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  1. Today it was time for us to leave Veliko Tarnovo (and Bulgaria) behind as we travelled to this holiday's second country: Romania. One of the reasons that I'd planned Veliko Tarnovo as the final stop on our Bulgarian tour was that, on paper, it looked like this would be the easiest place from which to get to Bucharest by train. However, when I looked into it more thoroughly, I realised that that the trains to Bucharest don't depart from the station in Veliko Tarnovo, but from the station at Gorna Oryahovitsa where we had to change on our way from Sofia the other day. That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, except for the fact that there are only a handful of trains between Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa each day, and they don't co-ordinate in any way with the trains to Bucharest. So if we'd wanted to travel by train, we would have had to entertain ourselves in Gorna Oryahovitsa railway station between 10.25 and 13.15 while we waited for a connection. I thought about it for a while, before deciding to book bus tickets instead I'd booked tickets online with Flixbus and our bus was departing from Veliko Tarnovo bus station at 12.45. That meant I was able to have a nice lie in this morning, after a relatively late evening last night seeing the light show and finishing the blog Our bus arrived promptly and was more comfortable than the bus on which we'd travelled from Burgas to Plovdiv earlier in the week. That was good, because the journey to Bucharest was scheduled to take around 4.5 hours. The tickets had been very reasonably priced, at around £10 each, including a seat reservation. We left Veliko Tarnovo and travelled through the rocky river valley that we'd been looking at from the fortress yesterday. From here the route led through increasingly flat countryside until, after a couple of hours, we got close to the border near the Bulgarian city of Ruse. The Bulgarian-Romanian border is marked by the Danube, and first of all our bus had to join what seemed to be a queue for permits to cross the bridge. The Danube is incredibly wide at this point. Once we'd crossed the river, we were officially in Romania Almost straightaway, a member of the border police got on board to collect up our passports. Our bus then had to pull over into a bay and wait for half an hour or so before the passports were returned to us. I never like being separated from my passport, but it was relatively painless as border crossings go. The bus was due to arrive in Bucharest at 16.10 but it was running a bit behind schedule by this point - and we got caught in some traffic trying to get into Bucharest - so it was nearer 17.00 by the time we pulled into Bucharest's Autogara Militari. This was not a terribly scenic bus station, on the outskirts of the capital. However, our research had suggested that it was going to be relatively simple to get into the centre of town from here via the metro. The only slight problem was that when we stepped out of the bus station, we couldn't see anything which looked like a metro station or indeed any signs towards one. Tim tested out his Romanian by asking a taxi driver where it was, and soon we were on our way The metro was unbelievably cheap and two tickets cost us 5 lei (95p). When the train came it was modern and spacious and we had plenty of room for our luggage. It was notably different from the metros we've used this year in Russia and Ukraine though, because the escalators were incredibly short; no sooner had we stepped onto them then it was time to get off again We got off the metro at a stop called Piața Romană, from where our apartment was only a short walk away. I'd had a message from the owner earlier in the week, explaining that it was self check-in and giving me a code for the key safe, as well as photos of what the apartment door looked like etc. We found the correct place with no problems and everything worked like clockwork. The apartment is lovely inside. We've got a living area... ....with a dining table, and a small kitchen in a separate room. The bedroom comes complete with its own air-conditioning unit, in addition to the one in the living room. Accommodation in Romania is (slightly!!) more expensive than in Bulgaria, and so this place has cost £36 per night. Once we'd unpacked a little bit we headed out to explore the neighbourhood and get some food. As we'd been walking from the metro station to our apartment, we'd passed this really beautiful building. It turns out that this is the Romanian Athenaeum, a concert hall opened in 1888. There seemed to be some sort of concert being screened in the square outside it. A little further down the road, this impressive building is the central university library. The statue outside is of King Carol 1 of Romania. Our first impressions of Bucharest are that there are some really beautiful buildings, interspersed with some really ugly ones We found this pretty yellow house, for example, overshadowed by a large communist-looking building behind... ...while this building made me feel like we were already in Transylvania We're definitely looking forward to exploring more of the city tomorrow
  2. Our two-night stay in Veliko Tarnovo coincides with Unification Day in Bulgaria, celebrating the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria in 1885. It's a national holiday which falls on September 6 and in Veliko Tarnovo happens to feature an elaborate sound-and-light show. We set off in the evening and straightaway saw that the fountains in our nearby park were illuminated after darkness had fallen: They colours changed every few seconds: We'd soon paced through the town, past the Hanged Rebels Memorial, which looked a lot more noticeable in the dark: Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the fortress in the distance: We needed to get a lot closer, which meant passing the cathedral: Some of the fortress walls were extremely bright: Eventually we reached the entrance and were standing with a crowd: The lights were dimmed... ... and then various sections were lit up... ... one after the other... ... until the whole complex was glowing: We were spoilt for choice with colourschemes: Soon the fortress was shooting lasers: Until hitting the best colourscheme of all: After that, the scene turned red and the sound recording accompanying the display stopped: You can get to experience a similar display thanks to a recording which somebody uploaded: And with that, we and the thousands of other people watching dispersed. Today's been a long day but fortunately we don't have to check out until noon tomorrow for our afternoon trip to Bucharest, and the bus station is only a two-minute walk away, so we can have a lie-in in the morning to recover before heading on our first ever visit to Romania!
  3. We woke up this morning excited to explore Veliko Tarnovo. Veliko Tarnovo was the medieval capital of Bulgaria and is supposed to be one of the most picturesque towns in the country Armed with a tourist map from our apartment, we set off in the direction of the town centre. First of all we passed the military monument which we had seen last night. Unbeknown to us when we booked our trip, 6 September is a national holiday in Bulgaria. We'd noticed earlier in the week that some of the places we visited had roads called "6 September Street" and it turns out that's because 6 September is Unification Day, which commemorates the unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia in 1885. It seems to be a holiday which is taken seriously here, and we'd arrived at the monument just in time to see a Bulgarian military parade That was rather a surprise! Once it was over, we continued on our way down the main street. Lots of the buildings here were decorated with Bulgarian flags and also bright purple ones, which we assume must be the flag of Veliko Tarnovo. The guidebook said that there was some interesting architecture in Veliko Tarnovo. This house was marked on our tourist map as "The Monkey House". It's got this creature, which we assume is supposed to be a monkey on the facade, but we're not sure why! After the monkey house, we found ourselves on a street called Samovodska Charshia. This is the street where the town's market and craftsmen used to be located. Today there are lots of souvenir shops, but it's still a really pretty road to walk along. There were lots of pretty buildings back down on the main road too. As we turned a corner, we got a glimpse of what we assumed must be the town's cathedral. As we began to walk towards it, we got our first proper view towards Veliko Tarnovo's most impressive sight: the Tsarevets fortress. Veliko Tarnovo is situated on the banks of the Yantra river, and we could also see some of a rocky river gorge in the distance. From here we could look up towards the cathedral. The cathedral was initially built in 1844 but was destroyed by an earthquake in the same year and had to be rebuilt! Just past the cathedral, there was a booth to buy tickets for the castle. It cost 6 lev each (£2.76). Once we had our tickets, we were able to begin walking up towards the fortress. This big lion marked the entrance. It was impressive how intact the fortress walls are and how much of them it seemed like we were going to be able to walk along. The fortress at Tsarevets was the most important fortress of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which existed between 1185 and 1393. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the empire and the most prosperous city in Bulgaria during the period. Inside the fortress walls were a church, royal palace and over 400 residential buildings. The fortress was repeatedly attacked by the Ottomans and was ultimately conquered in 1393, after a long siege, marking the end of the Bulgarian empire. It was clear when walking around what a great location it would have been for a fortress. We could see down towards the town... ...including back towards the cathedral... ...and we could see along the river gorge in the other direction as well. From here we really got a feel for what an unusual town Veliko Tarnovo is, perched on the banks of the river, and why it had been so hard to figure out where to walk to get from the train station to where we're staying. The building at the very top of the fortress hill is the Ascension Cathedral. This was the home of the Bulgarian patriarch until 1393. The building was destroyed by the Ottomans and reconstructed in the twentieth century. From up by the cathedral there were some amazing views There was a bit of a breeze, but it wasn't quite windy enough to blow the huge Bulgarian flag on the top of the fortress to its full extent. Looking down from the fortress we caught sight of some churches in the lower part of the town. There was this one, which looked like it was made out of brick... ...and this one (you may only just be able to make it out, below the bridge) which looked like it had a gold-domed roof. As we climbed down from the fortress, we decided to head down to that part of town next to explore. We began to walk on a downhill road, in the shadow of the fortress walls. As we got lower we could see two bridges across the river Yantra. Before long, we came to our first church. This was the Holy Forty Martyrs Church, originally built in 1230. The church was heavily damaged by earthquakes but has been reconstructed to look how it would have done in medieval times and the remains of various Bulgarian emperors are buried here. Just behind the church, there's a big stone bridge across the river. Beyond that, we found the church with the golden roof We crossed the river on a wooden bridge, known as the Bishop's Bridge. It was built in 1774, funded by the local bishop. The wooden boards felt a bit creaky in places as we walked across, but there were some beautiful views We found a little restaurant to get some food, just below the bridge. It was one of those places where the menu was a list of all the things it might be possible to order at some point in time The waiter explained to us that our options today were grilled pork, grilled chicken, kebabs or a salad. Tim went for the chicken, while I had kebapche, which tasted very similar to Croatian ćevapi. The food was beautiful, and for pudding we both had baklava Definitely one of the best views we've had lunch to, and the entire meal cost around £17. Once we'd finished eating it was time to climb back uphill towards the town centre. On our way back to the apartment, we took a slightly different route to the one we had in the morning, and found a couple of viewing terraces we'd missed. From here we could see out across the more modern part of town and the countryside beyond. Then it was back along the colourful streets and towards our air-conditioning to cool off for a bit We were planning to go out again later in the evening, in the hope of witnessing a light display to celebrate the national holiday.
  4. Today it was time for us to leave Sofia behind and set off towards our final Bulgarian destination: Veliko Tarnovo. We were planning to travel by train, but after our experience of being stuck in a very hot and stuffy Bulgarian train carriage for the comparatively short journey between Plovdiv and Sofia on Tuesday, we were slightly apprehensive about the journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, which is about twice as long. When I was reading up on Bulgarian trains in the guidebook the other day, I'd realised that we could actually have done the Plovdiv-Sofia journey in first class for only a couple of extra lev than we paid for second, so we decided to investigate how much it would cost to buy first class tickets for today's journey. The difference between first and second class on Bulgarian trains seems to be limited to the fact that second class carriages have eight seats per compartment, whereas first class carriages only have six, but we figured the extra space might be nice. We had toyed with the idea of trying to catch the metro to the train station in Sofia this morning but the metro map seemed a bit confusing when I looked at it last night, so in the end we decided to walk. It was a nice stroll in the morning sunshine, and we arrived at the station at around 09.30 with plenty of time to buy our tickets and get to the platform before our train departed at 10am. I knew from the guidebook that Sofia station is quite regimented in terms of which sort of tickets can be bought from which desk, and that for same-day travel in Bulgaria tickets we needed to make our way to desks 1 - 13 on the lower floor. We obviously didn't look decisive enough when we walked into the station though, because no sooner had we arrived and started looking around, then we were pounced on by a man who claimed to be in charge of information. He did have a badge saying "information" around his neck, but I wasn't 100% sure whether he was a genuine employee or not, because I was sure I'd read somewhere about people trying to accost tourists in train stations and help them buy tickets, then demand money. He was quite persistent though and when we said we wanted to go to Veliko Tarnovo, he marched us downstairs to the correct ticket counter, inserted us in what to me looked like the middle of a queue rather than the end, and proceeded to help us buy the tickets. He may have thought he was scamming us when, when the ticket lady asked whether we wanted a seat, he said to her in Bulgarian "Give them first class", but given that this is what we'd already decided to ask for it worked out quite well Unbelievably, the cost of first class tickets worked out as 19 lev (£8.71) each. It costs me more than that to get to work every day! Tim gave the man some small change to say thank you/make him go away and he didn't want to accept it at first, so maybe he was a genuine customer service employee! We soon found our way to the platform and settled in to the train compartment, which was indeed a lot roomier than than the one we'd travelled in the other day There are no direct trains between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. Instead, trains on the Sofia line stop at a nearby station called Gorna Oryahovitsa, about 10km from Veliko Tarnovo, which seems to be a major railway junction. The journey to Gorna Oryahovitsa takes around 4 hours, and we were due to arrive there at 13.53. It turned out to be a very scenic journey as we left Sofia behind and travelled through some really pretty countryside. The hills progressed from being forested to quite rocky in places, as the train travelled along the route of the river Iskar, a tributary of the Danube. Every so often we passed through little settlements, but there weren't many large towns. We arrived in Gorna Oryahovitsa promptly at 13.53 and our second train to Veliko Tarnovo was due to depart at 14.15. It was delayed for 15 minutes or so for unspecified reasons, a bit bizarrely as it was already at the station when we arrived, but at least that meant we were able to sit on it while we waited for departure. The journey on the second train was brief - only 20 minutes or so - but I had to track where we were on my maps app because there don't seem to be any announcements at all on Bulgarian trains and the signs with station names are quite low key. Once we got to Veliko Tarnovo, we weren't entirely sure how we were going to get to our apartment. On paper it looked like it was only 2km away, but every time I looked at a map of Veliko Tarnovo I just got confused. The station is a bit outside the main town, in what seems to be an industrial zone, and it wasn't clear from the map what the best way to walk to the town centre would be. We thought we might have found a route but, when we came out of the station, we found that there were no signs and also no pavements, so we decided to admit defeat and jump in a taxi. Tim asked the taxi driver how much it was going to cost, trying to make sure that we didn't get scammed. The taxi driver seemed slightly affronted by the question and told us that he had a meter. In the end it cost a mere 3.50 lev, despite the fact that we drove around in circles for a bit trying to find the exact street that our apartment was on, and Tim gave him 5 lev (£2.30 - I'm pretty sure more than that is already on the clock before you even step into a taxi in Nuneaton!). The building which our apartment was in didn't look terribly appealing from the outside but, once we got inside, it turned out to be lovely There's a large bedroom... ...and a nice living/dining area with a kitchen. Not bad for £27.50 per night! The only slightly strange thing is that when you switch on the light in the bathroom, it starts playing what I assume is supposed to be relaxing music out of a speaker in the ceiling Once we'd settled in to the apartment, we set out to see a little bit of the town and try to find some dinner. Not far from our apartment there's a park... ...with a huge complex of fountains. Fountains seem to be big in Bulgaria! We didn't have to go much further before we found a large statue in a square. This is the Monument to Mother Bulgaria, which commemorates losses in the Russo-Turkish and First World Wars. We spotted that there was a restaurant opposite the square with a nice terrace, so we decided to go there for some dinner. We were rather hungry, having missed lunch while on the train, so had pudding as well as a main course. Despite the fact that we had wine and coffee too, we still didn't manage to spend more than £23. By the time we'd finished eating we were stuffed, so we decided to save exploring the rest of Veliko Tarnovo until tomorrow
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