This part of Bulgaria covering the region of Veliko Tarnovo can be rightfully dubbed ‘treasure-house of the Bulgarian spiritual and material values’. Here the centuries have preserved the traditions of culture, architecture and construction created by scores of generations, as well as the power of the spirit and of creativity. The village of Arbanassi is the pearl in the crown of this treasure-house. Anybody who visits the village is welcome to marvel at the ancient Arbanassi houses, and at its five churches and two monasteries. This is a great chance to encounter the amazing National Revival architecture of the Arbanassi house and the sophisticated art of Orthodox icon and mural painting.
The Nativity Church
The oldest church in the Arbanassi Architecture Reserve is the Nativity. It was erected in the late 16 c. and the early 17 c. and represents a stone building sized 28.8 m per 10.4 m. It stands in the western corner of the village close to St. Nicholas Monastery. The churchyard bordered on a house that was used as a convent of Mount Athos monasteries. For some time it was the home of Neophyte of Rila. The Nativity Church is the most richly painted church in Arbanassi. The murals in the naos (men’s section) date back to 1597. The superb compositions Doomsday and The Nativity of Christ are also dated to that period. The magnificent murals in the narthex (the women’s section) offer rich plots and lovely figural images. The decoration of the narthex was completed in 1638. The iconostasis in the St. John the Baptist chapel at the church is one of the earliest masterpieces of wood-carving in the Bulgarian lands.
For its breathtaking interiors completely covered with frescos the church is unparalleled in Bulgaria. The broad thematic range of mural compositions reveals an aesthetic taste brought to perfection, coupled with encyclopaedic quality of knowledge.
The church and its artistic value have on many occasions been the subject of research and publications by prominent Bulgarian historians, theologians and art critics. It is a monument of culture of world importance.
Sts. Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church in Arbanassi
The biggest church in Arbanassi is Sts. Archangels Michael and Gabriel. It was built in 17 c. and its frescoes were painted in 1761 by two artists – Mikhail from Thessaloniki and Georgi from Bucharest.
It is located in the southeastern part of the village. The present-day cult building stands over the foundations of an ancient medieval church. Similar to other Arbanassi churches, Sts. Archangels Michael and Gabriel is opulently painted, a proof of the robust finances of Arbanassi residents and of their refined aesthetic taste. The church mirrors the masonry traditions of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
St. Demetrius Church in Arbanassi
In the aftermath of Bulgaria’s liberation and until the major earthquake in 1913 St. Demetrius was the central parochial church in Arbanassi. Amid a pretty yard in the center of the village the church welcomes visitors with an olden bell.
The church interiors were painted with frescos from 1612 to 1794. A particularly precious image is the mural of Isaiah’s Tree of Life, a composition that is rather rare in church painting. A must-see is the iconostasis with its gilded wood-carving.
St. Demetrius Church had many well-off donors who supported its maintenance and communal activities. One of them was the eminent Arbanassi merchant, the master of the Hadjihristov House, Stefan Chamourov.
St. Atanassius Church in Arbanassi
St. AtanassiusChurch is one of the most remarkable monuments of Bulgarian art and culture in 14-18 c. It is the smallest among Arbanassi’s five churches, but of no lesser value in terms of aesthetic quality and fresco work. The St. Haralampios Chapel was built to the church with murals painted by teacher Tsoyu and Nedyu in 1726. The frescoes in the narthex and the naos of St. Atanassius are even earlier. The compositions that stand out include a rare Old Testament Trinity and Doomsday. The church stands in the northeastern end of the village.
St. George Church in Arbanassi
St. George Church has a precise dating based on an inscription found in the altar and above one of its northern windows pointing to the year 1661. The fact that it was built in the second half of 17 c. makes it similar to other churches of the time in terms of interior and exterior design.
Its iconostasis however, is of special interest, because some of its parts are earlier – dated to 16 c. The names of teacher Hristo and Stoyo who painted the naos and the altar, are also known.
The Assumption (Virgin Mary) Monastery in Arbanassi
The Assumption Monastery in Arbanassi boasts an eventful history, both glorious and martyred. Founded during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, it shared the destiny of many churches and monasteries in the wake of the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria. Originally it was well-off, but was later repeatedly plundered by Karcali brigands and was deserted.
At the end of 17 c. the locals built a new church surviving to date. Despite its humble exterior, its interiors are complete with murals painted by teachers Krastyo, Tsonyo and Georgi.
There is a fascinating legend linked to the icon of the Holy Virgin with Three Hands put in a special place inside the church. When the monastery was ravaged the nuns buried the icon of the Holy Virgin before leaving the place. Many years passed. One day while herding his sheep, a shepherd boy heard somebody weeping under the earth. He told his landlord about the incident. Then villagers came by and dug out the icon believed to be wonder-working. The Holy Virgin with Three Hands icon has a relief surface and a silver cover. Part of the cover, notably the third hand, was added some time later thanks to a local merchant who made a donation as a token of gratitude for his cured child.
Apart from the Holy Virgin with Three Hands the monastery keeps a few icons created by the Tryavna masters of icon-painting Zakharii Stefanov and his son Tsonyu.
The Assumption Monastery for young girls is in Arbanassi, 5 km from Veliko Tarnovo in the direction of the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa.
St. Nicholas Monastery in Arbanassi
In his book The Village of Arbanassi – Memoirs and Collected Data published in 1935, Dr. Dimitar Papazov wrote the following about St. Nicholas Monastery: ”This church was tumbled down most probably during Karcali raids that pillaged the village in 1798, and by an earthquake that followed. It was fully deserted and desolate.
Elderly locals told me that sheep entered it in the summer to cool down during the hottest days. From them I heard the following story about the restoration of the church. Once upon a time an elderly Arbanassi woman dreamt how St. Nicholas visited her and urged her to start raising charities immediately… She rolled up her sleeves and worked hard, so she raised a lot of charities in both cash and other donations. Very soon the church was renovated. Later, according to similar stories, the church was transformed into a monastery by a man called Zotika who had taken monastic vows, and by a woman called Teodora from the City of Tarnovo who had also entered religion.”
Like other Veliko Tarnovo monasteries St. Nicholas Monastery was founded during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The monastery complex includes a church, a residential section and a chapel. The church is one-knave with a central dome. St. Elijah Chapel is built on its northern side.
Surviving today are several ancient icons, the wood-carved iconostasis and a bronze chandelier from 1746. The church has been declared monument of culture.
St. Nicholas Monastery is in the southwestern part of the village of Arbanassi.
Konstantsaliev House in Arbanassi
The typical Arbanassi house is quite unique in terms of its architecture and construction principles. It has been defined as a Bulgarian boyar (aristocratic) house.
An outstanding example in this respect is the Konstantsaliev House. It is in the center of the village, near to Kokonska Cheshma (Dames’ Fountain). Given that the house has been built along the extension of the street, it stands out impressively with its two-storey stone façade without any bay-windows or other elements. Both the exterior and interior designs of the structure suggest the affluence of its inhabitants and their infallible flair for beautiful and noble things. The house was built in 17 c. and has undergone several reconstructions. Originally it was owned by the Tafrili family, and was later bought by the wealthy merchant Atanas Konstantsaliata.
The diverse museum exhibition of the Konstantsaliev House takes visitors on a fascinating trip exploring the lifestyles, habits and ways of the Arbanassi residents during 19 c.
Sightseeing in the Veliko Tarnovo region is the source not only of knowledge. It is also a strong emotional experience. Coming into touch with the cultural heritage and with the intense beauty of the scenery is a good way to revitalize. This region of Bulgaria is proud of its fourteen Orthodox monasteries. Take any of them and you will find out that it has its own contribution into Bulgarian history and spiritual quests. Some of them have played a formative role in the development of the Bulgarian state over centuries. It is not accidental that after the liberation from Ottoman Yoke and during the process of creating Bulgaria’s new administrative and cultural structures, the Tarnovo dialect was adopted as the basis of the Bulgarian literary language.
Tsarevets Architectural Reserve
Stately as it is in its historical grandeur, the Tsarevets Stronghold towering above Veliko Tarnovo, attests to the power, building skills and the affluent lifestyles of the sovereigns of the Bulgarian kingdom and of senior clergy. Built on a hill providing for natural inaccessibility, the stronghold is protected by its natural environment, as well as by an elaborate fortification system consisting of high fortress walls, gates and towers. There was a wooden draw-bridge at its first gate.
The royal palace and the patriarchal complex stand out in Tsarevets. In the period 12-14 c. the site underwent a few reconstructions. The buildings had vividly decorated facades. The throne-hall and the private royal chambers revealed the grandeur and wealth of the royals.
The palace church kept the relics of St. Petka of Tarnovo. Some of the Bulgarian sovereigns who ruled the country in 14 c. were buried there.
The patriarchal complex was the place where from the administration of ecclesiastical affairs of the country was carried out. It housed the library, the scriptorium, the patriarch’s residence and offices, monastic cells and the Ascension Patriarchal Church.
The area surrounding the two complexes was densely built-up too. Archaeological research suggests there were 470 residential buildings, a lavish mansion owned by a high-standing aristocrat, and an inn.
Forty Holy Martyrs Church
“Man even if he lives well, dies, and another one is born. And let the one born later when he sees this writing, remember the one who left it…” This remarkable quote from the time of Khan Omurtag has survived to the present day inscribed on one of the marble columns of the Forty Holy Martyrs in Veliko Tarnovo.
This church is the most prominent Bulgarian medieval monument in the old capital city. It was erected and its frescos painted during the reign of Tsar Ivan Assen II to celebrate his glorious victory near Klokotnitsa against the troops of Despot Theodore Komnin on 22 March 1230.
In the first years of the Ottoman Yoke the church was preserved as Christian. Later on it was converted into a mosque. Fortunately it keeps some of Bulgaria’s most outstanding epigraphic monuments: the Omurtag and Assen columns and the Border Column from the time of Khan Krum.
Archeological digs here opened in 1969. Three years later King Kaloyan’s burial was unearthed (burial of a man, 1.90 m tall, clad in a richly ornamented military outfit, decorated with tinsel and pearls). The gold ring found in the burial weighs 61.1 g. A snow leopard is depicted on it, and it bears an inscription reading ‘Kaloyan’s Ring’.
Sound & Light Audio-Visual Show
Sound & Light – a synthesis of light and music in an unmistakable way! One has to see the Sound & Light audio-visual show to be able to feel the full power of this artistic presentation. During the night multicolored lights and lasers explode to the chime of church bells and to the tune of dramatic music. The show is a unique attraction. Collected in one, hundreds of colorful lights, the three laser beams and the music recreate the glorious and tragic history of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185 – 1393). Sound & Light recreates events from Bulgarian history, the resistance put to the Ottoman invaders coming to Europe, the years of the Turkish Yoke, the national-liberation movement and the Liberation itself.
The Sound & Light audio-visual show defined by hundreds of spectators as “the magic of Tsarevgrad Tarnov” was performed for the first time in 1985 to commemorate the 800 anniversary since the uprising of the brothers Assen and Petar.
Samovodska Charshiya (Bazaar) in Veliko Tarnovo
Taking a walk in the ancient streets of Samovodska Charshiya, the Veliko Tarnovo guest will feel the atmosphere of the National Revival, of the habits and ways of the people who lived in post-Liberation Bulgaria. Amid the lovely scenery of past times the visitor becomes part of a romantic show as both performer and spectator.
The Samovodska Charshiya emerged in 1860s and 1870s, when Tarnovo got bigger and developed briskly as a center of trade and crafts. Its two streets are lined with small stores, workshops and inns. The famous inns included Davidov Inn, Hadji Velikov Inn and the Inn of Atanas Yonoolu. Today only the Hadji Nikoli Inn survives.
Depending on what was made and sold, there were various bazaars during the National Revival – grocery, blacksmith’s, sandals’ and other bazaars.
The cloister of the Hilendar Monastery was here too.
Today the Samovodska Charshiya is a museum site in Veliko Tarnovo representing a historical, cultural and tourist attraction. It includes the Samovodski Market.
The complex consists of restored and adapted Revival and post-Liberation houses from 19 c. One of them is the house of birth of writer Emilian Stanev.
Visitors are fascinated with the functioning workshops representing replicas of the original ones: a pottery, an armory, a wood-carving workshop and an icon-painting studio, a weaving mill and a few sweet shops. Outlets selling souvenirs and antiques add to the captivating atmosphere of the place.
Veliko Tarnovo Archaeological Museum
The millennia-old history of Veliko Tarnovo and its vicinity have for many years been the subject of archeological research and discoveries. The Archeological Museum with its exhibition “Tarnovgrad, capital of Bulgaria 12-14 c.” highlights the period when Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the medieval Bulgarian state. The museum’s collection incorporates items from other periods of history as well.
The House with the Monkey
At first glance the House with the Monkey in Veliko Tarnovo is not more than an oddity. In fact the building erected in mid-19 c. is an outstanding manifestation of the construction genius of Master Kolyo Ficheto. Displaying his unique architectural and building skills the great master designed and built on a very narrow plot of land a three-storey house for his client, merchant Nikola Koyuv. Despite the limits of space, the house had everything necessary to be functional: storehouse premises, shops and a residential section for the family.
A profiled column on the house’s façade depicts a sitting monkey with a slate. This image has lent the building its exotic name.
The house has quite distinctive exteriors – it is faced with convex bricks, a rarity for that time. Most probably, Kolyo Ficheto used his own style of decorating buildings. Other of his creations display the same exterior decoration.
And there is another curious detail about the House with the Monkey: for some time it was the home of Stoyancho P. Ahgar. He was a pioneer collector of antique objects and created the first private collection of this kind.