Bulgaria's first capital
The first Bulgarian capital was Pliska. Situated on the fertile, rolling planes of Northeast Bulgaria, the atmosphere of Pliska throws you back thousands of years of time. It makes you imagine the characters that used to walk at the Forum or visited the churches. A place essential to visit for lovers of history, more so of the intriguing Bulgarian history.
In the second half of the 7th Century, Khan Asparuh, followed by 30.000-50.000 semi-nomadic Bulgars, entered the area from the Northeast (Etymology - Khan stands for ruler). Asparuh is known by all Bulgarians to this day as a main historical figure, being remembered for creating the First Bulgarian Empire. Asparuh was one of five sons of Khan Kubrat, whom was responsible for establishing the Old Great Bulgaria. Quite a lot of impactful history made in few generations.
Asparuh made smart agreements with the Slavic tribes living in the rural area around the Danube. The Slavs far outnumbered the Bulgars so it was better to have them on their side, thus having a stronger position against the Byzantines. As the two joined forces, it was the Slavs and Bulgars against the Byzantines during the heavy Battle of Ongal.
Eventually, the Bulgars had advanced south towards the Stara Planina mountains, crossed them and again beat the Byzantines in Thrace. Finding himself locked in, Constantin IV had no option but to surrender and thus the Byzantines had to acknowledge the first state beside their own on the Balkans.
The growth and defeat of Pliska
The First Bulgarian Empire was born. The country still carries the name Bulgaria; thus making it the oldest country in Europe continuously carrying the same name. Over the course of a hundred years, Pliska gradually grew. The territory of the state Bulgaria expanded and in 807, led by Khan Krum. An attack gained them the city of Serdica, modern-day Sofia. The Byzantines then tried to regain their territory. They managed to cross the Stara Planina mountains from the south and destroyed Pliska by setting it on fire. This happened instantly as most of the city's buildings were made of wood.
Bulgars battling Byzantines
The Byzantine ruler Nicephorus would get served revenge soon, as meanwhile Khan Krum had blocked the Stara Planina mountains back south. As Nicephorus retreated towards Constantinople, him and his troops awaited a horrible faith. The mountains were blocked by wooden barriers and from high above, the Bulgars were waiting to leap upon their enemies. On the third day, during dawn, the entrance and exit from the valley had long been sealed and the attack was set in. The confused Byzantines had tried to climb over the barriers blocking the valley and fell into the depth awaiting them on the other side. So the barrier, made of wood mostly, was set on fire. Many Byzantines lost their lives in the fire or died during the fights. Eventually, so did their leader Nicephorus, whom had clearly become overconfident after having defeated Pliska. Khan Krum then had the emperor's head on a spike and later had part of the skull moulded into silver, using it as a drinking cup, a so-called "skull cup". After this shameful defeat on the Byzantine part, they refrained from attacking the Bulgars for many years. This gave the Bulgars more space to increase their influence and strengthen their state.
Pliska under Tsar Boris I and Tsar Simeon I
After this heavy chapter, Pliska was rebuilt and under Tsar Boris I, pagan temples were redesigned into Christian places of worship. Tsar Boris I retired to become a monk and his son Vladimir-Rasata then tried to reform the churches to pagan temples again. His father defeated his own son and replaced the capital to Veliki Preslav. This had already become a center of Christianity in the region. It's not a pretty story; Boris I had his son Vladimir-Rasata blinded and put in a dungeon, the rest of his faith remains unknown to us. His wife was shaved and sent to a monastery. Instead of Vladimir-Rasata, another son of Boris I was appointed to the throne; Tsar Simeon I. Simeon remains one of the most popular figures of Bulgarian history, even upto today. The reason why Boris I chose Simeon over his second son Gavril is unknown. Upon a later attack of the Byzantines in 1001, Pliska and Veliki Preslav were captured and never to be rebuilt. A later point - the Battle of Kleidon, marked the end of the First Bulgarian Empire.
How to reach the remains of Pliska
At some 30 kilometres from Shumen city is the modern-day village of Pliska, with just outside the village the archaeological sites. Pliska nowadays consists of two sites that can be visited; the remains of the inner city and the Basilica, which has partly been reconstructed (still ongoing as of September 2016). The Basilica is about 2 kilometres away from the inner city ruins and you get there by following the narrow road from the parking. You can reach it by car and there will be plenty of other cars - best is to follow them or just walk. As Shumen is in general far from everywhere except from Varna, Veliko Tarnovo and Bucharest, it is worth it to include some of the many other sights in your itinerary. Which ones, you're asking? Please find some pictures below. You will stumble over the historical sights in this region so visit some to make your trip worthwhile - especially if you come from a place so far as Sofia. Shumen itself can easily be reached by car and bus. Should you consider making the long haul from Sofia by train, there are daily trains going to Varna all stopping in Shumen. Night trains are likely to be available as well. Check the schedule on the website of the Bulgarian National Railways.