Here in Bulgaria's former royal capital, even a budget traveler can live like a king.
Let's start with the dinner at the Gurko Tavern, a cozy restaurant and hotel built into a cliff overlooking a canyon carved out by the snaking Yantra River. Starving after eight hours on the train from Bucharest, Romania, my husband, Tom, and I started with King's beers (worth buying just for the opener built into the bottom of each bottle) and a platter of roasted red and green bell peppers. Then it was cold yogurt soup with cucumbers, baked trout and crepes with bananas and ice cream. The bill was 20 Bulgarian lev, the equivalent of about $14. We might have snagged one of the Gurko's 11 rooms with balconies, AC and cable TV ($68), but the hotel was booked. So we ended up next door at the new Nomads Hostel, where we paid $35 for a private room - bathroom down the hall but the same great view.
Perched on the steep sides of an S-shaped gorge in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains, Veliko Turnovo became the capital of Bulgaria's restored 2nd kingdom following the overthrow of Byzantine rulers in 1185. Art and architecture, culture and trade flourished before the Turks invaded in 1393. After Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottomans in the late 1800s, Sofia became the capital, but Turnovo remained a center for crafts and trade, attracting wealthy merchants who built fine homes and supported the restoration of monasteries and churches.
Best explored on foot by wandering the narrow streets of its old town, the ancient former capital today is a mixture of all that's new in post-Communist Bulgaria - casinos, pubs and outdoor cafes filled with British tourists sipping $1 cappuccinos and beers - and much that's old, from a medieval castle to domed churches and 19th-century merchant houses tucked along hidden paths and stairways.
The oldest street is Gurko. Cobblestoned and mostly pedestrian, it skirts the side of the gorge across from the sprawling formerly communist-owned Grand Hotel Veliko Turnovo. Above Gurko are several tiers of white stucco buildings that lean into the narrow streets of the 19th-century bazaar quarter. Most of the buildings that once housed shops for craftsmen, weavers and bakers are filled now with cafes, shops and boutique hotels or guesthouses.
The ruins of the medieval Tsarevets castle on a hill are impressive, but the most striking views - and maybe the oddest, given Tbrnovo's reputation as a hip university town - are of the State Art Museum and a huge black monument dedicated to two brothers who liberated Bulgaria from the Byzantines. The museum is a massive stone building that holds a collection of art mostly acquired during communist times. Hardly anyone visits (a woman came with keys to unlock the doors when we rang the bell), but so far nobody has proposed replacing it with something else.
"Bulgaria is a country of paradoxes," Fedio, the young owner of Nomads Hostel, told a group of us gathered on his balcony one evening for conversation and his homemade apple brandy. Turnovo is easily reached by train or bus, but many of the surrounding area's treasures lie hidden in the forests and mountains, and the only practical way to see them is by car.
We took Fedio up on an offer to be our driver and guide for a day for $40, about what we would have paid for a rental car alone. Sixty or so miles from town, centuries of history unfolded, and as Fedio predicted, a few paradoxes. We stopped first at the Dryanovski Monastery, destroyed during an uprising against the Turks, then rebuilt after liberation. Its river location makes it a peaceful spot for a picnic. For those who want to stay longer, there's a small hotel where double rooms with forest and river views go for $21.
Fedio drove us over the twisting Shipka mountain pass and into the Valley of the Roses where growers produce about 70 percent of the world's rose extract for perfumes, oils, etc. Poking through the trees were a crop of gold, onion-shaped domes. Shipka was the site of an important battle fought by Bulgarians and their Russian liberators against the Turks, and an Orthodox church built in Russian style stands as a memorial.
Ancient burial mounds dot this part of inland Bulgaria. It's possible to visit the 2,300-year-old tomb of a Thracian ruler inside what looks like a futuristic glass concrete entrance to an underground house. Juxtaposed to all of this is one of the strangest sites you'd expect to see in the wilderness - a huge, spaceship-shaped concrete monument atop a mountain called Mount Buzludzha.
Left from the communist era and marked by a huge red star, it sits on the spot where leaders founded the Bulgarian Socialist Party in a secret meeting in 1891. To get there, we parked the car and hiked along a steep path. The walk brought back memories for Fedio, who was 11 when communism fell in 1989.
It took the military years to build it, and soldiers died as they worked in the wind and cold. "It's the way Communists showed their power - by building things of huge, solid blocks," he said. "And now it's dead." The building is lonely and abandoned at the top of one of Bulgaria's most scenic lookouts, not far from another important historical marker, the Freedom Monument, which commemorates a battle that eventually led to the defeat of the Ottoman Turks.
Another paradox for sure. On a clear day, standing here looking out over a country that's enjoying its freedom once again, it was one worth savoring.
by Carol Pucci