Advantages Stunning, curious
Disadvantages A tad unsafe
|Is it worth visiting?|
Just down the road from where I live there's a medieval fortress that goes by the name of Tsarevets. The chances are you'll never make it here, (unless you decide to join the droves of Brits who are choosing Bulgaria as the location for their home in the sun, lured by cheap property prices and girls in very very short, tight skirts: I do wonder why so many English people feared a big invasion of Bulgarians after Bulgaria joined the European Union on 1st January this year, as it seems to me most of the human traffic is headed the opposite way! But I digress…), but just in case you find yourself in this neck of the woods and find yourself needing to make a buying decision about Tsaravets, the following information should aid you in your task.Tsaravets sits atop a hill in the pretty town of Veliko Turnovo, in northern Bulgaria. It's the main attraction in the town, and as such you'll have absolutely no problem finding it. (If you do struggle, anybody you stop to ask will be able to point you in the right direction, providing you can pronounce the name of course!). From the main part of town the fortress is accessed by a bridge, and there is a little hut of a ticket office out of which will spring a troll-like ticket inspector, if you so much as put one toe on the bridge without paying your way. At the time of writing, the fortress is still employing the highly illegal practice of charging foreigners (i.e. you) four times the price of Bulgarians. Don't panic though; this means you pay 4 levs (about £1.30) compared with the locals' 1 lev, so it won't break the bank. There is a notice up in the window in Bulgarian which states that children go free, and a notice in English that says they must pay 2 levs. You can try arguing this one but you won't get anywhere, so I'd save your breath.
Ticket in hand, you may now cross the bridge, and this north entrance to the castle is certainly one of the most spectacular parts. You pass under old stone archways with breathtaking views either side of you and enter the fortress itself, to be greeted by an odd collection of Bulgarian puppet shows and fancy dress items. There is a perpetual show with a guy telling you all about the history of the fortress, and if he notices that you're speaking English he'll throw a few lines in English your way. Don't expect the whole show to be translated though. If the idea appeals to you, you may don a traditional Bulgarian soldier's outfit and sit on top of a fibre glass horse while your friends take pictures of you. I have not had the courage to do this yet, despite several visits to Tsaravets. Maybe next time? All of this nonsense is accompanied by loud blaring music and is a very jolly welcome indeed, but is quite incongruous with the rest of the Tsaravets experience, which is tranquil and thought-provoking.Once inside, you are at liberty to explore whichever way you please. There is no set route, but most people tend to follow the hill round in a clockwise direction, so that's the way I'll take you. As it was a stronghold, Tsaravets sports a chunky old wall which circles the hill on which it sits. In parts this wall is incredibly thick (up to 3.6 metres) and you can go clambering about on it (as long as you don't suffer from vertigo). The views across into Veliko Turnovo are stunning. Bear in mind though, that Bulgaria is not a nanny state like Britain, and you are expected to use common sense when it comes to safety. There are no barriers, no warning signs, no banisters or ropes on steps, and there is plenty of crumbling stone and rock for you to trip over. Keep a watchful eye on your kids and don't let them out of your sight. To my knowledge no-one has ever fallen off the fortress accidentally, so try to avoid being the first. It goes almost without saying that this site is not buggy/wheelchair friendly, and actually that goes for Bulgaria as a whole.
After you've had your fill of wall clambering, take a stroll following the path round clockwise. You'll see the remains of the living quarters, which include houses, craftsmen's workshops and many religious buildings such as churches and monasteries. About 400 houses have been unearthed, along with 22 churches, so these ancient Bulgars must have been a pretty devout bunch. Churches can be identified by the shape of the floor, but for the rest of the buildings it's quite hard to know what you're looking at since there are very few signs around and none of them are in English. This doesn't detract from the enjoyment however, it's just a nice peaceful walk.For those into their history, the castle was constructed in the 12th century, on the site of a previous 5th century fortress (although the hill itself has probably been inhabited since about 2000 BC). In 1185 the Bulgarians were all getting a bit narked off with their taxes (plus ca change….) and decided a good old revolt was in order. This resulted in what is now known rather grandly as the Second Bulgarian Empire (and you were wondering about the 1st?), with Veliko Turnovo as the new capital, and of course, the perfect excuse to renovate that crumbly old castle on the hill. The splendid new castle became the most important one in Bulgaria, but its moment of glory was relatively short-lived. In 1393 Ottoman soldiers started to besiege Tsaravets as part of their general campaign to conquer the world. After three long months Tsaravets fell, and the Turks razed it to the ground for good measure. And so the curtains were closed on the Second Bulgarian Empire forever, and indeed on Bulgaria as a country. The Ottoman Turks took control of almost the entire nation, and Bulgaria ceased to exist for the next 500 years: only in 1878 did the Bulgarians finally regain their independence from Turkey, which is when Sofia was made the new capital.
It's hard to imagine all these shennanigans going on as you wander around Tsaravets. These days it's such a calm place, with couples ambling arm in arm and kids making daisy chains. As we continue our walk we next come across a sweet little corner called Traitor's Rock. This is a projectory overlooking the River Yantra way below, from where they used to push bad Bulgars to their doom. Again, no barriers here- see how close to the edge you dare go!In 1930 reconstruction of the castle was begun, and various bits have half-heartedly been dabbled with since then, in a seemingly random order. The next stop on our tour will take us to the Royal Residence Complex, which is about ¾ built. You can climb up three floors and charge about on the turrets. There was also a throne room and church in this area, which comprises nearly 5000 sq.m. and must have been quite magnificent. From the Palace we scramble uphill to the focal point of Tsaravets, its only reconstructed church. It was rebuilt in 1981 and 4 years later was painted inside with frescoes depicting the horror and bloodshed of the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The pictures are very unusual and quite haunting. On one occasion I was in the church when a lady started singing an old traditional Bulgarian folk-song, and the echoes around the church were startlingly beautiful; the acoustics are such that she was able to harmonise with herself.
The last bit of Tsaravets we come to, (unless you're feeling a bit knackered by all this climbing and would prefer to go for a beer instead), is Baldwin's Tower. This is tucked away in a remote corner of the hill, and whether there is a path there is somewhat debatable. It was in this morbid spot that Baldwin I of Constantinople was held prisoner by Kaloyan of Bulgaria, and eventually met a sticky end.The Bulgarians have a long collective memory, and the trauma of the Ottoman seige is still fresh in their minds. During the summer months and occasionally at other points in the year, they put on a dramatic representation of the story of Tsaravets' fall in the form of a sound and light show emanating from the fortress. Using lasers, coloured lights, music and church bells, the show is a highlight of Turnovo that shouldn't be missed (although I have managed to miss it several times). You can view it from some specially positioned benches just outside the the entrance, or you can see it at a distance from one of the many restaurants that overlook Tsaravets Hill, while enjoying some good nosh and a bottle of wine (my preferred option).
The fortress is open all year round from around 10am to sunset. There is a café but I've never seen it open, and there are toilets but you'd probably rather not. The whole experience should take you a couple of hours to enjoy.
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