Lifestyles of the Rich & (in)Famous

It's not every day that you get to sleep were Mikhail Gorbachev once laid his famously birth-marked head. And don't you just dream of such a day? We booked a triple room at Arbanashki Han, the only one available online in our price range. When we arrived and they noticed we were a couple, they apologized that the triple had three individual beds, all narrower than a twin. "For 10 euros more, we can give you the apartment." We declined. These things happen, no problem at all, we'll get through. "Can I just show you the apartment?" the eager, nice gentleman asked. "It is very special." Pride was as much of a motivating factor as those 10 extra Bulgarian levs. The big, wooden door was opened to revel a massive, two floor suite. "Mikhail Gorbachev stayed in this apartment in 2002," he told us. We'll take it!
The Arbanassi Inn (Han = Inn) is also known as the Hadjihristov House. Built in 1646 by a wealthy merchant family of that name, it was one of many affluent homes in Arbanassi. The 17th and 18th century were wildly successful years for the village. Traders and craftsman did business with Russia, Poland, Greece, India, Persia, everywhere, using the mighty river Danube and benefiting from a tax exemption that covered all residents. At the end of the 16th century, Sultain Suleiman the Magnificent had actually gifted the entire town to his son in law, making it 'royal property' and therefore free from any taxation. Arbanassi has been VIP real estate from the beginning of its written history.
During Communism, the house, like most property, became state owned. Chairman of the Fatherland Front, Pencho Kubandinski, took a liking to the Hadjihristov House, renamed it "Arbanashki Han" and began to summer here. This is his original desk and library, right there in our (and Gorby's) suite. The 'notorious Arbanassi dames' of yesteryear were no longer prancing down the streets in silk and fur, servants following with jewel boxes in hand. There were no longer Wallachian princes building their second homes in the bucolic area overlooking Veliko Tarnovo. But the new upper crust - i.e. Kubandinski and his friends in high offices - kept Arbanassi's status as an elite retreat in tact.
"Real estate here is more expensive than in the states!" a Bulgarian man from Memphis, Tennessee told us. He'd visited the Arbanashki Han over a decade ago and looked a little sad at the construction being done on the leafy property. An in-ground swimming pool and conference center. "Rich digs" means something different nowadays. "Foreigners like to come and see old things, but Bulgarians like everything new!" he lamented further. Case and point: Kaloyanove Fortress. Its lobby is pictured above.  Welcome to Cribs, everybody.
We booked a night here on a lark, reading that it was a "Medieval Castle." We can't be sure exactly when it was built, but it was nominated for the 2008 Building of the Year Award from a Bulgarian hotel association.  According to the lobby pamphlet, the Fortress is a "great challenge to history."  Lost in translation.  A statue of King Kaloyan, or Kaloyan the Romanslayer as the kids call him, stands out front near the moat and drawbridge.  The tsar's monument is "one of the newest in the history of Bulgaria," the management boasts.  New, new, new. 
I doubt that living like a king was quite like this in Medieval Times. So... odor-free.  There were towel doves on our bed and a shower/jacuzzi thing smack in the middle of our room. The bathing contraption was so big and shiny that I fully expected Merlin to go in and emerge dressed as Batman. The hotel has a DJ at night, folk dancing on occasion and, by request, can give you a helicopter ride. The interior is the work of an Italian firm and the sound system is American.  Their slogan is "Enjoy a Royal Party!" It all reminded us of another thing our Bulgarian-Tennesseean neighbor had told us. "Now, all the buildings here are built by the mafia. Short lives, but rich ones!"
And then there is the truly named Arbanassi Palace, home of Todor Zhivkov who ruled Bulgaria as the head of the Communist Party for 35 years - one of the longest non-royal reigns in history.  He had this residence built in 1975, about halfway through his time as leader.  I'm sure he would have bristled at the word 'palace,' but that's sure what it is.  The location is magnificent, looking out over Veliko Tarnovo and the mountains.  Seeing it from afar, it couldn't have looked more perfectly like a Communist Palace - grand, but without ornamentation, big, blocky, but with subtly rounded towers that evoke hilltop castles.

After Zhivkov's forced resignation in 1989 and the subsequent fall of Communism in Bulgaria, the building was turned into a hotel.  Once you get up close, it looks more like a hotel than someone's home anyway.  So, a no-brainer.  If you're wondering why Mr. Gorbachev didn't stay here instead, it's probably because during his 2002 visit they were tearing down some walls. They were renovating. I'm not sure if the solarium, Turkish bath, tennis courts and swimming pool were part of Todor Zhivkov's original floor plan.
We didn't stay at the Arbanassi Palace, but we did stop by for an evening cocktail.  It felt a little like trick-or-treating at a certain house just to catch a glimpse of what it looks like inside. There was a chandelier and leather-chair filled lobby bar, but the outdoor terrace beckoned. The views were vast and gorgeous, the sunset sublime.  A white circle with an H in the center marked a helipad on the field below.  There was no wonder at all why, in all of this large country, Zhivkov chose this spot for a residence.  We clinked our glasses and Robin Leach's voice popped into my head.  To shampansko wishes and caviar dreams!
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