Shumen (Bulgarian: Шумен) is a city in northeastern part of Bulgaria, notable for the huge Monument looming over the city and its proximity to two medieval capitals of Bulgaria, Pliska and Preslav, and the Madara Rider, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With a population of slightly more than 70 thousand, it's the tenth largest city in Bulgaria and the centre of Shumen Province, 300 km (190 mi) to the north-east of the capital Sofia, 80 km (50 mi) west of the Black Sea coast at Varna, and 100 km (62 mi) south-east of Ruse (and Romania) on the Danube.
In modern Bulgarian, shumen means literally "noisy". Another possible etymology comes from the Slavic root shuma, which in modern Bulgarian refers to the (fallen) foliage of trees, but it still means "wood, forest" in Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian. The preferred transliteration of the name has varied throughout the years (Shoumen, Šumen, etc); 19th century English-language texts usually call it Shumla. Shumen is also one of the Bulgarian cities that used to have a "Communist name" - it was officially renamed to Kolarovgrad between 1950 and 1965, after Vasil Kolarov (1877-1950), a major figure in the Bulgarian Communist Party and the Communist International who was born in the city.
Geography and orientation
Shumen lies at the base of the Shumen Plateau, a wood-covered limestone height that rises over the Bulgarian Danubian Plain without being connected to any mountain range. The Plateau has roughly the shape of a horseshoe or the letter C, and the city "spills out" from the gap into the fields to the east and south-east. A small river, Poroyna ("flood [river]"), drains from the Plateau and runs through the city in an ugly, utilitarian channel before flowing into the larger Kamchia nearby.
Shumen originated as a fortified settlement on the top of the Plateau, 4 km (2.5 mi) west of the modern city centre. Its earliest traces date back at least to the 11th century BCE, but the first serious stone fortifications were built by the Romans after they conquered the area in the early decades of the 1st century CE. Afterwards, the fortress was destroyed and rebuilt several times in different eras. The peak of its importance and development as a city was during the Second Bulgarian Empire, and the earliest recorded use of the name "Shumen" is in a stone inscription dating to that era. Together with the rest of the region, Shumen was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1388. In 1444, the fortress was besieged and taken over in a bloody battle during the failed Varna Crusade, an attempt to liberate the Balkans from Ottoman rule by combined Polish, Hungarian and Burgundian forces. Afterwards, the crusaders advanced east towards Varna where they fought and lost a decisive battle.
It is unclear if the city was destroyed during the battle or abandoned afterwards, but by the 16th century it was already in its modern place, at the base of the plateau. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a system of fortifications was built and expanded around the city, as it formed one corner of the "quadrangle of fortresses" (Varna, Silistra, Ruse, Shumen) that guarded the northern border of the Ottoman Empire. The city played a part in several of the Russo-Turkish wars, but notably not the Liberation War of 1877-1878 - the main thrust of the Russian forces bypassed the "quadrangle" and Shumen was surrendered only after the end of the war. Its military importance is why Shumen was one of the few Bulgarian cities listed in the famous 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (as "Shumla"). Despite that, little remains of the Ottoman fortifications today, and it hasn't been improved to be tourist-friendly.
Shumen is a major station on the main line Sofia-Varna that runs along the length of Northern Bulgaria. This means that there are multiple daily direct trains from Sofia (6 hours), Pleven (3 hours), Targovishte (30-40 min) and Varna (100-140 min). Veliko Tarnovo requires changing trains at Gorna Oryahovitsa (close to Tarnovo; about 2½ hr to Shumen); Vratsa, Montana and Vidin require changing trains at Mezdra; Ruse requires changing at Gorna Oryahovitsa or Kaspichan. Kaspichan, the junction station where the Ruse-Varna line merges into the Sofia-Varna line, is just 20 km (12 mi) east of Shumen.
- 1 Train Station (Zheh Peh Gara, ЖП гара) (10 min walk east of the main street). A large, grim building with a stone facade that was built during WW2 - its cavernous waiting hall was designed to shelter two companies (battalions? regiments?) of soldiers. The interior hasn't undergone any major renovation since the end of the 1980s, so you can still see some Communism-era wall art about Shumen Region's glorious medieval past. Even the traditional schedule board is out of order, the schedule is on printouts posted on the wall next to the information desk. The pedestrian underpass to the platforms also crosses the whole width of the rails, in case you need a shortcut north to the Praktiker and Kaufland stores or the Thracian Quarter. No public WC, but there's one in the nearby Bus Station (see below). The building with a large shining golden dome that can be seen from the platform is not a place of worship or any other kind of tourist sight, but the residence of a local, er, rich person.
The train station is right opposite the back side of the Bus Station (Avtogara) - 50 m/yd across a large parking lot. The back side of the city park (Gradskata gradina) forms the west side of the square - you can go up a staircase and follow the alleys west to Bulgaria Square roundabout, the east end of the main street.
One can get around the town well by foot, bike or taxi. Public transport by bus is also possible.
Except for the Monument and perhaps the Mosque and the Fortress, most of the sights in Shumen itself are of the "if you are already here" variety. The big tourists draws are outside - the ruins of Pliska and Preslav and the Madara Rider (see the § Nearby section below).
- 1 Founders of the Bulgarian State (1300 Years of Bulgaria). A huge Communist-era monument looming over the city. Its most prominent feature is the 1000-ton granite lion topping one of the angular concrete bodies, but there are also cubist-like statues of Bulgarian rulers in its base, as well as some mosaic panes depicting scenes of Bulgarian history. The monument was built on the Shumen Plateau in the early 1980s, as a part of the celebrations of the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire (in 681), hence the alternative name. Unlike other monuments of that era, it hasn't been abandoned and charges for admission. The long staircase that connects the monument to the main pedestrian street is also used by the citizens of Shumen for recreation.
- 2 Tombul Mosque.
- Kurşun çeşme (fountain).
- 3 Shumen Fortress.
- 4 Shumen History Museum.
Hiking is a popular activity in Shumen due to the proximity of the Plateu. A map of the marked trails and their colours can be found on BGMountains.org (zoomed-in map online; downloadable maps for Garmin with Latin place names). There's also a paper map (1:25,000 scale) in passable English - you can buy it from the small shop at the Monument's parking lot, and perhaps other locations.
Paragliding and hang gliding
The local landscape makes the Shumen Plateau a good spot for paragliding. There are three established take-off spots within walking distance (1 km) of the parking lot of the Monument. While it remains a popular activity, the local paragliding club seems to be defunct and as of 2023, the only available contact info is for a local commercial operation:
- BenFly Tandem Flights. Organized tandem paragliding flights (i.e. pilot + "passenger") over the Shumen Plateau, by arrangement/reservation. They claim to work in all seasons, if the weather is favourable. Between 100 and 200 лв for a 10-15 min flight.
The largest two hotels in the city date back to the Communist era, but while Hotel Madara still looms over one of Shumen's central squares, it's been closed since the early 2010s. A number of smaller hotels have been established all over the city since the 1990s.
- 1 Grand Hotel Shumen (200 m west of the western end of the main street). A large four-star hotel, built in the last years of the Communist regime. A good example of the "futuristic" architecture that was fashionable at that time, down to its anodized aluminium window frames. It's been maintained and renovated, but original sins are hard to erase. The hotel has three restaurants, a parking lot, etc. It's also pretty close to Tombul Mosque and the western end of the city centre.
Three major historical sites are within 30 km (19 mi) of the city - the ruins of Pliska and Preslav, the medieval capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire, and the Madara Horseman, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you are travelling by car, it's possible to hit all three in a single day; using public transport is trickier.
- 5 Madara Rider (Madara Horseman). An ancient bas-relief of a horseman spearing a lion, carved into the limestone cliffs of the Madara Plateau near the village of Madara, 15 km (9.3 mi) east of Shumen. One of the symbols of Bulgaria (it's depicted on the back side of low-denomination coins) and the centerpiece of the Madara Archeological Reserve, which also includes a very small museum, the Madara Fortress on top of the cliffs, several caves and other ruins.
- 6 Ruins of Pliska. An archeological reserve that contains the ruins of the first capital of the First Bulgarian Empire, next to the modern village with the same name. Pliska was established in the 9th century, and it's notable for a number of historical events, including being sacked and burned by the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I (which lead to his death and his skull being turned into a drinking cup) and being the place where the Bulgarian ruler Boris I was baptized and started the Christianization of Bulgaria. The reserve includes a small museum; the ruins of the Great Basilica are several hundred meters north of the parking lot at the entrance of the fortress, along a paved road.
- 7 Ruins of Preslav. Another archeological reserve. The ruins of medieval Preslav are south of the modern small town of Veliki Preslav; the reserve's archeological museum is on the road between the town and the ruins. Preslav became the second capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893, when Simeon I (Simeon the Great) decided to move his court there. It also became the center of the Pliska-Preslav Literary School, a circle of scholars who created the Cyrillic alphabet. A notable sub-ruin within the reserve is the unusually shaped Round (or Gold) Church of Preslav.
- Southwest of Shumen, close to Kotel, there is a nice village, Medven, with old wooden houses, a nice little waterfall, and a good restaurant and hotel (30 лв for a double room).
|Routes through Shumen|
|Pleven ← Targovishte ←||W E||→ Kaspichan (junction station) → Varna|
|Ruse ← Razgrad ←||N E||→ Runs onto → Devnya → Varna|
|Veliko Tarnovo ← Targovishte ← Becomes ←||W E||→ Devnya → Varna|