Mystical Rila Monastery
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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When checking in to the Art Hostel in Sofia I picked up another wayward traveller who was trying to find her own way out to Rila. Praveen the Kiwi liked the sound of a 15 Euro door-to-door day out so after adding her to the list we ended up at a Bulgarian folk restaurant eating wild boar sausages (not so great), having the 'Sights v People' travel debate and having my palm read. 'Ahhh... so that isn't my Life Line that's brutally cut in half - it's my Head Line instead huh?' Well, a lobotomy does sound much better than a premature death. Phew.
Next day we almost missed the car but Boris the driver (probably not his real name) wasn't particularly worried. Rila wasn't going anywhere as it had been in the same location since the 10th century AD but as we sped through murky industrialised countryside he overtook like a demon and covered the 120km in record time.
Once we got there it became obvious the trip was worth it though. Nestled in the heavily wooded and rather misty Rila Mountains, the largest monastery in Bulgaria has been a spiritual centre of the country since the venerated Saint John of Rila was sleeping on dank rocks under the stars aroundabouts here. He founded it in 927AD but its current incarnation dates from the 1830s after a fire engulfed the place and the dedicated monks had to start anew.
There is room for around 300 monks in the cloisters with cells on four levels of beautifully striped balconies surrounding a peaceful trapezoidal courtyard. Slinky green moss covers the flaggings and the place drips with moisture and prayer. Black-clad orthodox priests scuttle about trying to avoid the tour groups. Most surfaces seem to be covered with geometrically enhanced paintwork and fir trees complete a picture of enduring serenity.
The Nativity Church and adjacent tower are the centrepieces - the 23 metre tower being the only remains of extensive 15th century renovations. Outside the church is magnificently decorated with vividly accented murals - many resembling coloured cartoon strip frames as Praveen succinctly observed. Scenes feature plenty of fire and brimstone as usual, plus some angels and demons competing for the hearts and minds of the wavering in many a panel. Rest assured though, if someone wavered too far this church had the solution - get a saintly figure (with golden halo of course) to stand on their chest and impale them with a holy sword! Tidy. Obviously some didn't qualify for mercy and repentance back then. Tough titties to them.
Inside is very dark which helps visitors respect the wishes of management for no photography. That's cool, the mood is very sombre anyway and entry is free so am happy to respect their wish and the murals outside are the highlight.
You can stay overnight in one of the cold monk cells and there is a museum (a couple we visited with weren't greatly impressed as all the caption cards are in Cyrillic), but we opted for food instead. A fire was blazing in a neighbouring restaurant and whilst the food wasn't great it was good to escape the constant drizzle. Still, am very happy to have made the effort to visit Rila as it really is a grand religious house and another example of creative juices gone wild in a very becoming manner.
Back through the industrial wastelands on a detour route to Sophia (I swear we went past a decrepit Chernobyl-looking nuclear power plant) gave us the chance to ponder some of the less attractive communist-era residential areas in and around town. Views do get better in the city itself and as a whole Sofia is a gritty and edgy destination, but I was keen to move on so bee-lined straight for the main attraction, the gold-domed Aleksander Nevsky Church.
Built by the Bulgarian people to commemorate many thousands of Russian, Ukrainian, Finnish, Moldavian and Bulgarian troops who died in the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turks in 1877-8, this is one hulking and bizarre blob of a church. Again on the inside it is very dark (and to be honest just a little dismal), but that's probably how the parishioners like it so no more bitching from me. I much preferred the little St Nikolia church down the road (above right) and watching the speed-chess being played in the park as I cruised by - although the very short move times (less than 15 seconds) doesn't make for high quality play.
Later that night I boarded a sleeper for Belgrade in Serbia, which ended a short but sweet six day visit to Bulgaria. There are other worthwhile places to visit here, in particular the Black Sea Coast and also a number of ski resorts in the southern alps during winter, but that will have to wait for another time or another traveller. Despite the early hiccup I would certainly recommend it to others and expect this part of the world is going to become more popular on the tourist scene whilst prices remain low and it retains that gritty intensity and atmosphere. It's not easy travel but it's genuinely interesting and not sugar coated which should appeal to many.
Catch you next time.
Great Brands of the World - Bulgaria
With a pretty simple message plastered all over the country it's not so surprising that I am now very inclined randomly purchase, drink and even clean my teeth with Flirt Vodka.
As with Russia, it seems Bulgaria is yet to develop the advertising and branding sophistication of the west, let alone its regulations. So you end up seeing these posters at least a dozen times a day wherever you are in Bulgaria, and come to think of it, I think I saw one outside the monastery...
No doubt the male population, who I have a sneaking suspicion is Flirt's target audience, appreciates it anyway.
Where I stayed