Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria
08.08.2007 - 10.08.2007 34 °C
My next stop following my stay in Plovdiv was Veliko Turnovo, a city known best for its beautiful valley setting and the winding river around which the town’s core overlooks. These buildings cascade down to the water at an alarming height, with the lowest windows of any building often two to three stories below the front door facing inward to the street. There is no discernable historic center, simply the main artery that runs across the apex of central plateau high above the river. One end of this road leads toward the walled fortress whose area is enormous, crowning its own gigantic hill at one edge of town which is reached using a narrow strip of fortified land. The fortress appears to be almost as large as the old town. The other end of the main street filters into the modern portion of town which has a fairly non-descript feel to it, potentially even bland if one didn’t look past its utilitarian architecture. It feels Bulgarian though, perhaps a slight bit backward but grasping for a modern western identity in spite of its Turkish and Russian past. Again, this is the whole reason I came this way, to witness firsthand this tug or war – identity shuffle – as the Bulgaria is increasingly leaning to the West, joining the European Union and such.
The old town has a rustic appeal once you wander a little beyond the center, particularly the higher up one travels from the river. In some backstreets one stumbles upon roads – more like paths – which are a strange combination of cement and dirt, unkempt with weeds seemingly swallowing up what little remains of the walkway. My hostel was situated almost at one of the highest points in town, almost as far from the modern order below as one could venture. Though the walk added unwanted stress to my quads, and saturated with multiple communities of stray cats, once reached the views afforded from the balcony made the trip of the hill two to three times a day well worth it, particularly at night during the daily fortress light show. I know it sounds quite tacky, but when you finally see it is kind of entertaining, if not impressive thought.
The fortress was truly a majestic site. More archaeological site than fortress, it is teeming with remnants of stone homes which once sat inside its walls to protect against the Turks in centuries past. As the pictures try to demonstrate, it is so well positioned and fortified that it in times past it truly functioned as the core of the town – probably why there is no discernable center - the place where all activity of consequence took place under protection of any potential siege. That said, its modern appearance shows the ware of repeated sieges – up to the challenge but eventually succumbing to recurring attacks. In the center though, high up on the hill the fortress sits on, is a fascinating little church, rebuilt in modern style and displaying some surprising artwork inside. I have never in my life seen murals and paintings inside a church there were so modern, so abstract, so different from the traditional church montages and their conservative nature. I was surprised to find this deviation in Bulgaria where the Orthodox Church seemed to be well-entrenched and traditional in nature. Unfortunately I have no pictures but if you ever find yourself here, don’t miss its interior.
Veliko Turnovo is also the sight of Bulgarian independence and where the constitution was signed. There is a small museum – as usual, quite an empty one – which recounts the struggle for independence, promoting the war heroes revered in these parts for their part in the Turkish resistance. Upstairs in this museum is also the very room where the constitution was designed and then signed, recreated to look it had in 1878 when the nation’s leader convened with Russian and Turkish envoys to officially usher in the Bulgarian state. It was difficult to tell whether this region truly was the epicenter of the resistance – it seems all regions want to elevate their roles, demonstrate their significant contributions. It seems every region has its story, valiant attempts squashed year after year until some breakthrough, or more importantly, the introduction of some new ally backing them with their own specific incentives – Russian seeking a weakened Ottoman state. It was a worthwhile place to spend an hour plus, though strange – but somewhat expected at this point – for a staff member to follow you room to room turning off lights to conserve energy once you move on.
Finally, I must devote a little attention to the river and the monuments built up around it. To call it a wind would be misleading – this is the truest meander (think aerial photo in geological sense) I have seen at the heart of a town or city, truly defining the entire geography of the place in a way which is quite fascinating. I spent some time walking down by the water’s edge though this is not something easy to do, really forcing a few paths and pushing the overgrown bushes and weeds out of the way to get some great views of the town from below. The inside of this bend here, the portion which looks out to the town which rings itself around the peninsula like plateau, is the sight of a museum and an amazing sculpture jutting out to the very edge – see the picture, its pretty amazing. The landscape – much of which is defined by the river – might be the most alluring aspect of the town, as more than the average place, every aspect of the town is defined by it.
As you can tell, there was a lot to like about the town. Every step I took I was struck by the temptation to pull out my camera and capture the beautiful landscape before me. It would be extremely difficult for me to identify a more photogenic town on my journey, and I have seen some truly special places these past two months. And the town had its fair share of modern sculpture which has become a must-see experience part of my trip of late. But this is not a place I could spend more than a night or two without growing restless. It may be because I just came from Plovdiv, an eminently livable place which although perhaps not the most exciting place I have ever been it is one where one could settle and be content. Veliko Turnovo lacks the same depth, the same livable qualities that could sustain someone’s interest beyond the sights mentioned above. It is purely a tourist attraction to me – a place to take pictures, enjoy the cheap Bulgarian fare, and then move on to greener pastures. There is no magnetic pull – more repellant after seeing the highlights.