With the exception the Madara Horseman and Zheravna, which can be seen en route to Varna or on a day trip from Ruse, most of the following can be combined into 1 day trip (though you'll have to choose one monastery). Note that if you're traveling from Plovdiv, you will be heading up the Shipka Pass to get to Veliko Tarnovo, and could cover Etura and Tryavna, possibly overnighting at Draynovo.
Located within sight of Veliko Tarnovo on a high plateau 4km (2 1/2 miles) to the northeast, the village of Arbanassi was settled some 300 years ago, and showcases rather severely fortified Bulgarian architecture, with solid stone walls and thick nail-studded gates designed to repel accidental fires or planned incursions. The solidity and sheer size of the houses was both a celebration and a display of wealth, albeit in a rather discreet, austere form. To view the interiors, visit Kostantsaliev House (just behind the Kokona fountain; daily 9am-6pm; 4lev/$3.25/£2). But Arbanassi's main attraction is its 15th-century Church of the Nativity (turn left at the fountain; 4lev/$3.25/£2), with its opulent and glittering interior, a stark contrast to the plain exterior.
Despite the heavy fortification, the village was regularly sacked by Turkish outlaws and the inhabitants gradually were forced to ameliorate with the city that lay shimmering below. Today the carefully restored town has a sleepy feel, with most of the houses either owned by wealthy city dwellers who descend but once a year, or by hoteliers, a situation that leaves the streets virtually empty unless swollen by foreigners. The view of Veliko Tarnovo from the terrace of Arbanassi "Palace," one of the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov's many holiday homes, is spectacular.
Tryavna, Etura & Environs
Tryavna was established by refugees who escaped the fall of Tarnovo 400 years ago, but the old town's predominantly timber buildings, 140 of which are listed, date from when the village established the official Guild of Master Builders and Woodcarvers in 1804. Start wandering from the charming old town square, where village elders play card games under a spreading tree. The tourism office, 22 Angel Kunchev St., is just off the main square and it is useful for a map (tel. 359 0677/22 47; Mon-Fri 9-noon and 2-5pm). Note: All the museums (except the Icon, which opens an hr. later) are open daily 9am to 6pm in summer and 8am to 5pm in winter, and charge 2lev ($1.60/£1). The museums are also all located on the same street: P.R. Slaveikov Ulitsa. Of interest on the town square are the Church of Archangel Michael where the lovely iconostasis was painted by the local Vitanov family, Tryavna's most talented icon painters(Kapitan Dyado Nikola Place; tel. 359 0577 34 42; daily 7am-7pm) and the 1839 Old School. But the real reason you're here is to see the museum of woodcarving, so head over the bridge to stroll down gorgeous cobbled Slaveykov Street. (Note the house on your right as you cross the bridge; owned by Zograff Inn, the two recently renovated rooms overlooking the river are by far the best deal in town; call tel. 0677/4970; ask for no. 21, a steal at 50lev [$40/£25]; www.bgglobe.net/zograf.html).
More or less in the center of Slaveykov, clearly marked, is the Woodcarving Museum, aka Daskalov's House (Ulitsa Slaveykov 27a; tel. 359 0677 21 66; Apr-Sept daily 9am-6pm; Oct-Mar daily 8am-4:30pm). On the first floor you can compare two of the most singularly beautiful ceilings, the result of a competition between Master Dimitur Zlatev and his then apprentice, Ivan Bochukovetsa. Upstairs is another amazing feat: carved portraits by Master Gencho Marangozov of Bulgarian heroes commissioned by another wealthy trader for his Patriotic Room.
From here it's an uphill hike to the Tryavna Icon Museum (Ulitsa Breza 1; tel. 359 0677 237 53; Apr-Oct daily 10am-6pm; Nov-Mar daily 8am-noon and 12:30-4:30pm), but well worth the effort. The most impressive work is in the first-floor room on the right, which contains the work of the Vitanov and Zachariev families. Inspired by the work on display here, you may want to take home a quality icon. Head for nearby Etura (Apr-Oct daily 9am-6pm; Nov-Mar daily 8am-5pm; 6lev/$4.85/£3), an outdoor ethnographic museum where various crafts are produced by masters using traditional 19th-century methods. The Icon Studio is where you'll find Plamen Malinov and Rossen Donchev plying their trade and you'll pay more for one of their icons than you do for one on the streets, but both are acknowledged to be masters (this is a prerequisite for having any workshop in Etura). In a lovely location on the banks of a burbling stream (which powers much of the equipment), this will be one of your most delightful shopping expeditions in Bulgaria -- unless you don't have cash, because no one here takes credit cards. Be sure to stop for lunch at the Domestic Revival Tavern, the ethno village's signature restaurant (no phone; entrees 5.20lev-18lev/$4.20-$15/£2.60-£9.30; no credit cards; Apr-Oct daily 11am-6pm, Nov-Mar 11am-5pm). Picnic tables are set in the garden out front under big leafy trees and covered with embroidered Bulgarian tablecloths and little dishes of chubritsa. Bulgarian singers add to the folksy vibe, which is continued on the menu. Try a pepper burek, a filo dough purse filled with chopped, seasoned peppers; or tarator, a soup made of yogurt, cucumbers, onions, and dill. Whatever you order, don't miss the crusty round loaves of bread, which are baked in one of Etura's crafts exhibitions and served with lyutanitza, a seasoned red-pepper purée. It's directly across from the waterfall washtub.