Following my visit to Romania, I took a bus south from Bucharest to the city of Veliko Turnovo in Bulgaria, which was the former capital of the Second Bulgarian empire. I found Bulgaria to be one of the more challenging countries during the European leg of my trip, as English was not widely spoken and the Bulgarian language uses Cyrillic characters rather than Latin ones (making signs much more difficult to decipher). On the plus side, I encountered far fewer tourists here than in most other countries during my travels, which lent Bulgaria a more authentic feel.
Veliko Turnovo is a relatively small city that can be easily traversed on foot. The primary attraction is undoubtedly the remains of the Tsaravets fortress, which served as the main stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire until its defeat by the Ottomans in the 14th century. When the Ottomans captured Bulgaria, they ransacked and burned the fortress, although since then it has been partially reconstructed. Tsaravets fortress occupies an imposing location on the top of a hill, and is positively massive. Among other things, it contains the remains of more than 400 houses, a dozen churches, a royal palace, and more. Today most of these lie in ruins, but it still very interesting to wander among them for an hour or two and imagine how the fortress must have looked in all its glory. At the opposite end of the entrance lies Execution Rock, where people convicted as traitors were pushed off the ledge, falling to their deaths into the river far below. At nighttime, you can often see Tsaravets fortress lit up in multi-colored lights from all over town. It is a beautiful spectacle to witness during evenings when the light show is going on.
From Veliko Turnovo, I ventured further south to Plovdiv, which is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in Europe at nearly 8000 years. Plovdiv was also an important part of the Roman empire, and you can still see evidence of the Roman occupation from several monuments throughout town, such as the Roman theatre and the hippodrome. The Roman theatre is still used to hold performances today, and the hippodrome, while enormous, lies mostly underground, as that area of the city had already been developed before it was discovered. There is also a Roman forum, although that is still undergoing heavy excavations, so there is not much to see of the forum quite yet.
Aside from visiting the Roman ruins, Plovdiv is simply great fun to wander around. A large part of the city is closed off to cars, which gives the town an authentic old feel. If you want to get out of town for a bit, a great half-day trip is a visit to the Bachkovo monastery, which is about a 30 minute bus ride from Plovdiv. The Bachkovo monastery is one of the oldest Orthodox monasteries in Europe. Inside the monastery are well-preserved frescoes that date back hundreds of years. Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the monastery, so you’ll have to preserve the frescoes using your memory instead of your camera.
As an interesting historical sidenote, although Bulgaria was forced to join the Nazis during World War II (under threat of invasion), they were one of the only Nazi-occupied countries that refused to send their Jewish population to the concentration camps. The opposition was led by the Bulgarian Orthodox church, and it is estimated that about 50,000 Jewish lives were saved because of this brave effort. You can find a plaque commemorating the heads of the church during this time inside the Bachkovo monastery.
The final stop on my visit to Bulgaria was the modern-day capital of Sofia. Although the history of Sofia dates back thousands of years, it did not become the capital of Bulgaria until it was finally liberated from Ottoman rule in the 19th century. There are quite a few interesting churches to visit while in Sofia. The most obvious one is the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, which is a symbol of the city and one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Second is the Hagia Sofia church, from which the city got its name. The Hagia Sofia (not to be confused with the one in Istanbul) dates all the way back to the 6th century, and the current church was built on the site of even earlier churches! Underneath the church is a fascinating museum where you can literally witness the history of the site through the centuries, viewing the remains of earlier churches as well as a necropolis that was used during Roman times.
Another must see church, located on the outskirts of the city, is the Boyana Church. A World Heritage site, this tiny church was built in three separate stages, and contains well-preserved frescoes that date back more than 1000 years! I make no exaggeration when I say that, considering their age, these might be the best-preserved frescoes in the world. Not surprisingly of course, photography is not allowed. They even place a strict limit on the number of visitors allowed at any given time, in order to minimize damage caused by the carbon dioxide in people’s exhalations. Finally, don’t miss the St. George Rotunda, which dates back to the 4th century and is considered to be the oldest building in Sofia. The St. George contains some excellent ancient frescoes in its own right, and right outside the church you can view the ruins of an old Roman street as well as several Roman buildings.
While we’re on the subject of churches, if you have a spare day it’s worth making a trip into the mountains to check out the Rila Monastery. Built in the 11th century, Rila Monastery is the oldest Orthodox church in Bulgaria. Inside there are some beautiful frescoes, impressive woodcarvings, and a museum with some amazing exhibits, including a large wooden cross containing the most elaborately carved biblical scenes you will ever see. The entire cross was carved out of only a single piece of wood, and took nearly 12 years to complete! Rila monastery is one of the most popular attractions in Bulgaria. However, if you want to be there without all the tourists, you can actually stay overnight in one of the monk’s quarters! While I didn’t opt for this during my visit, I can imagine how peaceful and serene the monastery must be during the evening, especially in such a beautiful mountain setting. Oh well, perhaps on my next visit.
Following my ten-day visit to Bulgaria, I continued my tour of the Balkans by bussing further south to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city and the capital of Greek Macedonia.