Veliko Tarnovo 220km (136 miles) from Sofia; 226km (140 miles) from Varna

Veliko Tarnovo was capital of Bulgaria's Second Kingdom from 1185 to 1396, and it was glorified in European circles as "the third city after Rome and the second after Constantinople." Today it is more tiny university town than city, and while it does not have the obvious architectural splendors of more famous Plovdiv, it is in some ways an even more charming destination, surrounded by a natural environment that remains within view even when you're in its urban heart. The imposing medieval citadel of Tsarevets, perched on its own hill from where it glowers down upon the inhabitants it once enclosed, is the town's top sight. From there the lazy Yantra River curls into the guiding arms of the white limestone cliffs from which narrow red-roofed buildings rise precipitously along one bank to overlook the densely vegetated and virtually unpopulated hillsides opposite. It is this undulating green backdrop that gives the place its charm, but it is during the languid summer evenings that the city really comes into its own. Sitting on the cantilevered balcony of one of the city's restaurants as the setting sun turns the narrow dwellings stacked below a soft, pale pink, watching as thousands of birds swoop and dive into the gorge below, you almost could be in a cliff-top village in the Italian Riviera's Cinque Terre, only here the seagulls are swallows, the sea is a tangled forest, and there is hardly a tourist in sight.

The old part of Veliko Tarnovo is pleasant to stroll, but besides enjoying the innate beauty of its geography and the town's particular brand of National Revival architecture -- dominated here by Viennese Secession-style wrought-iron balconies -- Veliko's chief draw is as a base for (or stopover to) the many day trips that lie within a comfortable radius. They include Tryavna, home to Bulgaria's finest icon and woodcarving museums; Etura, a pretty outdoor ethnographic museum where you also can shop for crafts; the impressive Madara horseman, another of Bulgaria's UNESCO-listed sights; the quaint architectural museum town of Arbanassi; the historic Shipka Pass, gateway to Kazanluk and its famous tomb; as well as 10 nearby monasteries.