My journey from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo was a bittersweet one. The train ride was supposed to be longish yet smooth. The first part, to the Romanian-Bulgarian border was really fine as I shared the compartment with a fun English-American couple. Time went by really quickly as we were chatting about our travels but actually our train got really delayed and eventually they missed their connection to Varna. That also made me realize that my further journey to Veliko Tarnovo might be in danger as I had to change trains in a small town some 20kms away from my destination. Since my plan for Bulgaria was rather tight I already had visions I will have to skip Veliko Tarnovo, known also as a highlight of Bulgaria and a must place in Bulgaria itinerary. I was checking my possibilities, including a night train to the Black Sea (the biggest advantage of the Interrail tickets is the independence of travels around) but eventually made it to Veliko Tarnovo, even if the train in Gorna Orjahovica had to wait for 50 minutes for me and couple of other people. I thought it’s the end of my worries for the day but I was so wrong. The short ride from Gorna Orjahovica to Veliko Tarnovo was a treat: green hills, spectacular views and me looking outside of the open window, with wind in my hair, trying to take it all in. But as soon as I could see first glimpse of the beautiful town I also could feel a big raindrop on my cheek. Needless to say as soon as I stepped out of the train a massive, torrential rain has started. There was a huge wall of water, the streets were flooding and the whole scenery has changed in just one minute. There were no taxis, no one knew when the next bus to the old town will be, it was getting dark and I was slowly feeling hopeless and super hungry. But then out of nowhere a taxi appeared! Already on the way to the hostel the sky was clearing up, I could see the last rays of sunshine for the day and breath the super fresh, after-rain air. And in the hostel a warm dinner and a glass of beer was waiting for me! My day was saved and I was more than ready to start my day in Veliko Tarnovo!
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Veliko Tarnovo – one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria
I spent the evening preparing for my day in Veliko Tarnovo. Very quickly I found out that I don’t have enough time for everything I’d like to see as the city is just packed with attractions and it’s no surprise it’s the highlight of Bulgaria! Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria, the first settlements there came from 3rd millennium BC! During the Middle Ages the town, known originally as Tarnovgrad, has been the center and the capital of the Bulgarian Empire. Later, over the centuries, it still remained one of the most important places in Bulgaria and until now it has probably the richest history of all the places in the whole country.
Tsarevets Fortress – the best views of Veliko Tarnovo
When I woke up in the morning, more than ready to see everything in my one day in Veliko Tarnovo, the weather was gorgeous, warm and sunny. I started my explorations pretty early hence for most of the time I had the place (almost) to myself. I started with the Tsarevets Fortress, the major landmark of the city as well as its symbol. It occupies hills at the edge of the town, being a silent witness of its history for over 15 centuries! At first I wasn’t sure if I want to explore it, I’ve thought it’s much more interesting to wander around the town. Well, that would have been a huge mistake! The fortress, or rather its ruins, is enormous! Until now there’re remains of around 400 houses, 18 churches, the royal palace and the execution rock. Basically everywhere you walk you’re surrounded by ruins of buildings that were part of the Bulgarian history. On top of the fortress there’s a Church of the Blessed Saviour with a very interesting interior. But the best thing about the place is the view of the city and surrounding mountains. It’s simply breathtaking! And when you think you’ve just seen that Tsarevets Fortress has to offer you go a little bit further or higher and the landscape looks even better and better!
Market area and another amazing view
A walk down the main and really pleasant street took me to the former market quarter – Samovodska Charshiya. The majority of the houses in this part of the city comes from 1880s, when the National Revival architecture was at its best. And while the main street in this quarter is shining with redone facades a little walk in the backstreets will show more real face of the place. The houses are still extremely beautiful, they are just waiting for better times as the renovation is so needed! The lower part is a home to numerous souvenir shops and restaurants but the higher you go (and the better the view is) the more authentic the quarter is and picturing the old times isn’t such a hard thing! And every local person I passed by (ok, there were 3 of them) showed me the way around, pointing to the top from where I could admire the breathtaking area around.
Veliko Tarnovo street art
But the reason why I enjoyed Veliko Tarnovo so much wasn’t the history, incredible views or beautiful architecture. It was the really decent street art scene, something I’d never have thought of there! In such a short time and without really looking for it I’ve found so many great works of Veliko Tarnovo street art! Some were better than others, obviously, but altogether they’ve created a great outdoor gallery. In addition to that there were also few big professional carvings on the buildings, showing the history of the city. Together with smaller works it was just a perfect combination and Veliko Tarnovo street art was one of the most interesting and surprising I’ve ever encountered. I asked the receptionist in the hostel how come it’s such a creative city and well, the answer is very easy. Veliko Tarnovo has a very good art university therefore many students try to leave their work on the walls around the town. There’s even Veliko Tarnovo street art festival!
Delicious Bulgarian food
I slowly walked along the river (another nice area of the city) back to the hostel. It was calm, peaceful and so very pretty I didn’t want to leave! I still have some time so I stopped in the nearby restaurant to have lunch. OK, restaurant might be too big word for that place but the food was really delicious and so cheap! I had my typical Bulgarian combo: tarator – a cold cucumber soup – and shopska salad, nothing too fancy yet I was in heaven, especially that it was my first proper meal in the country. But then I had no more excuses, my day in Veliko Tarnovo was over and I had to get ready to catch a train to my further destination – Sofia!
Surprising day in Veliko Tarnovo
Before my visit to Veliko Tarnovo I wasn’t all that much impressed with the city, judging only from the pictures I found online. Just another pretty Balkans place, I thought. But the city is actually really amazing and it’s so easy to fall for it, with its breathtaking location, beautiful architecture and laid-back, artistic vibe. Looking at the number of souvenir shops I bet it’s a pretty touristy place but when I visited it at the beginning of June, in the random weekday, it was really fine. Those few people, fellow tourists, that I met, were not overwhelming at all and when I wanted to have the place to myself I simply went one street right or left. Even if one day in Veliko Tarnovo might not have been enough to discover it properly I still enjoyed it big time and I think it is the highlight of Bulgaria!
Veliko Tarnovo practical informations:
– getting there: there’re regular bus connections between Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia, the journey takes around 3 hours and costs around 10€. There’s no direct train to Sofia (you need to change in Gorna Orjahovica) but the views along the way are pretty amazing! There’re couple of connections every day. If you’re going from Romania there’s one connection from Bucharest (also with the change). It’s possible to get to Veliko Tarnovo from the Black Sea coast and Plovdic too!
– accommodation: I stayed in Hostel Mostel and it was pretty amazing! Centrally located, clean, with free breakfast and dinner AND beer! You can book your stay there here. If you’re looking for a different place to stay here you can book one of the hotels in Veliko Tarnovo
– eating: since it’s a touristy place there’re couple of restaurants to choose from as well as grocery stores. I ate lunch in a very random and modest place close to Hostel Mostel (few steps up the street), clientele was mostly locals and the food was really good and cheap. Too bad I don’t remember the name but you’ll easily find it for sure!
– the ticket to the fortres costs 6 leva (around 3.50$ / 3€ / 13zł) but it’s really worth it. You can buy it from a random window in the buildings on the left side (when looking at the fortress), few steps away from the main entrance through the gate.
If you think of visiting Bulgaria or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it:
- Sofia, Bulgaria – the city that can be a new Berlin!
- Martenitsa – the spring celebration in Bulgaria
- and more!
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