When people hear ‘Bulgaria’ they think of Sunny Beach in Varna which is a tourist hot spot in the summers, or they think of the snowy mountains and ski resorts in Borovets and Bansko. Yet there is so much more to Bulgaria than those two destinations.
My mum lived in Veliko Tarnovo for three years which is a city situated in the middle of Bulgaria. It’s about 4 hours away from the capitol, Sofia which is close to the ski resorts, and 4 hours away from Varna where Sunny Beach is situated. It is literally smack bang in the middle of the country. She chose to live here because whilst it is still geared up for tourists and there are things to do and see here, it is a slower paced lifestyle and you’re surrounded by an array of forests, gorges and caves! What’s not to love? Many people who do visit here, opt for a short stay or day excursion. It’s exceptionally beautiful all year round and there are many coaches or tours operating from both sides of Bulgaria to enable you to visit Veliko Tarnovo, perhaps you need a break from skiing and fancy touring around this quaint town covered in snow? With its cobbled stones and traditional buildings what’s not to love? Or maybe after days of sun bathing on the Sunny beach strip you fancy a day of culture? Either season, Veliko Tarnovo is a place you must visit!
Many expats prefer to buy and live in villages just outside Veliko Tarnovo. Land and property is cheap to buy because many young Bulgarians go to work in the cities- preferring a more London-like lifestyle whilst British expats have been renovating these huge farm houses and turning them into Bed & Breakfasts, hotels and retreat centres thus reviving the entire area for the locals to thrive from- tourists bring money which supports local shops and markets.
My mum sadly does not live in Bulgaria anymore. Due to health and personal reasons she has recently moved back to the UK for the time being but she loved living out there. She loved the people, the food and the simple way of life so who knows what the future holds? In comparison to Spain and France, it is is also a cheaper place to live, your money will stretch even further and you’ll feel comfortable.
I loved our family home, I was sad to let go of my childhood home, she still kept it and rented it out to a family back in Blackpool however it was a weird feeling of excitement for this new adventure living abroad and resentment for allowing a new family live in the house I grew up in. But it was a smart financial move to do this, renting out our house in Blackpool gave my mum a small income to live off in Bulgaria (on top of her retirement pay), any savings she had went towards renovation and decoration of her new Bulgarian home.
My childhood was a financially difficult time for my mum as a single parent barely affording food and heating yet things began to change in my late teens and my mum became a retail manager and over the years also became a landlady to 4 properties, that’s when we began to live more comfortably, it was then, she decided to work towards owning a property abroad- for a while she did think about the usual destinations like Spain, France and Cyprus but then she remembered how much she adored our family holiday to Borovets, Bulgaria when I was six years old which she scrimped and saved for, for years! She adored the wooden beamed houses and cabins, she adored the locals and way of life so she went back out there and fell in love with the house in Veliko Tarnovo. She sold all those rental properties in the UK to help buy and renovate it and I was so proud of her for achieving this, we were dirt poor when I was a kid and people were amazed my mother achieved this dream as a single parent, she is living proof that no matter your circumstances you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it and it is her strong willed, tenacious spirit that inspires me and I’ve become a lot like her now I’m a grown woman.
So below are a few photos of the Bulgarian house and its vast garden that my mum owned, I just loved visiting her there, it was a nice break away from England and inspired Jon & I to live abroad because we could physically see the possibilities just from staying with my mum in Bulgaria and both of us dislike the lifestyle in the UK. We even thought about buying a property and land in Veliko Tarnovo to run our businesses from- I’d set up a yoga & belly dance retreat and Jon thought about running photography tours. We are still considering this dream, but not found the right country for us to make that move just yet!
Fancy living in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria? Click on the link to look at properties: Yantra Homes
Upon arriving in Veliko Tarnovo you see how clean and accessible the place is. There are even modern water fountains built purely for drinking water which is fresh from the Bulgarian mountains. The outskirts of the town are very modern, some shops like most places in the world are slightly run down however pretty much most of Veliko Tarnovo is quite elegant and the Bulgarian fashion is actually very lovely- their designer shoes are fabulous!
Within the town you’ll see beautiful statues and monuements surrounded by seating areas and small gardens which are perfect for a hot summers day. There is a strip of cafes and resturants, tourist information centre, a crystal shop (which I loved), ice cream and gelato parlours and some bars if you fancy a couple of beers to quench your thirst.
The local fruit, veg and flower markets are open daily. It is here we bought a fresh water melon for 3 Lev (which is approx £1.35) and a huge jar of organic honey for 5 lev (which is approx £2). Many locals turn their gardens into huge veggie patches, they grow their own food and it grows in such large amounts because of the climate so they sell it at these markets. Their produce has no pesticides and other chemicals on them- which is great because all the food you eat there is 100% organic and fresh from the ground, you do eat well here. Bulgarians are very self sufficient and can grow or make most things they need.
Jon and I loved walking around these markets, its nice to spend time around the locals and also practice our Bulgarian! Jon was also creating video content for his short film about our trips in and around Veliko, the sellers at the market became so used to seeing us, and enjoyed watching us film.
As one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo is steeped in five thousand years of history. This small, picturesque city is home to one of Europe’s grandest medieval monuments, the Tsaravets Fortress. If you have never been to Bulgaria before, this is certainly one of the country’s must-see destinations. What Veliko Tarnovo lacks in beach resorts and high-end shopping, it more than compensates in authenticity and beauty.
Veliko Tarnovo was built on three hills: Tsaravets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora. Its attractive landscape has the Yantra River running through it. Brutally hot summers and freezing winters make spring and fall the best seasons to visit. Besides Tsaravets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo contains orthodox churches, museums, and a charming old town paved with cobblestones.
While there aren’t enough sightseeing opportunities to hold you for more than two to three days, Veliko Tarnovo fortunately has several good restaurants and hotel options. History buffs and wine enthusiasts will also have great day trip opportunities from the city. The nearby village of Arbanassi makes for the perfect tranquil weekend getaway. Other choices include trips to the ancient ruins of the Roman city Nikopolis ad Istrum and the quaint Maryan boutique winery. You can also visit Emen Gorge for day out in nature.
It is very easy to get around Veliko Tarnovo, most places are in walking distance and there are taxis everywhere.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people occupied the area as early as the third millennium B.C. The city was declared capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185 after two local aristocratic brothers, Ivan Assen and Theodor-Petar, led a two-year battle against the Byzantine Empire. At that time, the city was known as Turnovgrad. Under the Assen dynasty Turnovgrad developed at a fast pace, with the addition of the most significant structures during the 12th through 14th centuries. Among these is the Tsaravets Fortress. During this Golden Age of prosperity, over 30 monasteries sprung up on Sveta Gora Hill and the city becomes an economic and cultural hub.
Along with the rest of the Balkans, Turnovgrad eventually fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1393, where it remained for nearly 500 years. Bulgaria was finally liberated in 1877 and Veliko Tarnovo became the capital city of the newly formed independent state. The title didn’t last long. Sofia was re-named the capital almost two years later. Turnovgrad was renamed Veliko Tarnovo in 1966.
If you’re a graffiti artist enthusiast you’ll love some of the art work dotted about the walls of the city, you could actually do a walking tour to simply marvel at the graffiti art which adds an urban, bohemian flare to the area, very similar to Bristol here in the UK. And there are plentiful arts and craft shops ran by artisans who can be seen working on their craft- they are most often than not very friendly and enjoy talking about or showing their craft- don’t be afraid to pop in and explore.
The Old Town is the perfect place for strolling, especially Samovodskata Charshia (Rakovski St.). During the second half of the 19th century, this was where artisans and farmers from the nearby village of Samovodene came on market days to sell their goods. In the 1980s the city revamped the area in an effort to recreate the atmosphere of the early 20th century. Samovodskata Charshia still contains several restored Revival buildings (the Bulgarian National Revival period was a cultural movement by Bulgarians to regain their identity from the Ottomans).
Within the old town you will find many artisans at work on their craft and this is a great place to shop for souvenirs! From vintage Bulgarian lace to wooden Kukeri masks, to traditional dolls, Bulgarian rose soaps, pottery, tapestries, jewellery, traditional Bulgarian paintings and much more. One particular favourite is owned by a husband and wife who make wooden gifts and masks not just for tourists but for a Traditional Bulgarian festivity celebrated during the winter solstice. This tradition involves men dressing up in elaborate furry costumes intended to scare away evil spirits.
The costumes cover most of the body and include decorated wooden masks of animals (sometimes double-faced) and large bells attached to the belt. Around the New Year and before Lent the kukeri walk and dance through villages to scare away evil spirits with their costumes and the sound of their bells. They are also believed to provide a good harvest, health, and happiness to the village during the year.
The kukeri traditionally visit peoples’ houses at night so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.” After parading around the village they usually gather at the village square to dance wildly and amuse the people. We are yet to see this tradition and we hope to visit Bulgaria in winter just to enjoy this tradition but the shop owner allowed us to try on one of his masks he had been working on for the coming winter and we purchased a signed little mask we’ve lovingly placed in our home.
After wandering around Veliko Tarnovo and enjoying the cobbled road of the old town, do explore the highlight of the city, Tsaravets Fortress. The fortress is surrounded with 3,000 feet of stone walls, some of which have a thickness of over 11 feet and height of 36 feet. Once past the main gate, it is fairly easy to navigate the fortress on foot. There is a gentle incline and path, but visitors are essentially free to walk anywhere and climb anything they like.
In many of the trees, mainly near religious or holy sites you’ll find blessing ribbons on trees. This is an old Pagan practice even found in the UK and its a very beautiful practice of paying respect to deceased loved ones, perhaps wishing good health, happiness and wealth. They are also created for wedding ceremonies- asking tree spirits to bless the newly married couple and in Bulgaria they always use red and white ribbons entwined together, representing male and female and it is called a Martenitsa and they usually adorn their trees with these ribbons to welcome the Spring Equinox.
Tradition dictates that Martenitsi are always given as gifts, not bought for oneself. They are given to loved ones, friends, and those people to whom one feels close. Beginning on the first of March, one or more are worn pinned to clothing, or around the wrist or neck, until the wearer sees a stork or swallow returning from migration, or a blossoming tree, and then removes the Martenitsa.
In Bulgarian folklore the name Baba Marta (баба Марта, Grandma March) evokes a grumpy old lady whose mood swings very rapidly. The common belief is that by wearing the red and white colors of the Martenitsa, people ask Baba Marta for mercy. They hope that it will make winter pass faster and bring spring. The first returning stork or swallow is taken as a harbinger of spring and as evidence that Baba Marta is in a good mood and is about to retire.
I adore learning about such folkloric tales and symbolism, I find it incredibly beautiful and sacred form of love and respect for mother nature.
Head to the top of the hill if you want to see the dramatic modernist murals in the Church of the Ascension. Below the church, on a lower level, you’ll see Baldwin Tower. Legend has it that this is where Count Baldwin of Flanders was imprisoned by Tsar Kaloyan in the year 1205. Here there is a picnic area with a refreshment stand. There are also public toilets and plenty of shade from which to take a moment to admire the beautiful view of the town below.
I advise exploring Tsaravets as early as possible to avoid the mid-day heat. The ticket office is located near the main entrance to the fortress. Tsaravets Fortress is open 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. April through October and 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. November through March.
Tip: Bring comfy walking shoes, a hat, and plenty of water.
On the evenings of bank holidays and Veliko Tarnovo Day (March 22), the city puts on an impressive sound and light show over the fortress. To see it you must either be on a terrace with a direct view of the fortress, or buy tickets to see the show from a designated viewing deck.
As a whole Veliko Tarnovo is a quaint and serene place to either visit or move abroad to. If staying in larger tourist resorts in Bulgaria don’t hesitate to book a day trip or short stay in Veliko to give yourself a change of scenery and to see some authentic and traditional Bulgarian culture.
Depending on how long you are staying in Veliko Tarnovo, there are plenty of other destinations within the district you can also visit. Spend a day at Emen Gorge and see the bat caves if you are a nature lover, see the village of Arbanasi if you are a history buff or Etar the living museum in Gabrovo if you want to learn more about the Bulgarian culture and there are plentiful gorgeous monasteries, caves and water falls to visit too! All of these I will discuss in later blog posts! If you plan to stay for about a week I can recommend a short stay in the city of Plovdiv also which is is just over 2.5 hours by coach, or perhaps you want to spend a couple of days in Bucharest, Romania? Again there are coaches available from Veliko Tarnovo’s coach station and prices are reasonable.
Want to read more about our Bulgarian adventures? Click on the links below:
Day Trip to Buzludzha and Shipka Church
Day Trip to Lovech & The Devetashka Cave
Two days in Plovdiv
Day trip to Arbanasi
Day trip to Hotnitsa Falls
Day trip to the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration of God
Two days in Sofia
Day trip to Krushuna Falls
Living in & Visiting Veliko Tarnovo
Day trip to Emen Gorge
Day trip to: Etar Living Museum
Want to read other travel blog posts? Click on the links below:
3 weeks backpacking around Nepal
10 days traveling up the Dalmatian coast of Croatia & Montenegro
16 days touring around Morocco
4 day mini break in the Algarve, Portugal
5 days in Budapest and Vienna
Day trips and mini breaks around the UK