Veliko Tarnovo and the environs are a historic townscape and landscape of past glory.
The magic charm and majestic grandeur of this city have been spared the ravages of time. Some cities are shadows of bygone days.
Other cities are a last word in modernity. And there are cities that are both.
Each period of history has left a generous gift in Tarnovo and people added to the generosity of nature the best In 1185 the brothers Assen and Peter proclaimed the sovereignty of the Bulgarian state again at the consecration of the Church of St. Demetrius.
For some 250 years Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom and its political, state, military, religious and cultural centre.
Centuries after the conquest of Bulgaria by the Turks it was a sign of majesty and power and a ray of hope in the minds of the Bulgarians.
So it was the birthplace of many skilled craftsmen like Roussi the Industry who was an absolute authority on leather. He won a gold medal at the Leipzig Fair for a unique manual technology and was offered a contract for 100,000 leather items for which he would have needed 5000 years.
Other eminent Tarnovo-born men were Dr. Marko Pavlov, the private doctor of Ney, a general in Napoleon’s army, who, on his return, opened the first pharmacy in Bulgaria. Stefan Stambolov, Bulgaria’s most illustrious post-Liberation politician.
Little wonder that the foundation stone of the new Bulgarian statehood was laid in Tarnovo after almost five centuries of bondage, where the National Assembly, which passed the Constitution, sat. Till the First Balkan War in 1912 all important state ceremonies were in Tarnovo.
The local dialect was singled out as the Bulgarian literary language for it was considered to be the most standard one. It is like a huge kaleidoscopic vision of clusters of overhanging houses perching on the rocky river bank.
The river mirrors the fantastic picture of two cities: one stretching upwards and one floating. The beauty and inaccessibility are still there: the trapezeshaped insular rocky terraces, grey lifeless and bald steeps and the whimsical silvery meandering riverYantra amidst this maze of nature-chiselled fortresses.
The landscape and townscape produce the irresistible impression of a dream, vision or optical illusion.
To quote a great Bulgarian poet, Pencho Slaveikov (1866- 1912), “Tarnovo is the arrested longing of God”. Veliko Tarnovo is more than just a beautiful city surrounded by a magnificent scenery. It is a city that is destined to survive. This city takes time and patience is rewarded.
The storm-proof Tsarevets 12 m high and 13 m thick. The basic fortress elements determining its silhouette have been restored today. Tsarevets was the citadel, what the Acropolis was for Athens or the Palatine Hill for Rome.
The royal palace was an irregular ellipse on 4872 square metres, with a majestic throne chamber 32 metres long and 15 metres wide, and a perfect row of columns brought probably from the Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum. The floor was covered with tiles, the walls, with paintings and mosaics (mosaic cubes in 35 colours have been found in Tarnovo whereas the famous Byzantine mosaics have just 25 colours), with pink marble, green serpentine and Egyptian porphyry ornaments.
Bald-win’s Tower in the hill’s south-eastern part commemorates the vic- tory of the Bulgarian tsar Kaloyan over the knights of the Fourth The Patriarch’s seat next to the palace was likewise a fortress on 3000 square metres.
And the belfry of the Church of the Ascension (Vuznesenie) that dominated the townscape is unique in architecture in South East Europe. Baldwin’s Tower (the guide will tell you the story) is the most romantic feature of the fortress. From the 12th to 14th c. Sveta Gora Hill was the country’s spiritual and cultural centre. The Tarnovo school of literature and painting gave the world the Manasses Chronicle and theTetraevangelia of tsar Ivan Alexander.
Its traditions had a significant and lasting influence on the whole of south-eastern Europe. Trapezitsa Hill rises on the opposite bank of the river Yantra. Re-mains of fortress walls, embrasures, towers and fortified gates have been discovered here. The hill housed the residences of boyars and some public buildings, churches above all.The homes of the urban population were located at the foot of the two hills, out- side the fortress walls and near the river. Several mediaeval churches dating from the time of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom have been preserved in the Assenev quarter.
The Church of St. Demetrius of Salonika has a sculptured and picturesque exterior with brick decorations. Besides being the city’s oldest church, it is also one of the earliest examples of the Turn- ovo school of architecture and painting. It was here that the boyar brothers Assen and Peter declared the uprising for Bulgaria’s liberation from Byzantine domination in 1185.
The church has been reconstructed and the murals have been conserved. The Church of the Holy 40 Martyrs was built in honour of tsar Assen II who defeated the feudal lordTheodore Comnenus in 1230. The church keeps the oldest Biblical calendar in the Eastern Or- thodox world, along with the in-built columns of khan Omourtag and of tsar Ivan Assen II – two of the few surviving written monuments of Bulgarian mediaeval history.
The Church of SS. Peter and Paul church, also with a striking brick-decorated facade, was built during the second half of the 13th century, and painted during the 14th, 16th and 17th centuries. The murals depicting Biblical scenes, carry the clear mark of the Tarnovo school of painting – one in the most impressive schools in the Eastern Orthodox world, for the quests for the portrait and psychological individuality of the figures.
Besides being a mediaeval capital, Tarnovo was also a National Revival city. Its 18th-19th century houses seem to grow out of the steep slopes flanking the river and crowning them with their gables and overhanging eaves. Gurko Street provides a fine example of an architectural ensemble.
The genius of the self- taught Bulgarian architect Kolyo Ficheto is put into Revival-period Tarnovo. All the Revival-period buildings and churches that are worth visiting are his works. He was an authority and his art was universally recognized. He was known far and wide and approached with plenty of offers.
Once he was urgently summoned to Bucharest where the apse of a big church had cracked. He walked around the church and said: “Fetch two barrels of water and pour it here, at the foundation”. And the walls shrank, like the petals of a flower. Ficheto flanked the main entrance of the Church of SS Constan- tine and Hellen with two queer rotating columns to indicate the steadiness of the frame. If they come to a standstill, it shows that the building has been displaced. But the columns still rotate…