History, Food, & Wine in Bulgaria’s Old Capital—Veliko Tarnovo

 Nestled along the Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s oldest settlements. Its history spans more than 5,000 years, including serving as capital during the second Bulgarian kingdom between the 12th and 14th centuries. I got into town just in time before the sky opened up and doused the town in a violent rainy thunderstorm. 

In Sliven, I have my only and last meal in the restaurant at the Park Central Hotel. The staff allowed me to taste the samples of Rossidi wines Eddie gave me, along with a glass of Pinot Noir by Edward Miroglio, another nearby winery. Edward Miroglio not only owns the winery that bears his name, but he also owns this hotel. Miroglio is an Italian textile producer who left his native country of Italy and moved his factories and business to Bulgaria some twenty years ago. Shortly after, he purchased property, planted vines, and invested in his winery.

Downtown Sliven Bulgaria

The next morning I make my way to Veliko Tarnovo, once the capital of Bulgaria. It’s also the city where in 1879, after its liberation from the Ottoman’s, the country’s first parliament met and adopted the Bulgarian Constitution. At that time, they also voted to relocate the capital to its current home in Sofia. 

The ride to Veliko Tarnovo takes me to the far end of the Thracian Valley and up into the mountains. Fierce and strong headwinds push the bike around, and I have to tuck further behind the small fairing of Doc to give my neck relief and keep my helmet from bouncing around. The winds die as I climb the mountain roads, going through a series of switchbacks. 

As I roll into Veliko Tarnovo, I cross several bridges, and I’m taken back, but the scenic hills dotted with homes, churches, and other impressive buildings. Nestled along the Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s oldest settlements. Its history spans more than 5,000 years, including serving as capital during the second Bulgarian kingdom between the 12th and 14th centuries.

WorldRider Allan Karl standing outside of one of three gates that allowed access to the Tsarevets fortress in medieval times.

Known as the “City of Tsars” and famous for its Tsarevets medieval fortress, which sits atop a hill of the same name, the legendary fortress is surrounded by what some call the great wall of Bulgaria. The wall, which towers thirty feet high and twelve feet thick stretches for more than a half-mile around the hill. It was home to and protected the palaces of many Bulgarian emperors or kings and the Patriarch of the church.

The Patriarch Eastern Orthodox Church inside Tsarevets fortress—Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Eager to explore the fortress and the city, I arrange accommodations at the Arte Hotel, a new and modern facility just a short one-mile walk along the Yantra River to the fortress. The owner of the hotel also owns Hadji Nikoli Inn Restaurant, just a short walk from here. It’s set in a historic building dating back to the mid-1800s and a stunning example of late renaissance architecture. I’m told the restaurant has one of the best wine lists in Veliko Tarnovo.

The front desk clerk shows me to my secured parking place where I unpack and cover Doc and settle in for a couple of days in Bulgaria’s old capital. By the time I’m unpacked and logged into the wifi, the sky opens up, pouring rain, while roaring thunder rattles the window and whipping wind slams the hotel door open and closed until the staff secures it. I’m sure glad I’m off the bike.

My trusty BMW F650GS Dakar, “Doc” is covered and secure for my exploration of Bulgaria’s Old Capital: Veliko Tarnovo

I put off my hike to the fortress until tomorrow because of the nasty weather and instead organize photos and download videos from my various devices—all tasks that get put off with each day because of a packed schedule, and I’m always on the move. Gigabytes of data grows with each day. So a bit of bad weather downtown makes for the perfect excuse—and incentive—to attend to such business.

Later for dinner, I opt to trek down the road a bit to Shtastliveca, a restaurant popular with both locals and tourists. It’s crowded and bustling when I arrive. The rustic interior is cozy and great views from the terrace tables. They seat me at a table in the middle of the dining room, where I watch the friendly waiters whisk about. The chefs plate the food with care, and ingredients are mostly fresh and local. 

The dining room at Shtastliveca in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

Even better, I convince the manager to let me bring in and taste two Rossidi wines that Eddie gave me a couple of days ago even though they’d been open. The wine list is impressive and reasonably priced, so I order a bottle to support their business. I explain that I’m working on a project and researching the region and its wines. 

I order a shepherds salad made with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, pan-fried eggplant, sweet peppers, and topped with cheese and housemate flat dry sausage with yogurt and walnuts. With the salad, they offer me a basket of freshly baked and still warm bread. It’s delicately seasoned with sea salt, rosemary, and garlic. It’s dangerous. This break is so tasty it’s addicting, and I have to discipline myself, or I’ll devour the whole basket. All of this makes for a delicious accompaniment to the Rossidi egg-fermented chardonnay and pinot noir that I hand-carried here from Sliven.

Great food at Shtastliveca here in Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria. A shepherds salad made with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, pan-fried eggplant, sweet peppers, and topped with cheese and housemate flat dry sausage with yogurt and walnuts.

Very nice of Shtastliveca management to let me bring in and taste the Rossidi wines. Of course, I purchased the Villa Yustina Monogram in good faith, and because I was eager to taste it.

Out of the rain and inside the lovely Shtastliveca Restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo for dinner—a delicious local dish of roasted lamb medallions served with field and porcini mushrooms and vegetables.

For my main course, I choose roasted lamb medallions served with field and porcini mushrooms and vegetables. It’s like a hearty stew, and the creamy mushroom sauce and tender lamb is a perfect pairing with the 2013 Monogram wine, a luscious blend of Rubin and Mavrud from Villa Yustina outside Plovdiv. 

A couple from the UK, and curious about the three bottles of wine sitting on my table, take a moment to chat with me. I offer them a taste of the Rossidi Pinot Noir. They like it. The guy admits he wasn’t keen on wine from Bulgaria and prefers beer. After enjoying the Rossidi, he promises to try more Bulgarian wine as they continue their travels.

There are only a few tables remaining as I leave the restaurant. As I walk out of the dining room I’m reminded of something that I haven’t seen in California in years: ashtrays. Yes, smokers aren’t shunned from many restaurants in this part of the world. Luckily this evening, my table was far from the closest smoker.

Ashtrays? Antiques from a bygone era? Not here in the Balkans where people smoke and ashtrays are standard fare on tables in cafes and restaurants.

Magnificent murals don the facades of many buildings throughout Veliko Tarnovo. With a break in the rain, I wander back to the Arte Hotel and check on my motorcycle.

Early the next morning, Veliko Tarnovo treats me with blue skies and mild temperatures. My coffee and the made-to-order breakfast included with my room here at the Arte Hotel gives me the energy and sustenance. So I take the mile or so walk to the Tsarevets fortress.

The medieval enclave is impressive and in great condition. I wander and admire the compound and its massive walls. Sitting high above the Yantra River, I decide to fly—that is to unpack and launch my drone to capture a few photographs of the castle, river, and surrounding area. It’s obvious I’m not the only drone pilot who’s launched here as the security guard walks up to me. At first, I wonder if he will ask me not to fly, but no, he wants me to fly it higher—pointing and poking his finger up at the sky. Though the video transmission from the drone was spotty and glitchy. I had a problem seeing just what I was shooting.

Surrounding the Patriarch Eastern Orthodox Church inside Tsarevets fortress is what some call the great wall of Bulgaria.

My meandering and wandering walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo revealed interesting architecture, street art, and cobblestoned streets.

These homes sit on the hills and banks over looking the Yantra River in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

On the right is Hadji Nikoli Inn Restaurant. The place features an outdoor terrace, wine bar, and several cozy dining rooms inside and is where I’ll dine this evening.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

I spend most of the day wandering the town, the cobblestoned streets of the old part of town, and admiring the very chill nature of the place. I learn that the owner of the hotel and the restaurant I’ll try this evening is an American ex-pat and that Veliko Tarnovo has perhaps the largest ex-pat population in Bulgaria. Sadly, I won’t have time to verify this as tomorrow I’ve got to get an early start and make it to Varna before noon.

I’m in touch with Marin Atanasov, a sommelier and Bulgarian wine expert who works at the Sea Terrace in Varna. We’ve made a plan to visit Tsarev Brod, a winery (and the name of the village) outside Varna near Shuman. I’ll drop the bike off at a hotel in Varna, and we’ll drive with another of his colleagues from the Sea Terrace restaurant.

The lovely Hadji Nikoli Inn Restaurant features an outdoor terrace, wine bar, and several cozy dining rooms inside. Other diners occupy most of the outdoor tables, so I choose one of the smaller dining rooms where just one other couple just finished their first course. My server and I discuss wine, and I agree to try a wine made by the Minkov Brothers. I prefer to drink a local varietal, but for tonight the 2015 Oak Tree, a Bordeaux-style blend, will be fine—especially with the juicy entrecôte—a French term for a premium cut of beef that’s not unlike a boneless ribeye—served with potato croquettes and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus.

My juicy entrecôte—a French term for a premium cut of beef—like a boneless rib eye—is served with potato croquettes and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus at Hadji Nikoli Inn Restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo.

The service is impeccable, and the food prepared just as I ordered. Both of my meals, and wines I tried here in Veliko Tarnovo, were excellent. But like all good things, this evening and my time in the old capital must pass, and I’m off to Varna tomorrow as my time in Bulgaria is winding down.

 


Mentioned In This Post

 

Park Central Hotel – Sliven
bul. “Tsar Osvoboditel” 6
Sliven Center, Sliven, Bulgaria
+359 44 501 700

ARTE Hotel rooms & apartments
ul. Stefan Stambolov 4
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
+359 62 651 284

Restaurant Shtastliveca Old Town
ul. Stefan Stambolov 79
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
+359 62 600 656

Tsarevets Fortress
Tsar Asen Square
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
+359 62 638 841

Hadji Nikoli Inn Restaurant
ul. Georgi S. Rakovski 19
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
+359 62 651 291

 

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