What is it about Veliko Tarnovo that grabs your imagination and doesn’t let go?
Certainly its location, high on a cliffside in the rugged Balkan range, is a show-stopper. When Bulgarian nationalists needed a place to make their stand against Ottoman invaders beginning in the 12th century, this is where they came.
Tourists have been tromping up Tsarevets hill ever since for a glimpse of those fortifications. And don’t expect American-style guard rails everywhere. You thought this was Disneyland? It’s actually possible to walk off the edge of a castle and plunge to your death here.
Certainly the town, with its narrow alleys and soaring views, has been a popular stop for years on the train run between Budapest and Istanbul. (Yes, even the Orient Express once passed this way, but lately the fancy set travels on a different line, the Danube Express. Times change. Sigh.)
But for me, the lure of Veliko cuts deeper. From the moment I arrived I could feel it: this is a creative hot spot, a drop-everything-and-write-a-novel kind of place. People don’t just sit down for a cup of coffee in the cafes. They gesture, pull out their notebooks, make big plans.
But look carefully. It’s not just the city fathers who spent time and money erecting monuments to the town’s historic past, such as the soaring murals on the sides of many buildings. Even local residents have gotten into the act, dressing up the electrical boxes outside their doors.
Heading up to the fort, one member of our party found herself in urgent need of a bathroom. And before we knew it, we’d wandered into Malkia Inter, perhaps the coolest bar in all of Bulgaria.
The place is festooned with what can only be described as knick-knacks. Fiddles and accordions line the wall, along with old photographs, street signs, sabres, and who knows what else. A vintage corset is draped carefully over an antique lamp.
At midday the owner’s wife and kids were tending bar and listening to impossibly hip music.
“Who decorated this place?” I asked. They said it was all Dad.