The great churches of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

The churches between Trapezitsa and Tsarevets hills keep the history of great victories and even greater tragedies

We are walking around Asenov neighbourhood in Veliko Tarnovo, a cosy area a little aside from the city centre. In this city you have never enough time to see everything worth seeing. For a few days we heard so many stories that we could not remember all of them and had to research them again at home. But we had a great time, getting lost into the history of the old Bulgarian capital, in the company of our little daughter and my parents.

During the Asen dynasty that ruled Bulgaria between 1187 and 1256, this area was known as the New Town. Today it is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Veliko Tarnovo. Once the New Town was located between the fortified hills Tsarevets and Trapezitsa along the Yantra river. Our walk started from the less popular church St. Peter and Paul and continued to the more famous St. 40 Martyrs.

The marvellous St. Peter and Paul church in Veliko Tarnovo

The small square in front of the church was almost empty of tourists, despite the many parked vehicles around. Probably they were not aware of the St. Peter and Paul church in Veliko Tarnovo and its importance. However, it is one of the best-restored churches in the area and there we can see amazing murals and images of memorable events and personalities.

St. Peter and Paul Church as seen from Trapezitsa hill, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
St. Peter and Paul Church as seen from Trapezitsa hill, Veliko Tarnovo
If you are travelling without car, you can reach the area with public transport – buses 50 and 110.

We entered through the gate and headed to the church. The church itself is in the middle of a yard surrounded by fortress walls. Once here was a monastery but only the church has survived until nowadays. The St. Peter and Paul church dates back to the early 13th century, during the reign of Tsar Kaloyan.

St. Peter and Paul church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
St. Peter and Paul church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

St. Peter and Paul church was one of the few medieval churches, kept and working since the beginning of XIII c. to the earthquake in 1913 in Veliko Tarnovo. Nowadays it is among the most important monuments of the Tarnovo Artistic School – the mainstream of the Bulgarian fine arts between 13th and 14th centuries.

Inside the church you can see murals from 3 historical layers – from 13th, 15th and 16th century. However, just a few frescoes survived from the 13th century.

St. Peter and Paul church, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
St. Peter and Paul church, Veliko Tarnovo

In 1393 Tarnovgrad fell under the Ottoman rule and later the church became part of the region of the Greek bishop’s residence.

St. Peter and Paul - the patrons of the church
St. Peter and Paul – the patrons of the church

The paintings of the Tarnovo Artistic School

We always watch with awe the paintings created by authors of the Tarnovo Artistic School in the Bulgarian churches. St. Peter and Paul church is one of the places with most preserved paintings from this period.We cannot stay indifferent to the images of saints, watching at us like they are living people, willing to tell us something. And the beauty and detail of these paintings cannot stay unnoticed.

A part of the monastery complex was also the church St. John of Rila, nowadays outside the fortification walls. The relics of the Bulgarian saint were initially transferred from Sofia to Tarnovgrad in the 12 century and were buried in a specially built church on Trapezitsa hill. However, after the fall under Ottoman rule, they were moved to St. John of Rila church in the then Patriarchate residence near St. Peter and Paul church.

St. 40 Martyrs church – the pantheon of Bulgarian rulers

No other church in Bulgaria keeps so much history as the St. 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo. It has witnessed historical events and personalities of three Bulgarian states for a period as long as a millennium. In this church you will see the graves of several Bulgarian rulers and a Serbian Saint, as well as artefacts from the First, Second and Third Bulgarian states.

Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo

The entrance to the church is between the bridge of Yantra river and the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God church. After you buy tickets, you will pass under the bridge and reach the beautiful yard of the church.

Holy 40 Martyrs church on the shore of Yantra river in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Holy 40 Martyrs church on the shore of Yantra river in Veliko Tarnovo

The grave of Tsar Kaloyan

Before we enter the church – museum, we see the impressive grave of the Bulgarian ruler Tsar Kaloyan (ruled 1170 – 1207). It was discovered in 1972 and there is evidence that this was the initial burial site of the king. A strong evidence that this is the ruler’s grave is a huge golden ring with an inscription “Kaloyan’s ring”, doscovered inside the grave. The grave itself is stunning with its size. It is known that Kaloyan was an extremely tall person for his time and even now – abut 190 cm tall.

The grave of Tsar Kaloyan in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
The grave of Tsar Kaloyan
Tsar Kaloyan died during the siege of Thessaloniki in 1207.

Holy 40 Martyrs church and the continuity between the First and Second Bulgarian state

The history of Bulgaria reveals in front of us in the Holy 40 Martyrs church. The guide tells us that the church was built by Tsar Ivan Asen II and was completed in 1230. It was called Holy 40 Martyrs because on the day of the Holy 40 Martyrs – 22 March, the tsar achieved victory against the Epirus leader Theodore Komnenos Doukas and made Bulgaria the bigges power in Southeastern Europe at the time. A column inside the church tell the story of this battle and the naming of the church itself.

Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo
Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo

However, the story of this church did not start with this victory. It is known that the church was built on a smaller temple that was probably dedicated to the Holy Mother of God. By the way, in the church you will see two more interesting and important columns, related to Bulgarian kings. One of them is from the time of Khan Krum, the legendary Bulgarian ruler that ruled in the early 9th century. Another one is from his son, Knah Omurtag, and features the following text:

“…Even if a man lives well, he dies and another one comes into existence. Let the one who comes later upon seeing this inscription remember the one who had made it. And the name is Omurtag, Kanasubigi.”

Details of history

To be honest, it is hard even for us, Bulgarians, to understand all details of our history. We could not actually understand why the columns of khans Krum and Omurtag are in Veliko Tarnovo. Indeed, Krum and Omurtag were rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire (681 – 1018) and during their reigns the capital of the state was Pliska. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396). One theory says that these columns have always been in Tarnovo which was an important town for the First Bulgarian Empire, too. Another theory suggests that they have somehow been transported from Pliska to Veliko Tarnovo. We admit that we are not sure which one is true. However, there is enough proof that the columns are both authentic and from the cited periods.

The tomb of Tsar Ivan Asen II

The initial idea for the Holy 40 Martyrs church was to become a family tomb of ruler Tsar Ivan Asen II and his close circle. Besides the tsar, inside the church was found a burial of a crowned woman. It suggest that at least one of his wives was buried inside, too.

The grave of St. Sava of Serbia
The grave of St. Sava of Serbia

A very interesting place in the church is the grave of the most important Serbian saint – Saint Sava. Currently the grave is empty but it is know this was the initial burial site of the saint. The history says that Saint Sava died in Bulgaria on his way back from Jerusalem in 1235. Bulgarian ruler Ivan Asen II ordered that he is buried inside the Holy 40 Martyrs church. Later his relics were transferred to Serbia. However, his initial burial site is still a place for pilgrimage. There are legends that the grave of St. Sava can bring healing to the sick.

A finger from St. Sava’s hand is kept in a nunnery in Samokov, Bulgaria.

Holy Forty Martyrs church and the Third Bulgarian State

Nowadays the Holy Forty Martyrs church impresses with its white marble interior. It was restored and open for visitors in the early 21 century. Unfortunately, very few of the murals have been preserved.

Murals at Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Murals at Holy 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

One of the reasons for the lost heritage is that the church was used as a mosque during the Ottoman rule. Because of this, all of the murals were destroyed. However, it is said that it was not the most popular mosque in town. There were often rumours that the ghosts of Bulgarian kings wake up in the night and chase the Muslims visiting the mosque. So many Muslims were afraid to go there and avoided it. The temple was returned to the Christians after the liberation of the town in 1977. The church opened again on 9 March 1978.

Murals at Holy Forty Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Murals at Holy Forty Martyrs church

Holy 40 Martyrs church after the liberation

The church gained new role in Bulgarian history after the liberation. There was served the first Holy Mass on the occasion of the opening of the Constituent Assembly in 1879. Also, it witnessed the election of Alexander of Battenberg for knyaz (prince) of Bulgaria on 27 July 1879, as well as the election of Knyaz Ferdinand in 1897. The most notable event that happened in the church in the modern history of Bulgaria was the proclamation of the Independence of Bulgaria by Ferdinand in 1908.

During the major earthquake in 1913, the church was almost destroyed and its maintenance became extremely difficult. It was in decline during the whole 20th century but in early 21 century it was restored and open for visitors.

St. George church

This is a lesser known and relatively younger church in Veliko Tarnovo, but still very interesting and impressive with its murals. St. George church is located on the opposite shore of the river, just under Trapezitsa hill. It was built in the 17th century. To visit it, you should first ask in the Holy 40 Martyrs church.

Inside the St. George church in Veliko Tarnovo
Inside the St. George church in Veliko Tarnovo

The best way to explore museums in Veliko Tarnovo

There are many old churches – museums in Veliko Tarnovo, but most of them are with paid entrance. If you are an enthusiast and want to visit many places in short time, it is a good idea to buy a combined ticket. There are two options. Individual ticket for visiting 10 museum sites of your choice costs 20 lv (10 EUR) and can be used within 2 days. A family ticket for 2 parents and up to 3 children is 30 lv. Both are great deals in my opinion.
Our guide opening St. George church
Our guide opening St. George church

Church of St. Demetrius

The Church of St. Demetrius is an important historical site because here in 1186 brothers Asen and Peter declared the rebellion for the liberation of Bulgaria from Byzantine rule. The current building is a restoration of the once marvellous church which was destroyed in the 1913 earthquake. The most interesting thing about it is the architecture. There are no murals inside.

Church of St. Demetrius in Veliko Tarnovo
Church of St. Demetrius

Where to stay in Veliko Tarnovo?

If you wonder where to stay in the area, we could recommend several options. For a cozy apartment, check the brand new Varusha Apartment, owned by a couple of our friends. If you prefer a guest house the city, our latest discovery is the History INN Guest House, located on the historical Gurko street. We loved how cozy and nice the house is (full review here).

Another interesting option is the nearby village Arbanassi. A very beautiful place with old houses and many other churches, just 3 km from Veliko Tarnovo. Last time there we stayed in the wonderful Park Hotel Arbanassi, offering also great view to Veliko Tarnovo (read our full review of the hotel here).

Of course, you are free to chose among the many other hotels and guest houses in Veliko Tarnovo:

How to reach Veliko Tarnovo?

Veliko Tarnovo is one of the top places to visit in Bulgaria. However, reaching it sometimes may be a challenge. Here are the options:

Public transport: From Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo you could travel by train (quite a complicated and time-consuming option) or bus (around 3 hours).

Organized guided tour: A great idea if you prefer to be guided and do not like to spend a lot of time and effort in organizing stuff. One of our partners is offering a wonderful day tour from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi. Check here the options and book a tour with a discount I have arranged especially for my readers.

Car rental and self-transportation: We always travel to Veliko Tarnovo by car and it is a great idea to rent a car from Sofia (or wherever you are) and drive to Veliko Tarnovo. Especially if you like to explore the vicinity, chase the sunset on Arbanassi or plan to visit the ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum.

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