We only had one day to explore Veliko Tarnovo so we were pleased to see bright sunshine outside. On the way down to breakfast, a rather poor cold pancake and cheese, we bumped into Tony heading out. He hadn't slept so well complaining of barking dogs all night and was half on the lookout for another hotel to decamp to and indeed later we saw him heading back to the hotel to gather his small bag - obviously a well practised light traveller. Topologically Veliko is complex with a winding river carving steep valleys between hilltops. The river had more loops than most knots with most of the buildings at the tops of the ridges overlooking the slow moving water. The earliest known settlement goes back as far as 5500BC but the Romans were the first to fortify the site in the 6th century AD. Subsequently Slavic tribes captured it in the 7th century and it became a center of rebellion against the Byzantine rulers. With the foundation of the Second Bulgaria empire in 1185 Veliko became second only to Constantinople in importance and trade and flourished for 200 years. Sadly in 1393 the Ottomans captured it and destroyed the fortress. Its strategic importance plummeted as it found itself in the middle of a vast empire and it was allowed to stagnate until the resurgence of Bulgarian nationalism. Eventually Veliko was where the current Bulgarian constitution was written in 1879 after being liberated by the Russians with the war with the Turks. In 1908 it was where Bulgarian independence was declared.

Our first destination was the Tsarevets fortress at one end of town. To get there we had to traverse along a road on top of a sharp ridge, but first we found we had to negotiate some rather extensive road works at the start of this road. The road builders had taken the dig it all up approach to starting road works and with several diggers at work we were reluctant to get in the way. Working our way around by side street we eventually came at this mess from the other side and hopped across just a short section to get to the ticket booth and over to the fortress. This must have been magnificent in its day, sitting on top of Tsarevets hill with a wall enclosing at least 18 churches, a palace and over 400 houses. The Soviets partly reconstructed it, although a purist archaeologist would weep at the modern structures behind the facades and indeed at some of the not so faithful aspects. However, for the average tourist not encumbered by such concerns it makes a much more visually illuminating prospect to get some feel for size and shape of the fortress. The reconstruction has focused on the walls and a select few buildings, there is still plenty of  piles of rubble alongside. One of the modern additions is lights and bells used in their evening sound and light show which promises to tell the tale of modern Bulgaria, the guide book dryly notes that in reality you would do well to infer anything other than flashing lights set to music from the display.

We started walking around the fortress wall clockwise for the entrance, scampering up any turrets and small towers that had steps. The only concession to health and safety was a repeated sign advising us that it was dangerous to climb on top of the walls and walk along them. This is true enough given the steep drops on the far side and it was obvious that the fortress must have been formidable at its height. At the far end, where some of the wall hadn't been built up we could see a rocky outcrop on the other side. With the warning signs in mind I urged Eleanor to sit on the far rock for a photo. Deciding that she had nerves of steel for a moment she scampered across, much to my surprise. Photo bagged I was a little relieved there had been no mishap, otherwise it would have made for some awkward explanations at home. Looping round the back of the fortress we were fooled into taking a path that wound up towards the main building at the very top. This is the patriarchs complex which had clearly undergone extensive renovation. This consisted of a church and a tower, the latter which was sadly shut. From the steps of the church we had a great view back across the town and inside we found rather depressing murals covering all the walls and ceiling. 

From the top we walked down to the royal palace, of which only one storey had been rebuilt but work was clearly ongoing. This building had housed 22 consecutive kings and had an impressive 10m by 30m throne. We then back tracked to where our inadequate map had led us astray and continued around the walls to Baldwin's tower. This boasts fantastic views which its namesake probably spent some time wishing it was very much closer; the Baldwin in question was Baldwin I of Flanders who led the sack of Christian Byzantium in 1204 and this is where he was imprisoned and then later executed. A last point of entertainment was had when we spotted a sign which not only asked the public not to sit on the walls, either to the left or the right, but also seemed to suggest via the picture that dancing on the walls was also a no go, if this wasn't immediately obvious from the no sitting policy.

With the fortress explored we tracked back into town through the road works, assuring some tourists on the other side that as long as you dodge the JCB's it was actually fine. We walked through the old town and onto the new, all along the main ridge which forms the backbone of the town. We then dropped down in the crook of the river where there was a huge monument of four horses and a large central spike. This commemorates the formation of the Second Bulgarian empire, with the four main players riding the horses rather than any apocalyptic connotations. Since the weather was so nice we skipped past the state art museum and put it on the list for next time and walked up to the park on the opposite ridge to town. Via a snooze on a bench on the way up we walked to the top to find a small football field being used by the locals and quite a party atmosphere. Clearly the good weather was making itself felt. We continued along the ridge hoping for a gap in the trees to have a lookout over the fortress. The closest we got was a small concrete structure with a roof protruding over the trees but this was firmly fenced off with barbed wire and imposing signs. Curiously there was a well heeled chap standing on the edge motionless peering into the sky. Eleanor thought a statue but if so it was remarkably life like and well hidden, if not then perhaps a keen astronomer bagging the best spot for later. Either way we continued on and down the far side to the University. The halls of residence looked like they do the world over and the bar had a familiar economical feel to it. We tried to drop some height but found ourselves walking down steps leading into a derelict building which explained why it didn't look like a main thoroughfare. After a little off piste action we rejoined the main road and walked back to town.

With most of Veliko walked at this point we had a couple of jobs, buying food and booking a hotel for the next day which we soon saw off and headed out for dinner. We actually went back to where we had had lunch because we had spied a good selection of chunks of meat on the menu. It was actually quite posh compared to our normal choice but I certainly enjoyed the near kilo of pork shank that came my way.