There are a lot of magical towns in Bulgaria and one of them is the Old Bulgarian capital, Veliko Tarnovo. Whenever I travel to this town, it keeps surprising me because every time it shows a different face from among the unique artefacts from its ancient past. Every time I write about this town, its annual cultural calendar, which includes more than 1000 events, is supplemented by new archaeological discoveries and colourful festivals adding to its modern rhythm. Whenever I reach the Architectural and Museum Reserve ‘Tsarevets’ – one of the most visited sites in Bulgaria – I can hear foreign speech more than often as the place is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists from Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Austria, Romania, Japan, China etc.
The amazing Tsarevgrad Tarnov (“city of the Tsars”), as it has been called in mediaeval times, is one of the most picturesque and visited towns in Eastern Europe. Its unique location along the meandering Yantra River, in which the old houses of the town have cast their reflections for centuries, captivates both professional and amateur photographers who keep taking photos of the incredible architectural monuments of the National Revival for hours. ‘I have never seen a town that is more romantically located than Tarnovo’, one traveller wrote in his diary in 1837, telling enthusiastically about the unique location, nature and beauty of the Old Bulgarian capital.
Veliko Tarnovo attracts an ever-growing number of Bulgarian and foreign tourists from all over the world with its centuries-old cultural and historical heritage. Situated at the foot of the Stara Planina Mountain (the Balkan), on the historical hills of Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora, Veliko Tarnovo combines an age-old ‘extravagance’ of unique history, incredible architectural style and awesome nature. Newcomers are attracted first by the local legends, the calm waters of the river and the original architecture before they get to know the town past and its importance for Bulgarian history. Soon they come under the spell of the monasteries, the other cultural attractions and the romantic atmosphere of Veliko Tarnovo. And when they choose to come back, they discover the festivals, museums, crafts and hospitality of the aristocratic town, its culinary specialities and good wine.
Having been recognised as the Balkan capital of cultural tourism, Veliko Tarnovo stirs the imagination of the people who come here to touch the stones of its fortresses, palaces and churches. The tourists become involved in the numerous cultural events and historical re-enactments telling the story of old times when the town had been an undeniable spiritual, political and economic centre of the mediaeval Bulgarian state. It was not accidentally called ‘the third Rome’ and ‘the second Constantinople’, and considered as one of the most powerful towns, in terms of territory and population, in South-Eastern Europe in the 12th – 14th century. Old chronicles tell about its brisk trade relations with the Republics of Genoa, Venice, Dubrovnik and others.
In 1985, the unique audio-visual show ‘Sound and Light’ was staged under the night sky of Tsarevets for the first time in Bulgaria and it has been showcasing the dramatic Bulgarian history ever since. Most of the tourists are Europeans who discover the past of the town in the mediaeval museum-churches of St. 40 Martyrs, St. Demetrius, St. George and St. St. Peter and Paul and in the St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel church (in Arbanassi), in the National Revival and Constituent Assembly Museum, the Regional Museum of History, the Tsarevgrad Tarnov Multimedia Visitor Centre and in the unique Nicopolis ad Istrum Archaeological Reserve near Veliko Tarnovo. Among the foreign tourists’ favourite sites is the famous Samovodska Charshia (market), where popular masters present old Bulgarian crafts and demonstrate their skills.
Cultural and festival tourism is Veliko Tarnovo’s forte. One of the most visited events during the year is the ‘Stage of the Ages’ Summer Season of Bulgarian Opera Theatres, which turns the Tsarevets fortress into an open-air stage of opera, operetta, musical and ballet performances for two months. An ever-growing number of foreign tourists visit also the International Folklore Festival, the Military Bands Festival, the Dixie Jazz Fest, the old and new town museums, the Arbanassi Summer Music Festival of classical chamber music, held in the nearby architectural reserve of Arbanassi.
Since 2011, the traditional Night at the Samovodska Charshia, as well as the Festival of Handicrafts have been among the autumn highlights. They attract the citizens and guests of Veliko Tarnovo with their varied art programme, displays of creativity, dances and good mood. The town which bears the imprint of the grand master of Bulgarian architecture, Kolyo Ficheto, now lures visitors with the historical fortress of Trapezitsa, accessible by the longest and the most inclined cogwheel railway ever built in Bulgaria. The only specialised cultural tourism forum in Bulgaria, the International Cultural Tourism Exhibition, was established here 15 years ago, gathering representatives of the tourism business from Europe and the Balkans every April.
There really are many magical towns in Bulgaria and Veliko Tarnovo is one of them. A town worth another glimpse. A town to dream about, where you can put the beautiful picture in a new frame with each visit, adding to your treasure trove of memories. Because life is a road and the road to Veliko Tarnovo is an experience for life.