We see Veliko Tarnovo’s 800-year-old ruined fortress, artisans at work, a monument honoring a victory that brought Bulgaria independence, a museum displaying ancient Thracian art, workers harvesting roses, and a festival celebrating the Cyrillic alphabet.
Complete Video Script
Our next stop is Bulgaria's medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo. One of Europe's most dramatically set cities, it winds through a misty gorge at a sharp bend of the Yantra River.
The town is shaped like a natural amphitheater. It’s more vertical than horizontal, with a mix of blocky modern construction and traditional Bulgarian homes.
The ruins of its fortress are a reminder of the city’s importance 800 years ago. They mark the site of the heavily fortified headquarters of a long-gone Bulgarian kingdom.
This towering monument commemorates that vast and mighty realm. It was ruled by the Asen dynasty. According to legend, the Asen brothers planted a sword on this spot and said, “Here shall be Bulgaria.”
This was a golden age for Bulgaria — the 13th and 14th centuries — when its empire dominated the Balkan Peninsula and stretched all the way to Ukraine.
Today's locals have different aspirations. A walk along Veliko Tarnovo's craft street reveals a thriving folk culture with opportunities to watch artisans at work.
Rumi carves with a keen eye.
Rashko paints icons with a delicate touch.
Nina skillfully turns clay into art. Meanwhile, her son finishes each piece with patterns that go back centuries.
Todor the silversmith — with his strong hands and distinctive technique — transforms strips and strands of metal into exquisite jewelry.
And, nearby, a folkloric dance troupe shares their traditional music.
Leaving Veliko Tarnovo, we cross over the Balkan Mountains.
At the top of Shipka Pass, a memorial marks the site where, in 1877, a combined Bulgarian and Russian army finally turned the tide in the battle against the Ottomans.
This pivotal battle led to the eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire, and to the creation of the modern, independent country of Bulgaria.
Down in the valley, golden domes mark Shipka Church, which honors the sacrifice of those Russian and Bulgarian troops. Built by Russia a century ago, it’s a fine example of the exuberant “Muscovite” style.
Capping a nearby ridge — miles from anything — is one of the most bizarre sights I've seen anywhere: Buzludzha, an abandoned monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party.
This gigantic conference hall was built in the 1980s, in the waning days of communist rule.
With the end of the Cold War and the arrival of capitalism, it was abandoned. Today, the lyrics of the international communist anthem are literally falling off the walls. And graffiti makes it clear who won the Cold War.
Venturing inside, we discover an eerie, crumbling world of vandalized propaganda, a roof that's barely held up by its hammer and sickle, and disintegrating mosaics — once so proud, and now just an artifact of a failed system.
The Thracian Plain, defined by Bulgaria's two major mountain ranges, was a busy funnel of trade throughout ancient times.
Four centuries before Christ, back when Socrates and Plato were doing their thing in Athens — about 300 miles to the south — Bulgaria was known as “Thrace.” The Thracians were an impressive civilization. We’ve learned a lot about them through their tombs.
Thracians buried their royalty in distinctive, dome-shaped tombs that were covered in earth. Dozens of these tombs are scattered across this valley, along with hundreds of decoy mounds designed to fool grave robbers.
Buried deep under those piles of earth, the tombs were impressive engineering feats from 300 years before Christ.
And this replica tomb demonstrates how even in the afterlife, the deceased would be surrounded by comforting images.
Rick: So what do we have?
Stefan: We have the Thracian king, who is buried here. And the royal banquet, with the gods, musicians, servants, horses. And on the top of it we have races with chariots, which is a part of a funeral procession.
Tombs held a trove of golden treasure, now displayed in museums throughout Bulgaria. This bronze head of a powerful king humanizes those ancient Thracians.
This region is also called the “Valley of the Roses.” And we're here just in time for the rose harvest.
Vast fields of roses bloom overnight. Workers rise before the sun to quickly hand-pick the new blooms. They need to work early, before the rising sun evaporates the essential oils. While the fields smell sweet, the work is hard.
At the distillery, millions of blooms are quickly unloaded. Freshness is critical. The bags of roses are stacked high before being dumped into the stills. So many flowers and so much hard work. The essential oils evaporate, then recondense…like fragrant moonshine.
The payoff: a wide variety of rose oil products, appreciated both abroad, and at home.
Kazanlak, the main town of the valley — is especially festive in May. And we happened to drop in on a national holiday. It’s the Day of Slavic Culture. Throughout the country, school’s out — and people are celebrating. Like much of the Slavic world, Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. And today, flowers are laid at a monument to Cyril and Methodius, the missionary saints who invented the Cyrillic script to help introduce Christianity to the Slavs back in the ninth century.
It's a great excuse for a parade — a celebration not only of their alphabet, but of the Bulgarian language and culture in general. And it seems the entire town has turned out for the event.