Veliko Târnovo, the Old City of Tsars – Part 1

Veliko Tarnovo at dusk (5)

As the steep, rocky valley of the Yantra River opens up, one can hardly guess what to expect from the narrow, apparently unwelcoming terrain. Shades of brick-red, vanilla-cream, ebony and ivory, greet us on each side of these winding, steep streets, carefully arranged like spectators in a theater hall, as if attending a secret show only they know about, one that we would soon discover on our own. Perched over the craggy valley, medieval houses lay stacked one on top of the other, each playing an important role, like a game of dominoes – take one piece out and the empire collapses.

To the south of the blue Danube, in central-northern Bulgaria, the picturesque city of Veliko Târnovo would take pages after pages to describe. Still, I’ll do my best and try to be as short as possible, hopefully stirring your curiosity and encourage you to visit this unique medieval town by yourselves, because honestly, pictures do not do it justice.

The setting of the major turning points in Bulgarian history, Veliko Târnovo has been continuously inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC, which makes it one of the oldest European settlements. It saw battles for independence and the rise and fall of dynasties and empires. Abounding in medieval charm and fairy tale flavors, it is simply timeless.

Veliko Tarnovo at dusk (8)

Târnovo – the third Rome and second Constantinople

It is the year of our Lord 1185. In the Hemus Mountains, noble brothers Peter and Assen chose the strategic and well-defended city of Târnovo as the center point of their uprising against the Byzantine Empire. No longer acknowledging its rule over the north Bulgarian lands, the rebellion soon spread throughout the Balkans. After two years of battles and sieges, the peace treaty recognizing the two brothers’ reign over the region was finally signed. It was the birth of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and Târnovo was its capital. Assen became tsar, laying the foundations of the powerful dynasty that would rule the realm for the next 200 years.

The capital bloomed under the Bulgarian tsars’ rule, who built a citadel worthy of an empire, dominating the Balkans, the second most important city in the region after Constantinople. Contemporary Byzantine chronicler Nikita Honiat referred to Târnovo as “the most impenetrable and most beautiful town along the Hemus” (“Hemus” was the Greek name given to the Balkans in the Middle Ages). Constantinople, dubbed the “Second Rome,” was already in decline and Târnovo soon became known as the “Third Rome” and the “New Constantinople.”

Veliko Tarnovo at dusk

Built over three hills – Tsarevet, Trapezita, and Sveta Gora, the citadel had much to brag about – a fabulous royal palace, a large patriarchy, 21 Orthodox churches, each representing the center of a small community, and Assenova Mahala, the fortified outer city, home to craftsmen and foreign traders. A citadel of kings, princes, and scholars, not even the great Byzantine emperors could help but bow down to its glory. Unconquerable between the 12th and 14th centuries, it was during this time that Târnovo became an important cultural center in the Balkans, attracting scholars and chroniclers from all corners of the world.

Veliko Tarnovo at dusk (2)

Unfortunately, history teaches us that such rapidly ascending empires often face a violent and quick ending. During the Ottoman invasions in 1393, the impenetrable walls of the glorious citadel and patriarchy yielded in front of the Turks. The Bulgarian capital was sacked and burnt to the ground, marking the fall of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Five centuries of stagnation followed. It was only when the Ottoman Empire’s power was beginning to wobble that the Bulgarians’ sense of national pride won the country its liberation in 1877. Târnovo was restored to its former glory, becoming the capital of the newly formed state. Two years later, it ceded the title to Sofia. In 1965, “veliko” was added to the original name of the city. Târnovo is believed to come from the Slavic word trun, meaning “thorn,” while veliko means “great” in Bulgarian.

To be continued…



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