Settlers have been drawn to this hilly swath of inland Bulgaria for millennia. Historians have unearthed traces of Palaeolithic cave dwellers in grottoes such as Bacho Kiro, as well as remnants of Neolithic settlements in the hills around modern Veliko Târnovo. Thracian tribes dominated the land until Romans marched in, establishing impressive cities such as Nikopolis-ad-Istrum, laying the first walls of Veliko Târnovo’s citadel and the mighty gates in Hisar, and fortifying existing Iron Age fortresses in Shumen.
From the 7th century, skirmishes between Byzantium and the emerging First Bulgarian Empire seemed never-ending, until defeats in central Bulgarian Pliska and Preslav signalled the end. The Byzantines enjoyed a decisive victory in the 11th century.
The region’s fortunes turned in 1185, when brothers Asen and Petâr energised an uprising that would finally cast off Byzantine rule for the Second Bulgarian Empire, with Veliko Târnovo (then Târnovgrad) as its capital. Good times rolled until 1393 when the Ottomans besieged Târnovgrad. Under 500 years of Ottoman control, treasured monasteries such as Dryanovo and Preobrazhenski were wrecked and the region’s significance dwindled. But rebellion was quietly being plotted in those same sacked monasteries, as well as revolutionary centres such as Koprivshtitsa.
The 1876 April Uprising finally loosened the chains: Târnovgrad was freed in the ensuing Russo-Turkish War, with its most decisive battles fought at Shipka Pass. The ensuing 18th- and 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival period bestowed wondrous architecture on towns such as Koprivshtitsa, Karlovo and Tryavna. From 1946 the communist regime suppressed some artistic life while bringing its own distinctive architecture to the fore, with notable remnants in Shumen and Shipka. But in the 21st century, preserving the legacy of Revival-era towns has taken priority.