccable tourist management. The city has a lot to offer from a cultural point of view, with several sights worth seeing.

The first impression, after traveling the 180 kilometers between Bucharest and Veliko Târnovo, is that you have arrived in an undercover Romanian city. In the most beautiful city in Bulgaria, there is not a street or restaurant where you do not hear Romanian being spoken. What a paradox: the most heard language on the streets of Veliko Tarnovo is not Bulgarian, but Romanian. A first tip: if you want to stay in Veliko Tarnovo, choose a hotel in the old town that also has parking. In no case is it recommended to park on the streets in the area, because in the old town, illegally parked cars are often picked up. In Veliko Târnovo, it is most pleasant to discover the city on foot: the distances between the sights are small, and the streets and landscapes are delightful.

Peace and safety

Considered the historical and cultural capital of Bulgaria, nicknamed the “City of Tsars”, Veliko Târnovo has a history spanning three millennia. Former capital of the Bulgarian Land between the 12th and 14th centuries, Veliko has a rare architecture with many buildings full of ineffable charm, lots of greenery and quiet people. Since 1965, the word Veliko, which means “big”, has been added to the original name Târnovo, in honor of the fact that the city was the capital of Bulgaria several centuries ago.

Although many tourists from all over the world constantly come here, led by Romania, Veliko Târnovo is a quiet, safe and not noisy city. A city where during the four days of the mini-stay I didn't hear even an attempt to honk and didn't see any nervous driver.

Practically, from the first hundred steps taken on foot, the city gives you a feeling of well-being, of relaxation. Crossed by the river Yantra, which meanders through the old town, but also through the new area, Veliko Târnovo is located on three hills: Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta.

The respect for history and the past of the inhabitants and the authorities is also seen in the street art, in the dozens of murals perfectly integrated into the urban landscape, many of them being inspired by the folklore and mythology of the area. Here you can see dozens of craft workshops, where you can buy everything from beautiful wood carvings to various shirts and scarves.

And beyond the satisfaction of buying something authentic, you can see the craftsmen at work – a truly special visual experience. Veliko Târnovo was in the Middle Ages one of the European cities with a flourishing culture, becoming known for the so-called “Târnovo School of Art”, famous for the art of making icons and frescoes, but also for its superb architecture.

A hearty lunch

After a walk through the city center, a culinary stop is a natural option, and the offer of restaurants in the old city center is varied. There are a few restaurants that offer a superb view of the city, but also cheap, tasty food that comes in generous portions.

A useful tip: if you are going with several friends or several families, say from the beginning that you want your order taken individually or as a family and the bill brought to you the same. That's because the bill comes in Bulgarian, and if you don't know the language, it's very difficult to identify and then share what each person at the table has consumed. And if you don't pay by card, it's important to have cash on hand.

In terms of prices, a hearty lunch for three people, including dessert and drinks, costs the equivalent of about 200 lei.

Tsarevets, the fortress of the tsarist ruler

The most important sight in Veliko Tarnovo is the medieval fortress Tsarevets, located on the hill of the same name. The journey from the city center to the fortress takes a maximum of 15 minutes, and visiting the fortress, a truly imposing and spectacular one, is worth every step there.

It was built in the first part of the 12th century, and between 1185 and 1393, Tsarevets was the main fortress of the Bulgarian Land founded after the rebellion of the brothers Peter and Asan, housing both the royal and patriarchal palaces, being often compared to Rome and Constantinople as greatness.

The natural inaccessibility of the Tsarevets hill determined the construction of the fortress in this place, and a very complex defense system ensured the safety of those who lived in the fortress. In 1393, it was besieged for three months by the Ottoman army, before being captured and burned, marking the fall of the Bulgarian Empire.

The restoration of the Tsarevets fortress began in 1930 and was completed in 1981, the year that marked the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian state. The main entrance to the fortress is from the western side and is protected by four consecutive gates located in as many towers. In its heyday, there was a drawbridge in front of the first gate.

Climbing the hill to the top, you can visit the “Ascension” Patriarchal Cathedral, rebuilt between 1978-1981. The interior is decorated with frescoes and mosaics depicting important moments in the history of the Bulgarian people, made in 1985 by Teofan Sokerov in an extremely modernist style. Because of the painting, which does not respect the traditional patterns, the cathedral was not consecrated.

The patriarchal complex, built on the highest part of the hill, was surrounded almost seven centuries ago by other fortified walls and defense towers and housed the library, administrative offices, the patriarch's quarters and the monks' cells.

Archaeological excavations in recent decades on Tsarevets Hill have revealed the foundations of several hundred residential buildings, including the former royal palace, as well as the foundations of 22 churches and four monasteries.

Tsarevets hill, on which the famous fortress is located, is also known for a macabre detail. In the 13th-14th centuries, traitors were taken to a higher area, nicknamed the Rock of Executions, who were pushed from here and fell hundreds of meters to the Yantra River. Even Patriarch Joachim was executed in this way in 1300 by Tsar Theodore Svetoslav.

The tower where the emperor of Constantinople was imprisoned

An objective with a very interesting story is the Baudouin Tower, located at the end of the Tsarevets fortress. The tower was named after Baudouin, Count of Flanders and Emperor of Constantinople (1204-1205), who was captured by the Ionian Tsar Caloian after the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 and imprisoned here.

According to several historical sources and a letter sent by Baudouin to his brother, his wife Ioniță Caloian fell in love with the illustrious prisoner and visited him several times in secret, proposing that they both escape and go to Flanders. However, Baudouin refused the offer, keeping to his knightly honor, a fact that drew the anger of Ioniță Caloian's wife and hastened his end.

The tower where he spent the last part of his life was restored in 1933, according to a project by the Bulgarian architect Alexander Rashenov. The building still attracts many visitors today, who climb several dozen steep steps to visit it.

In step, between history and illusions

For those who want to move from history to… illusions, then the option is called the Museum of Illusions, housed in a building right in the center of Veliko Tarnovo. The museum has an area of ​​500 square meters and more than 100 optical and physical illusions, from holograms and 3D paintings to an upside-down camera. The overwhelming percentage of visitors are children – who say without hesitation that the Museum of Illusions in Bucharest is much more captivating and interesting than the one in Veliko Târnovo.

And after history and illusions, a walk on the oldest and most beautiful street in Veliko Tarnovo is a charming experience. From the first steps on Gurko Street, named after a Russian general who liberated the city from Turkish rule during the War of Independence in 1877, you feel as if you have stepped back in time. It is undoubtedly the most picturesque, but also the most beaten street by tourists and locals, located only a few hundred meters from the city center. On one side and on the other side of the street you can see hundreds of old and charming houses. Of course, there are exceptions, some of the houses being unkempt and with fallen plaster.

From Gurko Street you can see, on a hill surrounded by the Yantra River, the most important monument in Veliko Târnovo: the Asanesti Monument, which was erected in 1985 to mark the 800th anniversary of the anti-Byzantine revolt of the Peter brothers and Asan. The two created a tsarate which, in the first part of the 13th century, had reached Belgrade and the Adriatic Sea. To get to the monument you have to make a detour of almost a kilometer and cross a bridge. But the monument is really special and worth seeing. Between the equestrian statues of the three brothers is a large sword, a symbol of the medieval power of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria under a microscope

At the foot of the Tsarevets fortress is a truly unique park: Mini Bulgaria, the only park with models of historical and natural monuments in the country south of the Danube. The park was opened in 2017, it has a total of 15 hectares, in a very nicely landscaped area, with no less than 70 models of various well-known sights in Bulgaria on display. Romanian tourists receive in the price of the ticket a guide book in Romanian, a book where all the objectives located in the park are described. The collection of mock-ups was created by a team of over 20 professional architects, designers and artists, and each took between three and six months to complete.

Among the unique sights that you can admire in miniature are Varna Port, Varna Airport, a beach with Golden Sands hotels, Sofia's Independence Square and, of course, the Tsarevets Fortress. In the park there is also a model of an objective of great importance for Romanians: the Castle of Queen Maria from Balcic, meticulously reconstructed on a miniature scale, made of PVC.