As a city that remembers its glorious past as one of Bulgaria's mediaeval capitals, and its importance in the 19th century as the nascent Bulgarian nation struggled for independence and recognition, Veliko Tarnovo has a collection of churches that have witnessed or played a part in many historic events.
There is a day in Bulgaria when the cities and villages seem awash with blossoming flowers. The flower stalls stock more of their seasonal and all-the-year-round blooms than usual, and the number of pop-up flower sellers on the pavements increases. People carrying bouquets and bunches of pussy willow branches are everywhere.
The crowds gathered in the freezing spring night on the historical hill of Tsarevets, in Veliko Tarnovo, were awaiting Easter. Midnight was approaching, but for the moment it seemed that Easter would never come. On the top of the hill, in front of the church whose silhouette is known to every tourist in this country, a priest was well into a long and tedious sermon on faith, the importance of unification, and a bit of current (meaning 2016) politics, and he showed no signs of being near the end.
What first attracts your attention in a Bulgarian Revival Period church? The architecture? The silver-haloed icons of the Virgin Mary? The elaborate carvings of the icon doors? These may all be astonishing, but have you noticed the river of fire, on the outside western wall of most of the churches, flowing towards the gaping mouth of a dragon-like monster? Have you bent to see in detail the devils in the flames? Have you wondered what were the crimes of the sinners they torture?
"Idolaters! You are not true Eastern Orthodox Christians," the monk at St Spas monastery near Yambol scolded us while he was locking the gate of the supposedly miraculous cave spring his abode is famed for. Our sin? We had not lit candles when we entered the church. He, however, did not see any contradiction in the fact that the veneration of "healing" springs is a tradition that Eastern Orthodoxy in Bulgaria has inherited from paganism.