The old capitals of Bulgaria
September 8, 2018
by Magi Derlipanska
One of the most famous things Bulgaria is famous for is its history. Founded in 681 A.D., this country is ranked third in Europe by number of valuable archeological sites, only behind Italy and Greece. So it surely makes sense to visit some of the most important ones, right? Just recently I visited the first two capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire, used from 681 to 972, most of the existence of the Empire. These are the medieval cities of Pliska and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav), two cities not even 30km from each other, right by the city of Shumen and not too far from the sea capital Varna: a great place for a day trip, especially for those interested in history! So here’s a look at the old capitals of Bulgaria:
When Khan Asparuh settled his tribes in the north-east of the Balkan peninsula in 681 and declared that there would lay Bulgaria, it was only logical that this newly formed country would need a capital. He gave the new city the name of Pliska. Construction quickly began and thus, the Outer and Inner city was built.
The archeological site of Pliska is located only 3km north from the modern-day village by the same name. Passing the village, you will find there a few cozy restaurants where you can enjoy a nice lunch, a small square to look around and a monument built to honor the Cyrillic script, which was first used by the Bulgarians and was brought to them in their first capital. Upon reaching the site you will find plenty of parking space, a ticket office, and even a small shop to buy drinks or snacks. The combined ticket to visit Pliska, its museum and the Great Basilica and costs 5 leva for adults and 2 leva for students, quite affordable for such a site. There are also discounted options for a family ticket.
When you walk through the main gate of the Outer city you will find yourself in what might seem more like a park than a medieval city. Don’t worry, the outer walls were built far from the palaces to provide further protection and unfortunately, the buildings in the Outer city were not preserved, as most of Pliska was made of wood which did not survive the numerous fires.
Head to the right first and in a few minutes, you will find yourself in a cozy garden with lots of flowers and a few building- a souvenir shop, a virtual reality of how the city used to look and, of course, the museum. Inside you will find a detailed description of the history of Pliska, in both Bulgarian and English, and quite a lot of old relics found there. Quite unexpected are the many examples of beautiful glass jewelry and clothing accessories and you can also see what the clothing used in the First Bulgarian Empire used to look like.
Outside of the museum, you can look inside a typical hut used by the Bulgarians and following the directions, you will reach the Inner city. There you will see the remains of a Roman bath, a water storage, two pagan churches that were converted into Christian ones when the new religion was accepted and of course, the former palace. All of the buildings were rebuilt and expanded under the different Khans and you will also be able to read all about that on the many bilingual signs.
The Great Basilica
A few hundred meters down the road after exiting Pliska you can find the Great Basilica – the biggest church of the old capital which also includes a monastery, a deep well and other buildings nearby. It is truly majestic and quite big as well.
In 893 Pliska was abandoned as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire and instead, a new one was built – Preslav, which was so beautiful that it was eventually called Veliki(or Great) Preslav. Preslav, just like Pliska, also exists today, and it is a cozy small town where you can also take a walk if you would like to see a somewhat old-fashioned Bulgarian town. If you follow the road signs, you will reach the archeological museum of Preslav a couple kilometers before you reach the actual archeological site. I recommend that you first stop here to buy tickets and also have a look around – there are many interesting things to see! The tickets here cost 6 leva for adults and 2 leva for children but there are family tickets here also.
Upon reaching the actual site of the second Bulgarian capital you will notice that it seems much larger than Pliska – that’s because it is! You can find a big parking next to a little fast-food place with a narrow selection but great food nonetheless. Maybe 100 meters away is an actual working church, built when medieval Preslav was discovered.
Walking along the path from the parking you will soon reach the end of the Inner city walls. There are also the remains of a church which was located in the Outer city and numerous stone paintings. A bit further after crossing the road, you will find yourself at a small souvenir shop and where the actual Inner city was located. Again, you will find many signs to show you what you are looking for and you will see what used to be magnificent buildings such as the Royal Basilica, where it is rumored that Simeon the Great – perhaps the most successful ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire, lays, as well as the Royal Palace and the throne room. Just outside the complex are further living buildings for the Royals as well as an office for the ruler and walking a bit more, you find yourself once again at the Inner city wall, but from another side this time. There you can even climb all the way to the top and maybe experience how the soldiers defending the capital felt!
The Golden Church
Some 200m further is perhaps the most unique building in all of Veliki Preslav. The Golden Church (or Round Church) received its name because of the gold that used cover almost the whole inside, along with different kinds of marble. It is the only church in the city with round shape – where once stood twelve white marble columns, a few of which are even preserved today. It is truly a unique place to experience.