Get in: Bus from Sofia for 11 Euros per person
Stay: Hotel Anhea for 22.5 Euros/night for 2 persons ** Definitely one of our favorite hotels of the trip
Veliko what? Where are we going?
Bulgaria. What a surprising touristic gem. Creators of the Cyrillic alphabet, always on the losing side of war, the gateway to Europe, where do I start a blog post about Bulgaria? Let’s start with what I knew about Bulgaria before getting there. Nothing. Well, almost nothing…I new Sofia was near the top of the list of the world’s cheapest cities to backpack.
After visiting Sofia, we decided to visit Veliko Tarnovo. It is famous for its five thousand years of history, cultural contributions to Europe, and being the capital of the second Bulgarian empire between the 12th-14th century. Today, Veliko Tarnovo is a picturesque, historical mountain town, not to mention a great place to spend my 31st birthday.
Upon arrival, we found a great hotel with a balcony overlooking the town, including breakfast and air conditioning. Life was good. The only thing missing was was a pool, but wait! Off to the right of our hotel was a luxurious four star hotel, and I could see their pool from our balcony. It became my personal goal to make that pool my own; I just needed the perfect plan to sneak in.
Day One: Getting our bearings straight
Our first day in Veliko Tarnovo was as typical of any of our first days in a new city. We explored the town, ate dinner at a nice restaurant, and didn’t do much else. We noticed shops, old buildings, murals and a castle, but we had no idea what any of it meant. It was clear that we needed to put in a little effort to figure it out. But how? That was a problem for later.
Day Two: Birthday beer and ice cream by the pool
Our second day in Veliko Tarnovo was my birthday. I had full reign to do whatever I wanted, and I wanted to sleep. So sleep I did. Helene promised to not wake me up for the free breakfast, a deal I made the night before that I certainly did not regret. Instead, I woke up to breakfast in bed and tons of Facebook messages.
For my birthday, I planned to find a way, whatever it took, to swim in the pool next door. Despite the typical Grosjean character to not break any rules, Helene was both complicit in the plan and my accomplice for the day. We conspired possible alibis including playing dumb, pretending to be customers, and looking for our car. In hindsight, I don’t think we broke any hotel rules, as the place was more like a restaurant, but it is fun to think we did.
Note to any other travelers: Hotel Premier’s pool is a must do on a hot summer day.
Day Three: Getting to know Bulgaria’s history
For our third day in Veliko Tarnovo, we went on a free walking tour. I love these tours because we have a perfect track record of meeting cool people. Not to mention, they are also a great way to learn about the city.
Our first stop on the tour was the Mother Bulgaria memorial. Bulgaria’s borders have changed time and time again, usually involving war. There have been three independent Bulgarian states and many occupations of Bulgaria. The Greeks, the Seljuks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the Soviets all share a part of Bulgaria’s history in one form of succession or another. The memorial pays tribute to fallen soldiers of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877–1878, the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885, the Balkan wars of 1912–1913, and WW1.
After this stop on the tour, I asked our guide what side of WW2 Bulgaria was on: “The losing side,” he said. “Bulgaria is always on the losing side.”
We walked a couple kilometers before we got to the tour’s main attraction: the castle. During our walk to the castle we had seen a soviet era building complex, an Ottoman era market, orthodox churches, statues and murals remembering key periods of history. Our guide even handed me an an old folklore mask and I tried it on. I’m not sure which god I summoned with it, but I hope it brought me good fortune. It was clear that Veliko Tarnovo is a rich history lesson in Rome, Turkey, Greece, Russia and the Balkans.
An impressive sight from far, the fortress is credited as being one of the strongest fortresses in the region’s history, as well as being a site for some good drama, including old tales of love, love-lost, affairs, and murder.
The tour’s last stop remembered Bulgaria’s national hero, Vasil Levski, who was from a nearby town and has roots in Veliko Tarnovo. City murals today pay tribute to his contributions. He is credited with creating a vast network of supporters that overthrew the Ottomans. He never lived to see a free Bulgaria, but he set the wheels in motion for liberation in 1878.
After spending an afternoon walking in the sun learning about Veliko Tarnovo, we joined a Maltese couple for lunch. Lunch turned into the whole afternoon visiting the castle. At night, there was a Soviet era light show production supposedly happening.
Interestingly, the show only happens if they can sell enough 30 Euro tickets to package tourists and then it is free for everyone else. It is a bit of a gamble as nobody in town actually knows whether the show will go on until about half an hour before it begins. Oddly, nobody seems to know exactly what time it begins at either!
Lucky for us they sold enough seats. It was, indeed, a cool show. The show remains true to its 1980s technology bringing to life the castle and fort walls. But, I think it wouldn’t have been worth paying 30 Euros for.
Day Four: Soviet era UFO-like abandoned building
I covered this adventure in another post because it deserved attention in its own right. Through the Hostel Mostel, we were able to go on an unofficial tour to visit an old Soviet era abandoned building that looked like a UFO. Eerily, the place looked a lot like Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. We explored the inside and out of a building constructed to be a conference center and represent all the glory of communism, but today it stands looted and rotted. It’s considered an embarrassment among Bulgarians.
We also visited a Baltic water museum, which shows how the Baltic people used water-generated power to operate everything from washing machines to saws. Our guide told me his customers either love or hate this sort of thing. I think it takes a special kind of geek to appreciate a snapshot of technological innovation. It was truly impressive to see buildings engineered to be machines that are powered by water.
That brings us to the end of Veliko Tarnovo. It was a pleasent surprise, but the beaches of Varna were awaiting us.
Next stop: Varna…