The Town

Modern Tarnovo revolves around the Mother Bulgaria (Mayka Balgariya) monument: from here bul Nezavisimost (which becomes ul Stefan Stambolov after a few hundred metres) heads northeast into the network of narrow streets which curve around the heights above the River Yantra and mark out the old town, with its photogenic houses teetering over limited ground space. From the old bazaar at the junction of ul Rakovski and pl Georgi Kirkov, alleyways climb from Stefan Stambolov to the peaceful old Varosh Quarter, where a couple of nineteenth-century churches are verging on decrepitude.

Continuing along Stefan Stambolov, you’ll notice steps leading off downhill to ulitsa General Gurko, a street lined with picturesque nineteenth-century houses perched along the curve of the ravine. Don’t miss the Sarafina House at no. 88 (Mon–Fri 9 am–noon & 1–6 pm), which is so contrived that only two floors are visible from General Gurko though a further three overhang the river. The interior is notable for the splendid octagonal vestibule with wrought-iron fixtures and a panelled rosette-ceiling. Rejoining Stefan Stambolov and continuing downhill, you can’t miss the spacious blue-and-white edifice where the first Bulgarian parliament assembled in 1878. It’s now occupied by a Museum of the National Revival and the Constituent Assembly (9 am–noon & 1–6 pm, closed Tues; $2), which has an excellent display of icons in the basement.

From here, Ivan Vazov leads directly to the medieval fortress, Tsarevets (daily 8 am–7 pm; $2). Approaching it along the stone causeway, you appreciate how the boyars Petar and Asen were emboldened by possession of this citadel to lead a rebellion against Byzantium in 1185. Byzantine attempts to retake Tarnovo were succesfully beaten off, and Tsarevets remained the centre of Bulgarian power until 1393, when the Ottoman Turks plundered it after a three-month siege. The partially restored fortress is entered via the Asenova Gate halfway along the western ramparts; to the right, paths lead round to a bastion known as Baldwin’s Tower, where the Latin Emperor of the East, Baldwin of Flanders, was incarcerated by Asen’s successor Kaloyan. Above lie the scrappy ruins of the royal palace and a replica of the thirteenth-century Church of the Blessed Saviour, ribbed with red brick and inset with green and orange ceramics.

Downhill to the west of Tsarevets lies the Asenova Quarter, where chickens strut and children fish beside the river. The only one of its medieval churches currently open is the Church of SS Peter and Paul (Easter–Sept only), which contains several capitals carved with vine leaves and some well-preserved frescoes of which the oldest – dating back to the fourteenth century – is the Pieta opposite the altar.

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