After strolling through the attractive streets of Veliko Tarnovo in the early morning, enjoying the silence and the views of the old houses, as well as the abundance of grapevines, the hill on which Tsarevets fortress is located rises up high above us. We climb up stairs to the main entrance, but quickly realise that the light is unfavourable, so we decide to postpone our visit, and walk at the other side of the steep hill. We cross a wooden bridge across the Yantra river, and walk around Asen's and the Jewish quarter. On this side of the river, another fortress once stood, of which not much more than ruined walls remain. We explore other parts of town, and are back at the end of the afternoon. A soft light shines right onto the fortress, making it look much better than in the morning. We walk past a sculpture of a welcoming lion over the cobble stone street, cross the bridge crossing a narrow opening between the rocks, and decide to make a clock-wise exploration of the fortress.
This brings us to the Little Gate, which connects the quarters on the west side that we have seen in the morning with the fortress. Inside, I find a room with a red-stained chopping board and an axe, suggesting people were beheaded here, and crossbows pointing through the holes in the wall. We walk along ruined remains of residential area, until we reach Execution Rock on the far northern side of Tsarevets fortress. Behind the ruins of a small church, we find a flat rock towering high above the Yantra river. As the name suggests, traitors were pushed off the rock to meet a certain death and be washed away by the river far below. Heading south from here brings you past a number of ruined small churches, and then the ruined Royal Palace. Here, there is plenty to explore. I for instance found a small cemetery with Turkish tombs.
A short, steep climb brings you to the Cathedral of the Ascension of the Lord, which was built on top of a Roman temple and completed in 1981. It is the odd building out between all the ruins, but it has interesting modernist paintings inside, which are out of line with the regular frescoes you see in Orthodox churches. After a short rain break, we walk the southern walls, until we reach Baldwin's Tower, the furthest point you can go. It is a sturdy, rectangular tower, and the place where Emperor Baldwin I of Constantinople passed away. Tsarevets fortress has great historical significance for Bulgaria. After the first settlers came here back in the second millennium BCE, it became a Byzantine city in the 5th century, and eventually the stronghold of the Bulgarian Empire from the 12th to the 14th century, when it was conquered by the Ottomans, and subsequently destroyed. In its heyday, it was considered the Third Rome, and the famous Bulgarian kings lived here, and it housed the royal and patriarchal palaces, as well as a residential area. When I walk around the entire complex, partly on the other side of the Yantra river, very early the next day, I realise just how big it is. As a bonus for my early wake-up, I see the ruined walls and Baldwin tower wrapped in morning fog.
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