Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital

(continuer en français) – Published: April 3, 2022

There was a time when the Bulgarian empires stretched from the Black Sea to the Adriatic Sea, limited to the north by the Danube and to the south by the Byzantine Empire, the other regional power. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the first Bulgarian monarchies.

In 1393, the Ottomans took over Veliko Tarnovo, and remained there until 1878. During this period of Ottoman rule, the city lost its national prominence and fell into a sort of anonymity.

The fortress

The site of Mount Tzarevest seems to have been made for the construction of a fortress. Its steep slopes plunging into the meandering Yantra River already form a natural protection. Gradually fortified from the end of the 12th century and for two centuries, the royal city became a major stronghold.

Today it is possible to walk along the partly reconstructed walls. Only the base of the walls of most of the other buildings remain, as few have been reconstructed.

Architectural details

Centuries of neglect have not favoured the preservation of the architectural finesse of the ancient capital. However, as archaeological research continues, some sculptures are reappearing, leaving it to the imagination to recreate the whole.

The Church of the Forty Martyrs

Located at the foot of the fortress, on the bank of the Yantra River, the church is closely associated with the ancient kings whose burial place it often was. Other great figures were buried here to form a proper national pantheon.

Founded in the 9th century, the church was surrounded by a monastery under royal protection. During the Ottoman period, a mosque was established here.

National site

As with other Bulgarian historical sites, the international reputation of Veliko Tarnovo is small compared to the significance of the city for the population. It takes a close interest in the country for these sites to begin to arouse the curiosity of the traveller. Traditionally Bulgaria marketed its large seaside resorts on the Black Sea or some ski resorts in the Balkans.

In the national sites, it is easier to see groups of schoolchildren on a school trip than tourists from other countries. The handicrafts are probably more authentic there and less competing with imported souvenirs.

The contemporary city

After the liberation of the Ottoman Empire in 1878, the first national assembly met in Veliko Tarnovo, perhaps as a historical reflex. But later Sofia was chosen as the new capital. The rugged terrain was less suitable for the expansion of a modern city.

The city continued to grow, however, being home to a university and specialised industry. The houses continue to be built on the slopes as in the past, with some neighbourhoods evolving only slowly.

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  1. I love the walls but the whole place looks interesting. I don’t tend to think of Bulgaria but I’m almost over a 1985 holiday to Sunny Beach so you’ve convinced me to give it another chance!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure many people would know all the old capitals, we can hardly remember the current ones. But it’s fun to discover a lot of history behind the walls of an old city. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is certainly an interesting city to visit in many ways. Its place in Bulgarian history, the quality of its ruins and old houses, the quiet life of the middle-sized town. With many photo opportunities that are a treat.


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