The only reason why I’ve decided to visit Shumen in the first place was the spectacular Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, located on the hill above the city.
This masterpiece of modernish cubism architecture has enchanted me from the moment I’ve seen pictures of the concrete horse and Transformers-alike soldier and I knew this place is so insane, quirky and crazy that I have to see it!
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Where is Shumen?
Shumen is the mid-size city with around a hundred thousand inhabitants, located in the north-east part of Bulgaria.
The city conveniently lies on the main railway line connecting the capital city Sofia with the main Black Sea harbor – Varna, making visiting Shumen rather easy. From Sofia, you will get here by train in just under 6 hours, from Varna – in 1,5 hours.
Short history of Shumen
The city was first mentioned in the 10th century. Some sources say that its name, Shumen, was given after the great Bulgarian emperor Simeon the Great.
The city was created on the trade route leading to Constantinople and was the last cradle to protect the Ottoman Empire from the Russian Empire.
In the 19th century, Shumen was an important center of the Bulgarian National Revival. This is where the Bulgarian theater performance took place (in 1813), that’s also was the first Bulgarian brewery was opened – “Shumensko pivo”.
Between 1950 and 1965 Shumen was briefly named “Kolarovgrad”, after Vasil Koralov, one of the communist leaders at that time, only to return to its previous name.
Things to do in Shumen, Bulgaria
There are not too many things to do in Shumen but you will be easily entertained for a solid few hours there.
While my main reason to visit Shumen was the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, I was pleasantly surprised that there are actually more Shumen attractions to see. And I was even more surprised that there were no tourists around, not even local ones!
The Shumen Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria
The Shumen Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria is a splendid, magnificent structure, built on the Ilchov Hill above Shumen. You don’t need to worry you won’t find it – it is clearly seen from all over the city and beyond (apparently on the clear day you can see it from some 30 kilometers away).
As the name indicates, the Shumen monument was created to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the creation of the Bulgarian state (the official date is 681 AD). This wasn’t the only structure that was built for this occasion.
Some of you might remember the weird, steel creature spooking in the central park in Sofia, next to the National Palace of Culture. To say it looked weird is a huge understatement – it was out of this world really and it didn’t make any sense.
Sadly, it was demolished so now the only real piece to commemorate the 1300 years of Bulgaria is the monument in Shumen.
The decision to create the monument was made in 1977 but the works started only two years later and were finished in 1981, exactly 1300 years after the Bulgarian state was founded. The grand opening happened on 28th November 1981.
The monument is enormous, with so many details you need to reserve at least an hour to see it properly. It was designed in cubism style – more popular in art than architecture (everyone knows Picasso but how many cubist buildings can you name? You can actually find some good ones in Prague, Czech Republic) and that’s one of the things that make the monument unique.
On eight huge concrete blocks, you can see scenes from Bulgarian history between the 6th and 10th centuries. You will find here rulers of the country, including Simeon the Great, as well as saints (like Clement or Naum of Ohrid), aristocrats or warriors.
Some of the blocks are built at different angles, showing the development of the Bulgarian state. Another example of the development is in the language – you can see first runes (used by Proto-Bulgarians), then Glagolitic script and eventually Cyrillic language.
You can also find here some details from the Bulgarian history, such as the fact that Christianity wasn’t joyfully welcomed (see the sad faces in the second part of the monument) or the golden era of Bulgaria at the time of Simeon the Great’s rule.
Three blocks are covered in the mosaic that apparently is the largest mosaic of that kind in Europe! As if the monument wasn’t impressive enough!
Once you get to the monument you might feel all kinds of emotions – I did.
First, it was utter exhaustion but also the feeling of accomplishment – from the center, you need to walk up 1300 stairs (for 1300 years of the Bulgarian state!) to get to the monument. Let me tell you, that’s a lot, especially for someone who is so badly out of shape like I am. But once I caught my breath I was still speechless – this time because I was so very impressed with the monument.
No words, no pictures can describe how incredible structure it is. You might feel overwhelmed with it, after all the monument is huge but once you start noticing all the details, all the careful carvings made in the concrete you will be sure visiting Shumen and getting to the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria was the right decision.
This is truly one of the more unique things you will see in Bulgaria and Europe.
To get to the monument you can either walk up the 1300 stairs from the center (it’s around 200 meters in the elevation change) or take the taxi for some 10 levas/return (that’s what the lady in the hotel told me, I still chose the hard way to get there).
Apparently there is the entrance fee to the monument but you can get the ticket only when walking through the main gate. When entering the monument from the stairs you are free to explore the site. I wanted to pay for the ticket when leaving the place but the tickets’ window was closed.
Other things to do in Shumen
Once you are done with the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria you might want to see other Shumen attractions.
From the monument, you can walk some 3 kilometers to the remnants of Shumen fortress. Once it was a very well developed citadel, its peak time happened in the 14th century.
After the Battle of Varna in 1444, won by Ottomans, the fortress fell into disrepair. Still, this is a significant place in Bulgarian history and it’s definitely worth to stop by here if you are in the area.
In the Shumen itself, you might like a very pleasant center, with numerous cafes, pedestrian areas, and charming art-nouveau buildings from the beginning of the 20th century (some of them are in a rather poor shape).
In some backstreets, you might find houses in Bulgarian revival style, maybe not as pretty as in Plovdiv or Koprivshtitsa, but still pleasant enough to see them.
Fans of Soviet architecture will be happy to hear that, besides the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, there are a few other remnants of recent times, including unfinished Shumen Central City Square complex.
In Shumen, you can also see one of the few remaining mosques in Bulgaria – Tombul Mosque. It was built between 1740 and 1744, back when this area was under Ottoman rule, and currently, this is the largest mosque in Bulgaria and one of the largest in the Balkans. Sadly, when I arrived at the mosque it was closed but apparently inside you can see some beautiful paintings.
Overall, Shumen might not be the most beautiful place in Bulgaria and it can not compete with Veliko Tarnovo, Plovdiv or Ruse. But sometimes it’s not only about monuments and Shumen is nice enough to spend here a nice and relaxing day (minus 1300 stairs, that was not relaxing at all).
While you are in Shumen you might want to visit another important place – Madara Rider, enlisted on UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 as a great example of early Bulgarian art.
The medieval rock relief from the 7th or 8th century is carved on the Madara Plateau, less than 20 kilometers from the city. It shows the rider on the horse, thrusting a spear into the lion, with a dog running behind the horse.
In the pool on the design of future Bulgarian Euro coins, Madara Rider won with over 25% votes. Now you can see it on the obverse of 1 to 50 stotinki coins issued in 1999 and 2000.
I was hoping to visit Madara Rider when I was in Shumen but sadly the schedules didn’t work in my favor, I would have been stuck in Madara for some 4 hours and would have missed my bus to Veliko Tarnovo.
I can recommend going there only if you are traveling by car as otherwise, it’s a bit too much of the hassle to get there. I left visiting Madara Rider for the next time, as I’m sure there will be next time!
Is it worth to visit Shumen?
While for me Shumen, and especially the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, was an exceptional place I can imagine this is not the city for everyone. Bulgaria has much better attractions than Shumen.
But if you are in the area don’t miss the place. I don’t think you can see any quirkier monument than this one (I mean cubist concrete!), this is really one of a kind place!
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