The Cherven fortress near Ruse is one of the most beautiful Bulgarian fortresses. It is not by chance that the Baldwin tower in the Tsarevets fortress in the old capital city of Veliko Tarnovo was modeled after one of the Cherven’s defensive towers. There was simply not enough historical information what the tower in Tarnovo actually looked like, where according to a legend the Latin emperor Baldwin of Flanders spent his last days in captivity, so the restoration experts used a fully preserved three-story tower, dated around 14th century, from the protective bastions of Cherven as a model. This is the reason why if you are ever visiting the Cherven fortress, it might look a bit familiar.
The Cherven Fortress, located about 35 km away from Ruse in the Ruse Lom Nature Park, has been built and destroyed many times over the centuries. Despite that, it is almost as old as the Bulgarian state itself. It was built in the 6th century during the rule of Roman emperors Anastasius I and Justinian I, initially as a military fortification supposed to stop barbarian raids. During the First Bulgarian State, a small settlement was founded on the site, and during the Second, the fortress began bearing the name Cherven. To this day the origin of its name is not completely clear. One of the theories suggests the name comes from the Bulgarian word for the color red, which is “cherven”. According to another theory, the fortress was named by Russian settlers from the town of Cherven in Galicia, who had settled near the fortress but abandoned it in the 13th century, fleeing from Tatar raids.
The importance of Cherven grew in the 13th century, when it became the center of the Cherven Metropolis. The heyday of the city was in the period between 12th and 14th century, when its territory grew significantly to about 1 square kilometer. At that time, the fortress was the ancestral domain of Georgi Terter and was considered the second most important settlement in the Bulgarian state after Tsarevets. The city became a large trade and craft settlement. A castle, property of the Cherven Boyar, was built. Coins were minted in the city. The fortress was destroyed twice in the 13th century – once by an earthquake and the second time by Tatar raids.
It was believed that the churches embedded in the defensive walls protected the fortress from invaders
While walking around the fortress you can see the difference between Bulgarian and Byzantine construction. The thick outer walls were built with larger blocks by the Byzantines, and those of the inner fortress with smaller stones. Cherven was also naturally protected by the rocks on which it was built, which in some places reach a height of up to 100 meters. As you explore the fortress you will see the foundations of the 13 churches that the city had. An interesting fact is that some of these churches are embedded in the protective fortress walls. The Bulgarians were convinced that they were triply protected from invaders – once because of the strength of the fortress, twice because of the sharp Bulgarian swords of its defenders, thrice – by God.
The feudal castle of the local Boyar faced the main street. The building was trapezoidal in shape and the walls were between 1.20 meters and 1.40 meters thick. In the fenced courtyard of the castle there was also a private church for the ruler. In his yard there was also a cistern to collect rainwater. Many smaller cisterns were carved into the rocks in many places within the fortress. Wartime water supply facilities to be used during defending the settlement were also planned. They were reached by a very steep staircase.
In Cherven, you can also see the remains of residential buildings and workshops that were built in an amphitheater around both sides of the 2-meter-wide main street. Most of the homes have had only one room on the first floor, and the second floor had to be reached by an internal staircase. Some of the dwellings had clay stoves similar to fireplaces for heating.
Over the centuries, Cherven has attracted various travelers and inspired famous personalities such as the revolutionary Rakovsky, the traveler Felix Kanitz, and the explorers Shkorpil brothers. Today, the fortress is open to visitors without a day off. The price of entrance tickets for individual visitors is BGN 10, while schoolchildren and students enjoy a 50 percent discount. For organized groups of more than 5 people, the price of 1 ticket is BGN 6. The guided talk in Bulgarian costs BGN 15, and in English BGN 25 for the whole group.