In the most glorious years of its past, when it was the capital of mediaeval Bulgaria, from 1185-1393, Veliko Tarnovo was a centre of military power and political intrigue, of busy commerce and even busier administrators. It was also the seat of the patriarch, the head of the Bulgarian Church. Surrounded by his staff and underlings, he presided over a vast network of churches, monasteries and scriptoria.
For a small town, Troyan has a serious claim to fame. Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.
For the modern traveller, the Stara Planina is probably Bulgaria's greatest geographical obstacle: a massive mountain range, crossed by narrow passes which are slow, full of bends, and often closed in winter. In the past, however, the Stara Planina was an effective natural protection against enemies. One of its major passes, by the 1,326-metre Shipka Peak, is one of the best examples.
When visitors head to Bulgaria's southwest, their prime place of interest is Melnik, the picturesque traditional town located among surreal sand pyramids and famed for its red wine. Near the town, however, one of Bulgaria's most fascinating monasteries, a delightful example of 16th-18th century religious art and architecture, sits hidden in the hills.
You do not need to be able to read Bulgarian to understand the meaning and to feel the power of a fresco in the Preobrazhenski Monastery, near Veliko Tarnovo. You do not even need to know who the artist, Zahariy Zograf, was.