Exploring the ancient capital of Bulgaria
Добре дошли в България! That is: dobre doshli v Bŭlgariya! Or if you don’t speak Bulgarian: Welcome to Bulgaria! Due to our late night arrival in Bulgaria yesterday we hadn’t really had the chance to see much of Veliko Tărnovo, our current home away from home, until today. After a full day’s explorations however we can say with confidence: we love this place!
Veliko Tărnovo was once ancient Bulgaria’s capital city and its name translates to “Great City of Kings”. Today it’s a thriving town of 70,000 and one of Bulgaria’s premier university towns with a booming tourism industry. Visitors from around the world come here to see the ruins of Tsarevetsi Fortress and explore some of Bulgaria’s complex history. Due to its strategic importance, Veliko Tărnovo has often been a target for invaders and the focal point of conflicts in the Balkan region; therefore in many ways the history of Veliko Tărnovo is the history of Bulgaria.
We had a walking tour of the town organised for us as part of the Intrepid trip we’re doing and it was great. Our tour guide, Christian, is a local university student who’s currently doing his Masters in IT, whilst working full time and doing tours on the side. It was really interesting getting his perspective on Bulgarian history – both ancient and modern. We learnt, for example, that modern Bulgarians are a mix of ancient Thracians*, Romans and Slavs. These 3 peoples all settled in what is now Bulgaria, and then, in the 7th century, the Bulgar tribes (after whom Bulgaria is named) came across the steppes from Asia and conquered this area. It was under the horse-riding, Asiatic Bulgars that the First Empire of Bulgaria was founded in 681AD. As Christian was talking about this aspect of Bulgaria’s history he seemed so fiercely proud of this mixed heritage; certainly it seems Bulgaria, being at the cross-roads of Eastern Europe and Asia, has been a melting pot for centuries.
*The Thracians lived here around the same time the Dacians lived in Romania and the Celts lived in Northern Europe. They were a tribal people with a reputation as fierce warriors. When the Romans conquered Thracia some of the warriors ended up as gladiators, with Spartacus being the most famous of them all.
The First Bulgarian Empire dominated the Balkans* during the 7th to 11th centuries and functioned as a cultural hub for Slavic peoples during the Middle Ages. During this time Veliko Tărnovo was the most important city in the nation, with Tsarevetsi Fortress as its central defensive fortification. Then, in 1018, the Byzantine Empire crept North and Bulgaria was conquered. Thus ended the First Bulgarian Empire. There’s nothing left of this ancient empire here in Veliko Tărnovo, but standing atop Tsarevetsi Hill this afternoon we could almost imagine how wild this part of the world must have been, when wolves and bears out-numbered people in the forested hills and superstitions reigned supreme.
*We really didn’t know much about Bulgaria until today (and we still don’t know a lot!), but something that has taken us both by surprise is just how Slavic Bulgaria is. They may use the Cyrillic alphabet, but Bulgarian is so much like Czech, Slovak and Polish that we’ve been able to pull out some of the vocab we learnt for Central Europe and apply it here. This is SO a Slavic, Balkan country!
Liberty came some 200 years later when the second Bulgarian Empire emerged as Constantinople was crumbling. Bulgaria was by then an Orthodox Christian state and the strong economic and religious influence of Veliko Tărnovo in the Balkan region led it to be known as the “3rd Rome” (i.e. Rome = 1st Rome, Constantinople = 2nd Rome). During this time Veliko Tărnovo was by all accounts a wealthy and cosmopolitan city, with a great palace on Tsarevetsi Hill and many great houses lining its steep slopes, all the way down to the Yantra River. Unfortunately factional divisions between the feudal landlords caused the Second Bulgarian Empire to split into three kingdoms that fought each other. According to Christian, our guide, it was this in-fighting that left Bulgaria vulnerable to Ottoman conquest. The Second Bulgarian Empire collapsed in 1396 and Bulgaria came under Ottoman rule for nearly five centuries. This Turkish influence is still very evident here – in the music (which has a definite Arab sound to it), in the food and in people’s features too.
The Ottomans conquered all Bulgarian lands south of the Danube River. They eliminated the nobility enserfed the peasantry and caused most of the educated clergy to flee to other countries. Under the Ottoman system, Christians were considered an inferior class of people. Bulgarians, as Christians, were subjected to heavy taxes and their culture was suppressed. Here in Veliko Tărnovo the great fortress on the hill was left to go to ruins and much of the city disintegrated. Little of the medieval architecture survived, though there are ruins everywhere.
Five centuries is a long time and it is understandable that during this time most of the local population gradually lost its distinct national consciousness. However, the clergy remaining in some isolated monasteries kept it alive, and that helped it to survive as in some rural, remote areas. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule with Russian assistance. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 created the Third Bulgarian State, which still exists today. Christian, our guide, described the late 1800s and early 1900s as “Bulgaria’s Renaissance” as this is when Bulgaria was finally free of its Turkish yoke and able to start modernising. It was during these years that the capital of Bulgaria was moved to Sofia and Veliko Tărnovo lost its status as the premier city. Still, mush of the city was rebuilt then and the town’s unique architecture today dates back to the late 19th century.
Unfortunately Bulgaria’s Renaissance didn’t last long with numerous Balkan Wars, WWI, WWII and then 45 years of Communist rule stifling national development again. Modern Bulgaria emerged from under Communism in 1991 and is apparently still struggling to define itself as a modern, democratic, European nation. We can see evidence already of how poor Bulgaria really is, especially compared to most of Europe. Still, people here seem so proud and the streets are clean and things are relatively well maintained. It’s like people may not have much, but what they have they really care about. These are, of course, just our first impressions. We’re here a bout a week so it will be interesting to see how we find the rest of the country and whether our opinions change. So far though, Bulgaria is very cool!