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Cultural Day in Veliko Tarnovo

[Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria]

We spent our day today in the town of Veliko Tarnovo. We visited most if not all of the city’s most famous landmarks, most of them preserved from the Bulgarian National Revival period in the 19th century.

Our first top but was just a few feet away – the old Turkish Konak. Konak is one of many Turkish words still remaining in the Bulgarian language, and generally means a residence or a house. In Bulgaria specifically, it refers to a building that housed the local Turkish administration. The Turks built many of these all over the country in the largest Bulgarian cities and many of them had a prison in the back for all the revolutionaries and other Bulgarians who generally caused trouble for the Turks. The Turkish konak here in Tarnovo was built by a Bulgarian named Nikola Filchev, nicknamed Kolyo Ficheto. He is one of the best-known architects of the Revival period and several buildings here in town as well as in the region were designed by him.

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From the konak we took Tarnovo’s most picturesque street, Gurko street. The street is named after the Russian general Iossif Gurko, who marched through here in a victory march after the Russians defeated the Turks in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, the war which also resulted in Bulgaria finally gaining its independence. On this street, we enjoyed a beautiful cathedral caled St. St. Konstantin and Elena.

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Gurko street is a the edge of the hill by the river Yantra, and many of the houses on the river-facing side of the street are literally hanging on the very edge. One such house solved the problem with the steep edge by having only two stories facing the street but 3 more below facing the river, taking maximum advantage of the slope. The house belonged to a wealthy Bulgarian boyar (a Bulgarian aristocrat) but is named after his wife and it’s called the Sarafkina house. We were only able to tour the 2 floors accessible from the street. A large vestibule the height of both stories was in the middle of the house, with rooms dedicated to traditional jewelry, costumes and ritual breads on the side.

We could see modern-day houses sprinkled along the hills of the city from the top floor of the house.

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After, we continued walking on Gurko street, marveling at the cobbled street and the houses built like an amphitheater one above the other. From here, we could see the monument of the Assenovs on the other side of the Yantra River. The monument celebrates the four rulers of the Second Bulgarian Kindgom Assen I, Peter, Assen II and Kaloyan. Assen I and Peter lead the uprising that resulted in our independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185 and established the Second Bulgarian Empire. Under the rule of these 4 Khans from then until 1241, the Second Bulgarian Kindgom reached its economic, political and cultural peak. The monument depicts the 4 khans on horse, and a swored in the middle over 33m (109 ft) high.

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Next up was Samovodska charshia, the old craftsmen market in town. This was another cobblestone street with Revival-style homes on each side, most of them converted to guest houses, museums, souvenir shops and restaurants. Some of them housed citizens who still earned their living performing the original craft or trade that was practiced in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as the kafedjia (the coffee maker – here we saw Turkish coffee made on heated sand), the leather maker, the grunichar (potter), etc.

Another house built by Kolyo Ficheto was here, the House with the Monkey. For some reason he made a statue of a sitting monkey and put it above the doorway, and that gave the house its name. The house is also famous for its weird footprint between two streets, with only 18 ft of frontage but built deep and tall.

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The house with the monkey. The monkey can be barely seen in the middle between the two small round windows.

We also entered one of the museums, which was exhibiting “The Glory of Bulgarian Rulers”, featuring the treasure of Nagyszentmiklós and the treasure of Malaya Pereshchepina. The treasure of Nagyszentmiklós was found in the village of Banat in present-day Romania. It was unearthed the late 18th century by Bulgarian immigrants in the area but somehow ended up in the Viennese Museum of Art History. Although many nations claim the treasure as their own, it says something that a state copy (also known as sole precise replica) was made of this treasure and given to Bulgaria. A state copy of a treasure means that that an only copy was made directly from the objects in the original, using the exact same material as the original. So, if the original was 24-karat gold, so is the copy. Moreover, some of the vessels and rings bear the names of Bulgarian rulers Kubrat and Asparukh.

The second treasure was named after the village of Malaya Pereshchepina in present-day Russia, where a shepherd boy literally stumbled over the treasure in 1912. WIth over 800 vessels, this treasure added up to over 22 kilos (45 lbs) of gold and 50 kilos (110 lbs) of silver. Again, the displays in the museum were state copies, as the original remained in Russian hands and is currently exhibited at the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg. The treasure has been definitely been established to belong to the very first Bulgarian khan Kubrat. The fact that two treasures belonging to the same khans had been found across territories that now belong to other nations both East and West of present-day Bulgaria speak to the wealth and influence yielded by the First Bulgarian Empire, founded by khan Asparukh in 681 AD. His father khan Kubrat, had created its predecessor, the confederation of Old Great Bulgaria in 632 AD.

By the time we were done at the museum, it was 2 pm, also known as beer-time for my parents. We made our way back to the Turkisih konak, where we wanted to tour the prison-museum behind it and the Museum of Archaeology on the side. There was a cafe just across the street and that’s where sat to take a break and drink a beer.

The prison behind the konak, which had been turned into a museum, was almost like traveling in time back to the late 1800s. The simplicity of it (big stone walls, tiny windows, figures dressed in the costumes of Turkish zaptiehs), as well as the prisoners’ testaments quoted on plaques on the wall immersed me into what was a brutal time in Bulgaria’s history, full of suffering and death for those Bulgarians who dared challenge the Turkish rule.

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The prison museum – a Turkish zaptieh

The prison here had housed many of the most prominent Bulgarian freedom fighters of the late 19th century, including Vasil Levski whom I mentioned in the previous entry.

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Levski’s prison cell

He had been brought here immediately after his capture and spent 3 days in the prison before he was transported to Sofia, where a monument marks the place of his death by hanging. Bulgaria lost many of its most honorable, brave and patriotic sons during this time, and many of them had either been in this very prison or had died here.

Our final stop was the Museum of Archaeology which was on the other side of the konak. The exhibits here were mostly clay pots and weapons from pre-Bulgarian times, although there were some exhibits from the medieval rulers, such as the ring of khan Kaloyan. It was a seal ring so that the khan can put a wax stamp on official scrolls.

Veliko Tarnovo translates into Great Tarnovo. It is obvious to me why the rulers of the Second Bulgaria Empire made this town their stronghold, and why this place was one of the centers of Bulgarian resistance during the Revival period. There is so much history here, and it doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to picture life here in Great Tarnovo hundreds of years ago.

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