Arbanasi is one of the most picturesque old settlements in Bulgaria. It is located 4 kin northeast of Veliko Tarnovo, on a high plateau, which reveals a magnificent panoramic view of the famous hills Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora. The settlement astounds the visitors with its monumental Revival architecture and richly-painted churches from XV1-XVII c., situated in unique nature. In 1995 Arbanasi was pronounced architectural-museum reserve with a total of 143 cultural monuments.
There aren't any written documents referring to the historical beginning of Arbanasi. One of the hypotheses is that it was settled by Bulgarian boyars from the western-most ends of the country after the great victory of Tsar Ivan Asen II near Klokotnitsa in 1230, when he acquired the Arbanasi (Albanian) land. According to preserved documents from about 1460, there was already a settlement on this spot, probably inhabited by Christened Albanians. With a royal decree from 1538 the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent granted Arbanasi along with the villages of Lyaskovets, Gorna and Dolna Oryahovitsa to his son-in-law, the grand vizier Rustem Pasha. The inhabitants of Arbanasi took the obligation of protecting the nearby passage and were granted major tax concessions in return. The settlement retained this status until the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878. These favorable conditions along with the natural features of the region led to the great economic prosperity of Arbanasi during the period XVII-XVIII c.
Stock-breeding, poultry-raising, vine-growing, silkworm-breeding, as well as numerous crafts -coppersmith's and goldsmith's trade, homespun tailoring, etc. were well-developed. The people of Arbanasi were famous for their trade mastery. Along with interior trade, they were also very successful in their trade relations with Dubrovnik, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Wallachia, the Duchy of Moscow, and Persia and India in the far south and east. The ethnical composition of the population was diverse - Bulgarians, Albanian settlers, Turkish, representatives of other Balkan ethnicities. Most of the population was Orthodox Christian and the official language until 1878 was the Greek. In 1779 the first Greek school in Bulgaria was established here. There are lots of cataclysms noted in Arbanasi's history - bandit attacks (1798), earthquakes of great magnitude (1738, 1849 and 1913), cholera and plague outbreaks (1848), along with other misadventures, but the settlement managed to resist the vicissitudes and rehabilitate.
The history and culture of Arbanasi are most clearly reflected in the beautiful churches, richly decorated with mural paintings, wood-carving and elegant wood-carved iconostases. The village has 5 churches and 2 monasteries, erected in the end of the XVI and the beginning of the XVII c. The churches in Arbanasi have similar architectural plan - they are stone basilica-like buildings with one apse. They consist of a men section (naos), a women section (narthex) and a gallery oriented from north, ending with a small chapel. The oldest temple in Arbanasi is the "Nativity Church" , with "St. John the Baptist" Chapel. In the beginning it only consisted of the current naos (men section) with its mural paintings finished in 1597. Afterwards the church was expanded, with several more mural painting stages noticeable (1632, 1638, 1649, and 1681).
The church "St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel" is the biggest one in Arbanasi, erected about 1600. Next to it is the chapel of "St. Paraskeva". The icon-painting was finished in 1760, and the well-preserved mural paintings still amaze the numerous visitors today. Other temples in Arbanasi are the "St. George" church (1661), which has a beautiful wood-carved iconostasis and mural paintings from 1710, the "St. Demetrius" church (XVII c.) with mural paintings from 1612 and 1794, and the "St. Atanas" church (1637) with the chapel of "St. Haralampi". There are also two monasteries in Arbanasi - "Assumption of Virgin Mary" and "St. Nicola", situated in the two opposing ends of the village. They were erected back in the time of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, destroyed during the Ottoman invasion, and rebuilt again, and are now functional monasteries.
The rich Revival houses attest to the economic progress and wealth of the Arbanasi people during the XVII-XVIII c. The Arbanasi houses have unique architecture with no analogy all over the country. They are massive, built from stone, enclosed with high walls and resemble small fortresses. The unapproachable oak gates are studded with large iron nails, and the small windows are barred with iron grating. Contrasting to the harsh outside look, the inner space of these houses impresses with its rich and diverse decoration - elegant wood-carvings, plaster decorations, friezes, etc. The houses have inside staircases, a hiding-place and several entrances. The ground floor used to have farm functions and the upper floor consisted of official chambers - a hall (haet), a living room (odaya), a dining room, as well as bedrooms and offices. The Arbanasi house attests to the wealth of the people and their good taste, as well as to the skills of the local masters.
Two marvelous buildings from the XVII century - the Konstantsaliev and the Hadzhiiliev houses - have been reconstructed and turned into museums. Guests can fully appreciate the atmosphere of this unique Revival settlement in these two houses. The Konstantsaliev house impresses with the characteristic monumental architecture. It's a two-storeyed house with the first floor made of stone. It consists of the guard's room, a room for the servants, storehouses, cellars, a stable, the hiding-place, main and everyday staircases, as well as a special staircase to the hiding-place. The main entrance is protected by a massive gate studded with nails, with a special small barred window for the guard. The second floor consists of official chambers, bedrooms and offices. There is a special room for the lying-in woman in the most secluded part of the floor. The rooms are spacious, richly decorated, and the fireplaces, cupboards and wood-carved ceilings bring warmth and coziness.
The Hadzhiiliev house is also two-storeyed, with typical architecture for rich Arbanasi houses. An impressive parade entrance and a wide staircase lead to the second floor. There, on both sides of a long corridor, are situated guest rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms. At the far end there is a large kitchen with a big fireplace and ovens. The decoration of the guest rooms is extremely impressive, with its ceilings covered with white clay ornaments and the upper parts of the walls decorated with friezes of stylized flowers. Beautiful wood-carvings crown the door frames, the shutters and the cupboards. The beautiful Arbanasi fountains with large eaves are also of great interest to the guests - the Kokon and the Market fountains, both dating to the XVIII c. The Kokon fountain was built in 1786 by Mehmed Said Aga, featuring a stone inscription in old arabic, which says: "The one who observes it and drinks from it will gain light in his eyes and in his soul".
Arbanasi is not just an authentic settlement from the Revival period with interesting architecture. It is a unique historical complex, which unnoticeably involves us in the atmosphere of past centuries with its ancient streets, stone houses, and churches with exciting mural paintings. This is the reason for the settlement being one of the most visited tourist sites in the country. Arbanasi offers its guests everything characteristic for Bulgaria - beautiful nature, incredible cultural-historical monuments, coziness and the entertainment of the modern hotels and restaurants, built in the typical Revival style.