16 June 2012

Veliko Tarnovo

As we passed through town (eating salads and ice-cream, drinking lemonades, trying to stay out of the heat) we saw the sights and felt that Veliko Tarnovo was putting on a show.  That was fine with us, because it wasn't working.  There's a show alright - sunset on the rooftops - but the tourist shtick was a little off base.  Sure, they've got visitors in droves, but the people of the old capital don't really care.
Bulgaria is beautiful in June, maybe nowhere more so than Veliko Tarnovo.  Swooping down into town, one feels as though they've found a sun-drenched cliff village, something like a colony of swallow nests.  The town sits at the crux of a series of twists in the river Yantra, winding itself along the water and up a series of steep streets towards a fortress and a jumble of old buildings.  This was once the town of kings, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire - it's now ruled by university students sitting at cafes.  It's impossible not to find Tarnovo beautiful, but it's also more than a little tacky, alternately quiet and energetic, idyllic and jarring.  More than anything, it's a tourist town.
It begins with the prime tourist sight, Tsarevets fortress.  Once, this was among the largest and most impressive castles in the world.  From 1185 to 1393, it was the seat of power of one of Europe's biggest medieval empires - a kingdom that reached from present day Moldova in the north to Epirus in southern Greece, incorporating much of the old Byzantine lands and the Balkans in general.  The complex was huge, ringing three hilltops and including a ninety foot long throne.  The main citadel had been inhabited for at least four millennia before the Bulgars used it as their capital.  Truly a historic place.
It's too bad, but what currently passes for the seat of kings was constructed in 1981 by communist "historians" who based their castle design on whimsy and guesswork - it's essentially a modern pile of stones made to look old.  The kicker is the technicolor light show at night, supposedly designed to tell the story of the second empire.  Tsarevets is fun to look at, but nobody should consider this an honest-to-goodness castle.
From the street, most of the houses in the old town don't look very impressive - they're just small timber and plaster things, it seems.  From the inside, though, Tarnovo's residence have a wooden grandness that is pure, countryside Victorianism.  The Sarafkina House, now a museum, drops five stories towards the water - the entryway is on the fourth floor, the views of the river at the back are terrific.
After the Mongols and Ottomans reduced Bulgaria to a shambles, Veliko Tarnovo lost much of its importance but little of its allure.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was the home of a number of prominent Bulgar families, wealthy enough to import gramophones and silks.  In a great collection of old photographs in the the Sarafkina house, the townspeople are shown dressed in very elegant suits and very muddy boots.
The houses and churches of town are all a little askew - creaking staircases, tightly bunched angles, leaning balconies - as though the concrete and roof tiles really were set down by nest building birds.  There are many decorated surfaces in hidden places, down alleys and on old walls.  Little icons appeared in courtyards.  Graffiti faces stared from within broken windows.  The church at the summit of the castle was covered with 1980's murals - not religious, of course, but depicting the struggle of the proletariat.
Tarnovo (as it was once called, before "Veliko," meaning "old," was added in 1965) is one of those peculiar places that has gone through many peaks and lows.  When Sofia was made the new capital, and as communism concentrated life in urban centers, the grand families moved away and the old buildings began to deteriorate.  This part of Bulgaria became a backwater, tourism was almost nonexistent.
Cresting at the moment, Tarnovo makes it hard to discern - through chain link fences and between communist walls - either the magnificent old capital or the elegance of the past.  Even as the area becomes the most affluent in the country, it still has plenty of grittiness left over from harder times.  It occurred to me, passing waiting taxis and sneaker stores, that there's only a certain amount of niceness that a place like this can have.
Prettiness is boring when there's so much of it, even if that's what brings in visitors like us. Becoming a thoroughly modern kind of place is the goal, tourist money lines the path there.  Cafes with heat-fighting mist systems line the boulevard and surround the parks.  Strip clubs and piano bars fight for the crowd's business, sleek pizza places and bistros have snapped up the best vistas.  The city has become too prosperous to linger over history (though lingering over the view is still encouraged).  
On the day we spent in Tarnovo, the sun was so oppressively bright, the air so sticky, that it was difficult to wander far without needing another lemonade.  As we sat in the shade or trekked across noon-beaten avenues, we mingled with young people in sunglasses and old tourists with shorts and white legs.  We looked at the view, we marveled at the old buildings, we scoffed at the castle.  'What a place!' we said.  It felt like a perfected idea of old Bulgaria, the most beautiful place a tourist could imagine.  Why did it leave us feeling so empty?  We're not really sure.

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