Four kilometres north of Turnovo, high in the crags above the main E85 road to Ruse, sits Preobrazhenski Monastery, die monastery of the Transfiguration (daily dawn-dusk).
Founded in 1360 by Ivan Aleksandur s Jewish wife who converted to Christianity, the monastery was abandoned during the Ottoman period, then refounded in the 1820s by Turnovo guilds, who had to bribe the city’s Greek bishop to get a Bulgarian abbot installed here.
Dimitur Sofyaliyata was commisssioned as architect, but after being implicated in Velcho’s Plot of 1835 and hanged from the monastery gate, he was replaced by master-builder Kolyo Ficheto. Zahari Zograf was brought in to do the frescoes, until he discov- ered that the monks were strict vegetarians and refused to work unless he was given meat.
The monks relented, issuing him a contract which euphemistically promised the artist food “suited to his delicate stomach”. Finished in the 1860s, the monastery almost looks old enough to be medieval, w ith’a canopy of vines strung between the spartan cells.
However Ficheto’s elegantly proportioned, enclosed courtyard is sadly no more. Over the last decade repeated rock falls from the cliffs above have destroyed many of the monastery buildings (with more being demolished for safety reasons), although the central Transfiguration church still stands. Its south wall bears a remark- able painting of the Wheel of Life by Zograf, in which the stages of human existence correspond with allegorical representations of the four seasons.
Rose and green-hued frescoes predominate in the porch, with an eye in a circle (traditional symbol of the Holy Ghost) being a recurrent motif, and evil-doers being thrust across a river of fire and strangled by demons in the Last Judgement.
The upper naos (formerly reserved for married women) contains the obligatory homage to Russia’s warrior saints, Gleb and Boris, while the lower naos (where the men prayed) has saints surrounding Christ beneath the dome and submissive dragons flanking its crucifix.
Getting to the monastery is relatively easy: regular buses from Veliko Turnovo to Gorna Oryahovitsa pass by the turn-off, 4km north of town, from where a minor road zigzags 3km uphill through a lime forest.