Veliko Târnovo

The most striking feature of Veliko Târnovo is probably its setting. The old town is formed by successive rows of small houses that look piled on top of each other to cover a swathe of the hillside. This extraordinary array of buildings overhangs the gorge dug by a meandering river. If you cross it you can reach an amazing viewpoint separated by the deep valley on three sides. From here the whole of the ancient town is spread out in front of your eyes.

On this tongue of land a monument is erected to commemorate the Asen dynasty. Four riders on rearing horses around a tall bronze spike celebrate the medieval Second Bulgarian Empire that saw Veliko as its capital. The town was later to become one of the epicentres of the national revival that put an end to nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule and gave birth to an independent state, or liberated Bulgaria. For these reasons Veliko is regarded as the hub of national pride.

The ancient town is fairly well preserved with its little houses that reach down to the last patch of usable land on the rim of the gorge. Some have carved out more building space by casting pillars supporting platforms. In this quaint scene there are however a few blotches, such as satellite dishes and other modern contraptions, but especially a couple of modern buildings. Constructed regardless of traditional techniques and forms, they are in open contrast with the unity of this urban environment where most houses are made of white masonry and dark wooden beams.

As I contemplate this panorama, I feel relieved after yesterday’s bad experience. During the few hours I spent in Kazanlâk I feared this country would have no more to offer after pretty Plovdiv.

Considering that the place was described as a noteworthy town with a Thracian tomb listed as a Unesco heritage site, my expectations were high, but I should have doubted before arriving there. I had already found such gross inaccuracies in my guidebook so that I suspected the author never set foot in the area (or if he did he was blinded by an overdose of mastika). For example, I read that Karlovo, a town I changed trains in on my way to Kazanlâk, was spread at the foot of “hills”, but there were impressive snow-capped mountains. On the other hand, the vast Communist era railway station was described as “tiny”, whereas the “huge” Kazanlâk market consisted of a few stalls along one dreary street – and it was supposed to be at its best on Fridays, the day of my visit.

Walking towards the big attraction of Kazanlâk, I was already grumbling to myself about why the Thracian king had the bad idea to drop dead in this town, but wait until I visited the “Unesco site”. For a start the domed tomb you visit is a copy of the original. After you have seen it all you can say is that it must be very meaningful… to the scholarly expert of Thracian civilisation! That it should be listed by Unesco shows how geopolitical considerations guide these policies. I’d be puzzled to find a point of comparison between it and the smallest artistic treasure we have in Italy, even without the Unesco label.

Probably the only place worth spending some time in was the central square where I had lunch with a soup served in a carved-out loaf of bread. Then I hurried out of Kazanlâk using a series of buses, but I was prepared to face all inconveniences rather than spend one more minute in that depressing town.