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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bulgaria's Best Kept Secret

When we checked in at the hostel last night at midnight, we immediately reserved 2 spots on the 7 hour day trip to Rila Monastery knowing the weather was supposed to be cold and rainy. We figured we might as well spend part of the lousy weather in the comfort of a warm car driving 2 hours each way there rather than walking in the rain around Sophia. Imagine our disappointment then after eating a mouth watering breakfast that was included in the room rate (more on the hostel in another post), and finding out that the other 2 hostel guests who had planned to go on the tour had cancelled and therefore the tour was a no go.

That just seemed like a challenge to me so I went up to all the tables asking if just 2 people wanted to go with us! I'm not sure if it were my powers of persuasion, my winsome personality (!!) or my hustle, but I was successful having successfully coralled Carlos and Rohanna (more about them later) to join us!

Rila Monastery is the largest of Bulgaria's many monasteries - we even had picked up a brochure of the 17 around just Sophia – and it receives a a stream of visitors now arriving by bus or car rather than on foot or by mule as did pilgrims in the old days. Despite its popularity with tourists, the monastery, surrounded by forests, exudes the air of a wilderness and it’s easy to comprehend why 9th C. holy man John of Rila chose this valley as his retreat. What began as a hermitage became an important spiritual center after his death.

The monastery, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, is ringed by mighty walls giving it the outward appearance of a fortress. Once we got through the gate, this impression was dispelled by the beauty of the interior as the graceful arches surround the flagstone courtyard and support tiers of monastic cells and wooden stairways ascend to the top floor balconies. Bold red stripes and black and white check patterns brighten up the fa├žade contrasting with the somber mountains behind, creating a visual harmony between the cloisters and the church within.

I'm thinking after all this you just want to see photos rather than any more descriptions so here you go.

Our first full view of the fabulous Rila Monastery through the small entranceway. We were incredibly fortunate that we had gone on that chilly day because it had scared off the less hardy souls so we virtually had the place to ourselves. I gather that is very unusual as the monastery is usually mobbed by tourists.

The majority of Orthodox churches we've seen have VERY dark interiors just like like this one.

Rohanna, one of the 2 hostel guests I cajoled into accompanying us on the day long tour! She’s from Australia and only 18 but had been traveling for 7 months by herself the entire time all over Europe, even working in one of Budapest’s hostels to get extra travel money as needed. Every time I look at her lovely smiling photo, I am reminded of what an incredibly self possessed, wise and mature, way beyond her tender years young woman Rohanna is. What an absolute delight she must be to her parents. I sincerely hope that Steven and I’ll be able to entice her to visit us in Colorado one day. 
Carlos, our other tour partner, is a 39 year old psychologist from Madrid who has traveled extensively in 58 countries including EVERY province or territory in Canada except for Nunavut and NWT. I know of very few Canadians who’ve been to the Yukon, let alone the other 10 provinces! He must have an almost photographic memory as when the four of us were chatting about Australia, Carlos remembered in great detail his travels there and suggested a possible itinerary for us if we make it there as we hope. He was so gracious saying his doors in Madrid would be open to us as are ours to him too if/when he makes it back to the States. We were incredibly blessed being with such friendly travel companions for the day as both Rohanna and Carlos. 

When we entered the monastery, Steven discovered from speaking with a staff member that we could later buy a combination ticket to see 5 museums inside the monastery which made all the difference in truly appreciating the full breadth of the monastery. For some unknown reason, there was absolutely NO publicity about it, no signs, nothing and so we’ve tried to spread the word to our fellow travelers that they need to take advantage of seeing the museums, not just in the courtyard but also upstairs. There were rope barriers to all the upstairs rooms preventing any tourists from visiting UNLESS one happened to ferret out info about the combination ticket as Steven did. As a result, we alone were escorted to the upper sanctuary by a guide who led us from small room to small room making sure to turn on the security and turn off the lights each time. What an amazing privilege seeing not only the Ethnographic Rooms but also seeing the monastery from other vantage since we were a couple of floors higher than we had been in the courtyard. 

Our first museum 

One of the gifts donated to the monastery by Balkan leaders in deference to and appreciation of the monastery's founder.
Russian 19th C. priestly vestments

Our next stop was the Icon Museum; only able to take a couple of photos of the priests but imagine all 4 walls of a medium sized room covered by photos all like these.
Photo from the Icon Gallery
Still on the main level, outside the Icon Gallery waiting for our guide to take us upstairs
My beloved still smiling even in the non stop drizzle.
Upstairs at last. To me, being there in the mist and rain made it MORE special, magical and indeed spiritual.

Our private tour of the  Ethnographic Rooms begins. Interspersed between seeing the many rooms, are even more photos of the monastery.

The first striped blanket was made from goat hair and was the thickest blanket I can ever remember seeing.

Our mad dash up and even madder dash down Hrelyo's Tower so we could get back to the car on time.

 View from the tower.
We only had about 2 hours at the monastery before being driven a short way to see St. John of Rila’s Cave. To get there though, we climbed a trail to the Chapel of Sveti Luka

Our driver/guide assured all of us we could squeeze through this tiny space in the pitch black cave. I took the photo with a flash!

Carlos decided not to attempt climbing out of the tiny space fearing his backpack would get in the way.
Every church or monastery seems to have had its own spring or fountain that people use to fill up their water bottles.

What a wonderful day we had especially sharing so much of it with newfound friends.