When visitors head to Bulgaria's southwest, their prime place of interest is Melnik, the picturesque traditional town located among surreal sand pyramids and famed for its red wine. Near the town, however, one of Bulgaria's most fascinating monasteries, a delightful example of 16th-18th century religious art and architecture, sits hidden in the hills.
As a city that remembers its glorious past as one of Bulgaria's mediaeval capitals, and its importance in the 19th century as the nascent Bulgarian nation struggled for independence and recognition, Veliko Tarnovo has a collection of churches that have witnessed or played a part in many historic events.
Folk memory moves in mysterious ways. One of the best examples is Krali Marko, the legendary hero venerated for centuries throughout the Balkans as the mighty man who protected lands and people from the Ottoman invasion. For centuries, legends and epic songs were told and sung; they spread, transformed and became more and more elaborate, telling the story of the larger-than-life Krali Marko. The owner of a wondrous spotted horse, he encountered fairies, braved invaders and traitors, participated in heroic competitions, and freed thousands of enslaved men and women. It is hardly a surprise, then, that a number of locations in modern Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia bear his name.
Mediaeval faces gaze from the walls of churches hewn into steep rocks: a Transfiguration here, a Last Supper there. No, this encounter of past and present is not taking place in faraway Cappadocia of worldwide renown for its odd rock chapels, but here in Bulgaria. About 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they composed one monastic complex. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Surprising for a country that is proud of its 1,300-year history, just a few tombs of its grand kings have been identified with certainty.
Bulgaria has not changed its name since its founding in 681, as if the 200-year Byzantine and the 500-year Ottoman rule never happened, but the list of the preserved and known graves of its rulers makes for an extremely short paragraph in its long history.
Bulgaria was born, according to the most commonly accepted theory, in 681 when, after a humiliating defeat, the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV signed a peace treaty with Khan Asparuh, the man who had led the proto-Bulgarians south of the Danube. What happened next is still a keenly debated part of early Bulgarian history, but one thing is certain: the first centuries of Bulgaria's existence were turbulent.