The city of Veliko Turnovo and the surrounding villages have become a Mecca for Brits seeking rural Bulgaria.
Veliko Turnovo – or 'Great Turnovo' is also known as the City of Kings and is the jewel on the crown of the Stara Planina Mountains. The travel writer Philip Ward wrote “Veliko Turnovo exceeds its reputation in terms of beauty, grandeur and strangeness.“ Le Corbusier praised Turnovo for its 'organic' architecture and the Prussian General, Helmut von Moltke is quoted as saying “ I have never seen a town on a more romantic location”. Turnovo is listed by the Lonely Planet Guide as 'Top Ten places to visit in Eastern Europe'. This is quite achievement ranking it alongside Prague, Krakow and Transylvania.
The ancient citadel of Tsaravets forms the focal point of the city. The ancient houses and cobbled streets are perched on cliffs overlooking the winding Yantra River which flows north into the Danube some 100 km away. One can stand in the centre of the town and have views to the thick forested hills beyond, and to snow covered peaks of the Stara Planina Mountains in the distance.
The region of Veliko Turnovo is located in the centre of Bulgaria and slightly north. It lies within the foothills of the Stara Planina mountains and is regally set on four hills on the banks of the Yantra River. The distances to the main cities in Bulgaria are 220 km to the capital Sofia; 220 km to Varna on the Black Sea; 230 km to Bourgas (the second biggest coastal city); 230 km to Plovdiv; 110 km to Rousse on the Danube River.
There are regular bus and train links to all of the above cities, as well as excellent road links. By car it is around 3 hours equidistant from both Sofia and Varna international airports. There is a small airport just 10 km north of Veliko Turnovo that once operated for internal passenger traffic though currently is serving only cargo flights. Expectations are that it will again open for passenger traffic.
Veliko Turnovo is one of the most ancient Bulgarian cities with historical sources dating back to 13th BC with evidence of Thracian settlements. During Roman times the city became the most important fortified city in the region which continued until the 5th century AD. In 1185 the two Boyar brothers Peter and Assen led a rebellion against the Byzantine rule in Veliko Turnovo. The revolt was successful and Turnovo was proclaimed the capital of Bulgaria. From the 15th century the city was taken and held by Ottoman forces. The castle remained in use an important garrison town.
After the liberation from Turkish rule the Constituent Assembly of the newly liberated state was gathered in Veliko Turnovo and the first democratic Bulgarian Constitution was approved. After the start of the democratic changes in 1990 the first democratic parliament after Communism gathered in the same hall as the one in 1879 as a symbol of succession between the Bulgarian democratic traditions.
The region is particularly rich in cultural and Orthodox Christian monuments. There are 18 monasteries within the Veliko Turnovo region and 8 of them are located within 10 km from the city. The best examples of the architecture are the Hadji Nikoli Inn, Tsaravets Fortress, St Constantine and St Helena Church, St Forty Holy Martyrs Church. Veliko Turnovo has long been an attractive site for a number of Bulgarian and foreign artists due to its natural beauty and unique landscape.
There is a lot to do and see in Veliko Turnovo and its surroundings.
Tsaravets Fortress is the most popular tourist site. Visitors enjoy wonderful views from the fortress towards the city. In the evenings the Sound and Lights show can be seen from many of the higher spots in the city however it is best viewed from the square just in front of the main entrance of the fortress. The show is the most impressive attraction and is breathtaking.
Just outside Veliko Turnovo there are many marked walking trails. Two of them are leading to two of the most interesting and well-known monasteries. Next to the St Troitsa Monastery there is one of the best rock climbing sites in Bulgaria which hosted a world cup event several years ago. There are also many walking trails across the Stara Planina Mountains including a 500km long distance footpath from Sofia to the Black Sea passing along the entire ridge. Julian Perry’s excellent Mountains of Bulgaria (1995) is probably still the best guide available though better maps are now available since its publication.
The museum village of Arbanassi is just 5 km from Veliko Turnovo. It is full of character and one can find a number of good restaurants hidden behind the traditional stone walls in the green gardens and old stone buildings. In addition there is a horse riding estate just outside the village. One curious event is Todor’s day in the beginning of March.
The University of Veliko Turnovo is located on one of the city hills and is the second biggest in Bulgaria. During the summer it hosts the annual Slavic languages and culture seminar with students and scientists visiting from all over the world. The University runs Bulgarian lessons for foreigners.
There are two folklore festivals – one for national dancing and singing groups in May and the International Folklore Festival during the third week of July. The festivals are marked by colourful marches through the towns main streets.
Veliko Turnovo has far more bars and restaurants than one might expect given its size of population. The main reason for its abundance of bars and eating establishments is because of its large student population and attraction as a tourist destination for both nationals and foreign visitors. Students tend to do most of their socializing outside of their residence and within a very compact area of central down-town.
The area south of Veliko Turnovo is made up of the foothills of the Stara Planina mountains and is particularly picturesque. The area has kept its unspoilt countryside and many visitors say it resembles Tuscany in Italy. It has gorgeous scenery and offers diverse activities and interests including history, culture, walking, cycling and fishing. There are many smaller towns in area which have become popular with holiday homes and settlers alike. Elena, for example, is a small town situated 40 km south-east of Veliko Turnovo. It has preserved its Revival appearance with 130 historical buildings grouped in several ensembles.
The town of Gabrovo is the geographical center of Bulgaria. It was established in medieval times as a strategic settlement with immediate proximity to the two passes in the central part of the mountain. During the 19th century the city became a significant industrial centre and was called the Manchester of the Balkans! There are not many brick terraced houses but the textile industry still survives. Just outside Gabrovo are the open-air museum reserves of Etara and Bojentsi which offer visitors the opportunity to observe traditional craft making and village life from centuries before. About half an hour from Gabrovo there is a small ski resort of Uzana.
Dryanovo is a small town 25 km south-west of Veliko Turnovo. The oldest traces of human life on the Balkan Peninsula have been discovered in the near-by Bacho Kiro Cave. Dryanovo flourished during the Revival period and became famous for its excellent builders. Some of the most attractive mountain villages and hamlets are located around Dryanovo, with its picturesque views over mountains and meadows. Tryavna, 25 km from Gabrovo and 50 km south-west of Veliko Turnovo, is a charming mountain town which has been declared an architectural reserve with over 140 monuments of Revival architecture within its bounds. The Revival town square is beautifully preserved. There are lots of little guest houses and charming restaurants which welcome visitors. The town is very popular with the Bulgarians for weekends and is attracting many British buyers.
Prices in Veliko Turnovo are on the up and reflect the regions ever increasing popularity. Currently they average 600 euro sqm for new apartments in the city centre. But prices vary reflecting the wide range of housing stock, of both new and older properties and their condition. Older apartments can be picked up from 40,000 euro rising to over 100,000 euro for older houses. In the surrounding villages older houses will start from 20,000 euro for those in need of extensive renovation up to 100,000 euro for finished homes. There are also some new village developments springing up, though these can be a bit as sterile compared to the real thing. Properties in the city will be popular for buy-to-let investors as well as loner term residents.
Veliko Turnovo has been the subject of any articles in British newspapers (The Daily Telegraph, The Times, International Herald Tribune, as well as TV programmes such as Real Estate TV, ITV’s ‘I Want that House’ and C4’s ‘A Place in the Sun’. It is without a doubt one of the towns in Bulgaria attracting the largest numbers of British people inland.