For over a thousand years, Stara Planina – known to foreigners as the Balkan range – has been the cradle of the Bulgarian nation. It was here that the Khans established the First Kingdom, and here, too, after a period of Byzantine control, that the Boyars proclaimed the Second Kingdom and created a magnificent capital at Veliko Tarnovo. The nearby Sredna Gora (Central Mountains) were inhabited as early as the fifth millennium BC, but for Bulgarians this forested region is best known as the Land of the April Rising, the nineteenth-century rebellion for which the picturesque town of Koprivshtitsa will always be remembered.
Although they lie a little way off the main rail lines from Sofia, neither Veliko Tarnovo nor Koprivshtitsa is difficult to reach. The former lies just south of Gorna Oryahovitsa, a major rail junction midway between Varna and Sofia, from where you can pick up a local train or bus; the latter is served by a stop on the Sofia–Burgas line, where six daily trains in each direction are met by local buses to ferry you the 12km to the village itself.
Top image: Koprivshtitsa © Dan Tautan/Shutterstock
Seen from a distance, Koprivshtitsa (Копривщица) looks almost too lovely to be real, its half-timbered houses lying in a valley amid wooded hills. It would be an oasis of rural calm if not for the tourists drawn by the superb architecture and Bulgarians paying homage to a landmark in their nation’s history.
A street running off to the west of the main square leads to the Oslekov House. Its summer guest room is particularly impressive, with a vast wooden ceiling carved with geometric motifs. Cross the Freedom Bridge opposite the information centre to reach Karavelov House, the childhood home of Lyuben Karavelov, a fervent advocate of Bulgaria’s liberation who spent much of his adult life in exile where he edited revolutionary publications. Near the Surlya Bridge is the birthplace of the poet Dimcho Debelyanov, who is buried in the grounds of the hilltop Church of the Holy Virgin. A gate at the rear of the churchyard leads to the birthplace of Todor Kableshkov, leader of the local rebels. Kableshkov’s house now displays weapons used in the Rising and features a wonderful circular vestibule. Continuing south, cross the Bridge of the First Shot, which spans the Byala Reka stream, head up ul. Nikola Belodezhdov, and you’ll come to the Lyutov House, once home to a wealthy yogurt merchant and today housing some of Koprivshtitsa’s most sumptuous interiors. On the opposite side of the River Topolnitsa, steps lead up to the birthplace of another major figure in the Rising, Georgi Benkovski. A tailor by profession, he made the famous silk banner embroidered with the Bulgarian lion and “Liberty or Death!”.
From the “Bridge of the First Shot” to the “Place of the Scimitar Charge”, there’s hardly a part of Koprivshtitsa that isn’t named after an episode or participant in the April Rising of 1876, a meticulously planned grassroots revolution against Ottoman control that failed within days because the organizers had vastly overestimated their support. Neighbouring towns were burned by the Bashibazouks – the irregular troops recruited by the Turks to put the rebels in their place – and refugees flooded into Koprivshtitsa, spreading panic. The rebels eventually took to the hills while local traders bribed the Bashibazouks to spare the village – and so Koprivshtitsa survived unscathed, to be admired by subsequent generations as a symbol of heroism. Although the home-grown Bulgarian revolution failed, the barbarity of the Turkish reprisals outraged the international community and led to the 1877–88 War of Liberation which won freedom for Bulgaria from over five hundred years of Ottoman rule.
With its dramatic medieval fortifications and huddles of antique houses teetering over the lovely River Yantra, Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново) holds a uniquely important place in the minds of Bulgarians. When the National Assembly met here to draft Bulgaria’s first constitution in 1879, it did so in the former capital of the Second Kingdom (1185–1396), whose civilization was snuffed out by the Turks. It was here, too, that the Communists chose to proclaim the People’s Republic in 1944.
Modern Veliko Tarnovo centres on ploshtad Mayka Balgariya: from here bul. Nezavisimost (which becomes ul. Stefan Stambolov after a few hundred metres) heads northeast into a network of narrow streets that curve above the River Yantra and mark out the old town and its photogenic houses. From ul. Stambolov, the narrow cobbled ul. Rakovski slopes up into the Varosh Quarter, a pretty ensemble of nineteenth-century buildings once home to bustling artisans’ workshops and now occupied by clothing and souvenir shops.
Designed by the legendary local architect Kolyo Ficheto (1800-1881), the blue-and-white building where the first Bulgarian parliament assembled in 1879 is now home to the Museum of the Bulgarian Renaissance and Constituent Assembly, where you can see a reconstruction of the original assembly hall, and a collection of icons.
Clinging to the steep hillside at ul. General Gurko 88 is the Sarafkina House, whose elegant restored interior is notable for its splendid octagonal vestibule and a panelled rosette ceiling.
Ulitsa Ivan Vazov leads directly from the museum to the medieval fortress, Tsarevets. A successful rebellion against Byzantium was mounted from this citadel in 1185, and Tsarevets remained the centre of Bulgarian power until 1393, when, after a three-month siege, it fell to the Turks. The partially restored fortress is entered via the Asenova Gate halfway along the western ramparts. To the right, paths lead round to Baldwin’s Tower, where Baldwin of Flanders, the so-called Latin Emperor of Byzantium, was incarcerated by Tsar Kaloyan. Visitors can climb up to the parapet of the fully renovated tower for sweeping views of the town.
Don’t miss the dramatic 20-minute Tsarevets Sound and Light show held most evenings during the summer – it’s free on public holidays, but on other days you’ll have to wait for a large group to fork out for it.