The busy Władysław Warneńczyk Boulevard is the road you need to take through Varna to reach the Sofia-bound motorway. It is also the road to one of Bulgaria's strangest and most moving museums.
Among the firs of the park – an oasis of calm amidst the urban buzz – two Thracian burial mounds stand. One of them, adorned with a monument, encloses a burial chamber where lies the stone effigy of a medieval knight.
A medieval knight? In Bulgaria?
Bulgaria has few connections to the knights who were one of the epitomes of the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Some knights passed through Bulgaria, mainly during the Crusades, and those who established the Latin Empire in Constantinople in 1204 fought against the Bulgarians.
The knight in the tomb has nothing to do with them. The sleeping warrior marks the symbolic grave of the Polish-Hungarian King Władysław III, who died in 1444 in a battle near Varna during what is considered to be the last crusade in Europe.
The enemy was the then new Ottoman Empire. At that time, Constantinople was still Byzantine, but a great part of the Balkans was under Ottoman control, and the threat to Middle Europe was imminent.
The effigy of King Władysław III has been modelled after the original in the Wawel Cathedral, Krakow
On 10 November 1444, the armies of the 20-year-old King Władysław and General Jan Hunyadi, supported by smaller regiments of Walachians, Bosnians, Moldavians, Lithuanians, Croatians, Teutonic Knights, rebel Bulgarians and soldiers of the Pope were waiting for the enemy in the fields to the northwest of Varna, on the Black Sea.
They had already experienced their first disappointment. The Venetians and Genovese had promised to send their ships, which blockaded the Dardanelles, to collect the Christian army and sail it to Constantinople for a decisive battle with the Ottomans. But the fleet did not arrive, as the Italians had switched sides and carried the Ottoman army from Anatolia to Europe instead.
On the day of the battle, the Christians were outnumbered roughly one to three by the Ottomans, yet they considered their chances to be quite good. Jan Hunyadi was a seasoned and talented warrior and had often won battles against the Ottomans. The fear of a Christian victory with all its consequences was so strong that many Ottomans living in Europe had already sent their most valuable possessions to Anatolia, just in case. The 14-year-old sultan, Mehmet II, was also so aware of his own inexperience that he had forced his father, the retired Murat II, to leave his retreat in Anatolia and lead the army.
The armies engaged at Varna. The offensive tactics of Hunyadi proved effective and, after initial losses, the Christian armies gained advantage. Sultan Murat, who was commanding the battle from the top of one of two Thracian mounds, was already considering retreat.
Suddenly, in breach of Hunyadi's orders, Władysław III gathered 500 of his knights and attacked the sultan directly.
Historians have pondered over Władysław's decision to rush straight onto the spears and sabres of the feared Janissaries, the loyal bodyguards of the sultan. Was Władysław too young and too attracted by tales of knightly valour? Was he too eager to show the opposition at home that he was a capable ruler and not a boy? Had he overestimated the power of heavy cavalry against the infantry Janissaries, or was he jealous to Hunyadi's military successes?
Whatever the reasons, here is how it ended.
The symbolical mausoleum of King Władysław III
Władysław fell into a pit and was instantly killed. Most of his knights died in the melée. In panic, the Christian army retreated with heavy loses.
The repercussions of the Battle of Varna, which was later dubbed "A Memorable Battle of the Nations", is still a matter of debate. According to some, the 10 November 1444 battle was the tipping point in history when heavy cavalry was defeated by better organised infantry. That was the beginning of the great reorganisation of European armies. Others speculate that even if the Christians had been victorious at Varna, the Ottoman westward advance might have been postponed but would hardly have been halted.
However, the battle reshaped the politics of the day. The Ottomans strengthened their grip on the Balkans and nine years later captured Constantinople. Their push to the west continued all the way to Vienna.
The Christians never attempted to organise such a broad coalition against the common enemy. Chivalry was dead, too.
Władysław's body was not found among the heaps of dead warriors. Some say that his head was severed and taken by the Ottomans. Several years later, other rumours appeared – that Władysław had been saved and was living a quiet life as a monk in Salamanca, or as an aristocrat in Madeira.
Officially, however, Władysław was dead and in the central nave of the Wawel Cathedral, in Krakow, an ornate, but empty sarcophagus was installed. The dramatic story of his defeat and death continued to live on in the popular imagination in Bulgaria. Jan Hunyadi became a folklore hero by the name of Ivan the Hungarian, and for long people marked the Varna battlefield with wooden crosses. Even in the 20th Century, the discoveries of strange weapons or skeletons in the fields were thought to be the remains of knights, killed by the Ottomans in November 1444.
The battlefield near Varna received its first real monument in 1855 when, during the Crimean War, a group of Polish soldiers placed a memorial on the top of one of the Thracian mounds.
In 1924, this part of the battlefield was turned into a park and a new memorial of Władysław replaced the older one. In 1935, the mound was transformed into a symbolic mausoleum. Two Bulgarian sculptors carved the stone effigy after the one in Wawel Cathedral.
According to local lore, the other mound was the place from which Sultan Murat II watched the battle, holding a spear on which the peace treaty broken by the Christians was impaled. It also received a monument, albeit a peculiar one – the upper part of a stone water fountain erected by Sultan Mahmud II in Varna in the 1830s. In the 1930s the water fountain was dismantled, with the inaugural inscription ending up in the local Archaeology Museum and the top part on the mound.
The museum was completed in 1964, for the 520th anniversary of the battle. The exhibition hall houses a humble collection of medieval cuirasses and weapons, the majority of which were not actually discovered on the battlefield.
In spite of this, the park, the forest and the mounds have an eerie presence, and if you look carefully enough you can make out the moat dug by the Janissaries to protect Murat II.
Today, the place where the Memorable Battle of the Nations unfolded is the only quiet green spot in this part of Varna, and while walking around you will see many people strolling with their friends or their dogs between the mounds that witnessed the end of the crusades.