Bulgaria: beauty and history in Veliko Tarnovo

Post 13 of a series detailing our Eastern Europe road trip. View all the posts so far here.

Veliko Tarnovo was my favourite of all the places we went in Bulgaria. It is nicknamed ‘the museum town’ and it’s easy to see why. From its grand medieval fortress to its quaint cobblestone streets – each made more wonderful by the steep-sided, forested river valley in which they sit – everything in Veliko Tarnovo seems custom-designed to be beautiful. But there are pitfalls to places where prettiness overrides practicality, as we soon found out!

A hair-raising arrival

Our hotel, Guest Rooms Harmony, was perched at the top of a steep hill overlooking the city. What the hotel boasts in amazing views, it lacks in accessibility. It is reachable only by a few steep, narrow and uneven roads, and for this reason the hotel sent us an email beforehand detailing a recommended route. Steve chose to ignore this and to use the satellite navigation instead. We regretted this more and more the further we went.

First we were directed up a street filled with people drinking and socialising – not obviously pedestrianised, but clearly not frequented by cars. I cringed as the crowds parted so that we could crawl past. Then we had a face off with another car, in which we had to painstakingly reverse down a hill. Next, we found ourselves on a twisting and extremely narrow road, just about squeezing between tightly packed houses. Finally we were directed through a grassy tunnel between trees that looked like someone’s backyard. As agonising bumps and scraping noises rang from the car floor, I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. I was terrified of the car getting stuck and us becoming stranded (and we thought having the car towed was the worst that could happen!). But eventually we reached the ledge outside the hotel’s entrance, and after an inspection it seemed the car was miraculously unharmed.

Dinner at Han Hadji Nikoli

Once we’d checked in and calmed ourselves down, we walked back down the hill to find dinner. Hadji Nikoli Inn caught my eye due to being housed in a famous old building dating back to 1858 (it also houses a museum and art gallery).

We ate at a wrought-iron table in the restaurant’s lovely stone-walled courtyard. I ordered the trakia chicken, which came straight off the barbecue behind me. It was gloriously tender and flavoursome. Steve had the sea bass, also barbecued in the traditional Bulgarian style and served with a fresh green salad. We really enjoyed the house wine and locally brewed beer, and finished the meal with cheesecake and baklava.

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Down into town

The next day began with breakfast in the hotel’s gorgeous garden. The breakfast was simple, comprising mostly toast and boiled eggs, but the view over the city was incredible. The downhill walk into the city centre was steep but picturesque – I loved seeing how the colourful houses appeared stacked on top of one another.

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Taking the opposite direction to last night, we walked through a newer part of the city with modern shops to the tourist information centre, where we bought a map. We used this to plan out a route for the day: we’d cross over Yantra River to see Sveta Gora park, before crossing back to explore Tsarevets Fortress.

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Across Yantra river

Alexander Stamboliyski bridge is one of the nicest spots in the city, and an absolute must-see. Walking across it, you have a wonderful view of the bright stacked city above (it put me in mind of Lego!), and the verdant river below. On the other side there’s the Monument to the Asen Dynasty (Monument Asenevtsi), a black sculpture depicting horsemen circling a tall spike. Beyond that is Boris Denev State Art Gallery.

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We continued through Sveta Gora Park and climbed a long flight of stairs up the hill in the middle. At the top we found a playground and a lookout point that offered further stunning views across the sunny park to the city’s many orange rooftops.

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Tsavarets Fortress

Returning across another bridge to the city centre, we bought ice creams to sustain ourselves before heading to Tsavarets Fortress. For just a small entry charge, there’s a wealth of things to see.

Within the medieval fortress’s high stone walls lies a large grassy expanse holding archaeological remains, bells, a palace (closed to the public), a guard tower, a church and an auditorium (for the night-time lightshow, which wasn’t on when we visited).

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The guard tower, Baldwin’s Tower, includes set pieces to make it look like it would have done in the past. These include a variety of replica weapons and some stocks. Needless to say, we couldn’t resist having some fun with them!

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A birds-eye view

Next we went to explore the church, the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, perched on a hill within the fortress. While the building’s exterior is a reconstruction of the original 12th-century Eastern Orthodox church, its interior is daubed with modernist frescoes that belie its true construction date in the 1980s.

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We paid a few extra lev to take the lift up to the cathedral’s roof, which is officially the city’s highest point. The view up here is stunning, allowing you to see right across the city to the lush green hills beyond.

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If you don’t fancy taking the lift, the views from the fortress walls are pretty incredible too. Only when we were content we’d seen every inch of the fortress did we give in to the heat and our exhaustion, and head back to the hotel for a rest.

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An afternoon in paradise

Back at Guest House Harmony we ordered drinks and toasted sandwiches to eat beside the pool. We were lucky enough to have both the pool and the sunloungers all to ourselves, and we took full advantage. Having sufficiently filled our bellies and cooled down we went to read in the garden, and later on the roof terrace, taking in the glorious views as the sun went down.

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Dinner at Restaurant Shtastliveca

For dinner that night we went to Restaurant Shtastliveca, which is styled kind of like a luxe granny’s conservatory. I had a lasagne followed by a chocolate lava cake, while Steve had a pork knuckle stew followed by a multi-layered biscuit cake. The food was good, but not spectacular.

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Chimney cake with a view

The following morning we went in search of breakfast in town, but were mostly unsuccessful – it just didn’t seem to be much of a ‘thing’ here, with almost every restaurant we found only opening at lunch. Instead, we bought fresh pastries from a bakery on the way back to our hotel: a banitsa for Steve, and a fresh Hungarian chimney cake (Kürtőskalács) for me. I ate it with a cup of tea in the hotel’s garden, and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to this beautiful city.

We set off in the car (following the hotel’s recommended route this time) toward our next, and final, destination: the port city of Varna.

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2 thoughts on “Bulgaria: beauty and history in Veliko Tarnovo

  1. What a beautiful place and wonderful views! The drive to the hotel must have been so stressful 😓, but the rest sounds relaxing 😊

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