VELIKO TARNOVO: CITY OF A THOUSAND VISTAS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

One of Bulgaria's it-places

veliko tarnovo 5.jpg

Each country has a handful of it-places. They are instantly recognisable from millions of fridge magnets and Instagram posts, and their history, with its tragedies and triumphs, is part of the national consciousness.

Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria's it-places. Clinging to the slopes above a series of meanders of the River Yantra, it still has echoes of the splendid medieval capital that witnessed this nation's glory and its halcyon days before it fell to the Ottomans. The traditional houses that climb the city hills are a reminder of the times when Tarnovo was a centre of rising Bulgarian national consciousness, and are as picturesque as they are impractical to live in. After Bulgaria regained its statehood, in 1878, Tarnovo blended the symbolical and the historical, and became the setting for two major events. In 1879, the first Bulgarian parliament met there and adopted the first Bulgarian Constitution, known affectionately to this day as the Tarnovo Constitution. Significantly, all but two of Bulgaria's Grand National Assemblies, whose powers exceeded those of regular Bulgarian parliaments as they were supposed to make constitutional amendments, met at Tarnovo, including the most recent one, in 1990. In 1908, Bulgaria's full independence from its former suzerain, the Ottoman Empire, was declared in Tarnovo.

Veliko Tarnovo is not all about history, national pride and quaint architecture. It teems with the students of one of Bulgaria's oldest universities. Before the Covid-19 pandemic anyway, it was always busy with tourists. During the optimistic part of the 2000s (do you remember those times?), expats from the UK, Ireland and elsewhere settled in the city and the nearby villages.

The 1980s monument dedicated to the kings of the Asen dynasty adorns a Yantra meander. A landmark in itself, it is a beloved spot for artists and wedding photos

The 1980s monument dedicated to the kings of the Asen dynasty adorns a Yantra meander. A landmark in itself, it is a beloved spot for artists and wedding photos

The melding of revered Bulgarian history and modern events in Tarnovo is not without conflict. The medieval fortifications and churches on the Tsarevets and Trapezitsa hills that are now seen as the epitome of national glory were largely built in the 1980s (in the case for the former) and the 2000s (in the case for the latter) to inspire patriotism and to provide photo opportunities. The ring of medieval churches at the foot of Tsarevets hill was, for the most part, newly reconstructed after damage caused by the Ottomans and, in 1913, by a powerful earthquake. The most questionable additions to "patriotic tourism" in Veliko Tarnovo are the most recent ones: a multimedia visitor centre peopled by wax figures of Bulgarian kings and queens, and an amazingly silly Mini Bulgaria theme park right at the foot of Tsarevets.

The Revival Period part of the city that spreads over the hill opposite Tsarevets and Trapezitsa is more authentic. Its whitewashed houses, which inspired Le Corbusier during his 1911 trip to the Balkans, are reminders of the days when Tarnovo was a major economic and cultural centre, and an inspiration for nationalist sentiment. The post-1878 European-style houses and the public buildings among them add another layer to this ever changing city, where history and tradition may have been destroyed and rebuilt, but rarely vanished completely. In those days Tarnovo did not necessarily look to its past, but strove to belong to the wider world.

In 1911, Tarnovo houses stunned Le Corbusier. "What an incredible city," the architect wrote. "Thousands of houses balancing on the edge of vertical cliffs, rising one above the other, reaching up to the top of the ridge. Their walls are white, their skeleton is black and their roof is like tree bark. Seen from a distance, the monotonous layering of the houses makes space for several large white spots, which are the churches"

In 1911, Tarnovo houses stunned Le Corbusier. "What an incredible city," the architect wrote. "Thousands of houses balancing on the edge of vertical cliffs, rising one above the other, reaching up to the top of the ridge. Their walls are white, their skeleton is black and their roof is like tree bark. Seen from a distance, the monotonous layering of the houses makes space for several large white spots, which are the churches"

This is now under threat. While over-construction undermines the integrity of Tarnovo's medieval core, the Revival Period and late 19th century part of the city suffers from neglect. Tired of climbing up and down the steep alleyways in the old centre, many residents have opted for more convenient homes in the flatter, newer part of the city. Targeting tourists, many old houses were restored and made into hotels, B&Bs and restaurants, yet way too many others are in different stages of abandonment and dereliction, slowly crumbling into nothing. When they collapse, they are replaced by unnatural amalgamations combining respect for traditional architecture with a love of plastic double-glazed windows.

Hopefully, Veliko Tarnovo will survive the carnage of misplaced modernity. After all, as one of Bulgaria's it-places it has seen worse in its centuries-old history. 

After the Ottomans took Tarnovo, in 1393, they settled over the ruins of Tsarevets Hill. Bulgarians had to move house to the steep hill nearby. In the 19th century they erected some beautiful churches, such as Ss Constantine and Helena, built in 1872 by famed master builder Kolyu Ficheto

After the Ottomans took Tarnovo, in 1393, they settled over the ruins of Tsarevets Hill. Bulgarians had to move house to the steep hill nearby. In the 19th century they erected some beautiful churches, such as Ss Constantine and Helena, built in 1872 by famed master builder Kolyu Ficheto

Brothers Asen and Petar started their rebellion against the Byzantines in St Dimitar of Thessaloniki Church, in 1185, and effectively restored the Bulgarian state after two centuries of Byzantine domination. The current building is a masterful reconstruction from the 1970s. The Ss 40 Martyrs Church by the bridge was less lucky. Built in 1230, it was used as burial ground of Bulgarian kings, but when the Ottomans invaded, they converted it to a mosque. Then an earthquake damaged it severely. By the 1970s the church was on the verge of collapse. When it was finally restored, in the 2000s, the result was an aesthetic compromise. Both  St Dimitar and Ss 40 Martyrs are now museums

Brothers Asen and Petar started their rebellion against the Byzantines in St Dimitar of Thessaloniki Church, in 1185, and effectively restored the Bulgarian state after two centuries of Byzantine domination. The current building is a masterful reconstruction from the 1970s. The Ss 40 Martyrs Church by the bridge was less lucky. Built in 1230, it was used as burial ground of Bulgarian kings, but when the Ottomans invaded, they converted it to a mosque. Then an earthquake damaged it severely. By the 1970s the church was on the verge of collapse. When it was finally restored, in the 2000s, the result was an aesthetic compromise. Both St Dimitar and Ss 40 Martyrs are now museums

The so-called Baldwin Tower has the grim fame of being the prison of Baldwin I of Flanders, the first Westerner to rule in Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade took over Byzantium, in 1204. He ended up in Tarnovo after he lost a battle to Bulgarian King Kaloyan, in 1205. For some reason (sources disagree), the crusader enraged the Bulgarian to such an extent that he was maimed and thrown alive from the tower. He survived the fall and suffered for days before dying.  The Baldwin Tower you see today is not genuine. It was built in the 1930s after the design of another Medieval tower – in Cherven Fortress, near Ruse

The so-called Baldwin Tower has the grim fame of being the prison of Baldwin I of Flanders, the first Westerner to rule in Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade took over Byzantium, in 1204. He ended up in Tarnovo after he lost a battle to Bulgarian King Kaloyan, in 1205. For some reason (sources disagree), the crusader enraged the Bulgarian to such an extent that he was maimed and thrown alive from the tower. He survived the fall and suffered for days before dying. The Baldwin Tower you see today is not genuine. It was built in the 1930s after the design of another Medieval tower – in Cherven Fortress, near Ruse

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