In part two of our Veliko Târnovo mini-series, we dig deeper into the medieval city’s history and visit its iconic symbol, the Palace of the Tsars, standing tall over the rocky valley and dominating the ivory and ebony Old Town.
If you like, you can read part one of Veliko Târnovo, the Old City of Tsars here.
The symbol of Veliko Târnovo, the former seat of the medieval Bulgarian tsars, strategically perched high above the winding valley and over the old terracotta-tiled roofs, Tsarevets is a natural fortress, surrounded by the Yantra River on three sides.
Archaeological excavations on Tsarevets Hill revealed signs of civilization that date back as far as the Bronze Age, approximately 13th century BC, when the Thracians dwelt on these cliffs. In the 1st century AD, when these lands entered Roman occupation, a small fortification was built on the hilltop, which was later extended into a Byzantine fortress in the 4th century AD. But it was during the Second Bulgarian Empire that the citadel flourished, becoming the residence of tsars, patriarchs, and scholars.
Enclosed by 3.4-meter thick (11 feet) walls, up to 11 meters (36 feet) tall, the medieval fortress was more than capable to withstand attacks. Three successive gates and just as many layers of defensive walls and battlements successfully repelled barbarian invasions for more than two centuries.
One day is hardly enough to visit Tsarevets, the Palace of the Tsars. Upon passing through the three entrance gates, visitors can follow the winding paths along the main attractions in complete freedom. There are no guides, no restrictions, and no limit to how much time you spend here, so try to make the most of it and enjoy this freedom.
The highest point of Tsarevet Hill was chosen as the setting of the patriarchy in order to remind of religion’s power over the land. The complex by itself was once surrounded by defensive walls. Nowadays, the restored Great Patriarch’s Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, with its high pointy tower, guards over the valley.
Slightly down from here lies Baldwin’s Tower, where Latin Emperor Baldwin I was imprisoned in 1205 by Tsar Kaloyan. Legend has it the emperor was treated well at first, but after he tried to seduce the tsar’s wife, he stirred Kaloyan’s wrath who killed him in an outburst of rage. Other stories say that Kaloyan enjoyed drinking wine from Baldwin’s skull. Nowadays, the restored tower offers wonderful views of partially restored medieval Trapezista fortress across the valley.
The Royal Palace, now in ruins, was the residence of 22 consecutive Bulgarian tsars. Execution Rock, at the northern end of the fortress, was the place where traitors were pushed over the cliffs into the Yantra River underneath.
So far, excavations revealed the ruins of more than 400 houses and 18 churches within Tsarevets’ walls, and the unearthing continues.
Tsarevets Sound & Light Show
Lights, medieval music, and church bells put on a dramatic show that revives the spirit of the Second Bulgarian Empire and highlights the citadel’s key historical events. Lasers and multicolored lights envelop the fortress after dark, taking us far back in time to the Thracians and Slavs, the Roman and Byzantine invasions, the rise and fall of the Second Bulgarian Empire, all the way to the Russo-Turkish War and the country’s rise to independence.
The show is free on public holidays, while in most weekends and summer nights it is ordered by groups and VIPs. Best place to watch is from the terrace opposite to the entrance to the citadel. Don’t worry if you didn’t make reservations and don’t have a ticket. You can still watch the performance from the cobbled square in front of Tsarevets, or from the winding streets overlooking the fortress.
Check with the Tourist Information Center (ul. Hristo Botev 5) in the main square in central Veliko Târnovo, near the Post Office, for show dates and tickets.
To be continued…