West to East Micronesia China Mongolia Russia Baltic Region Visegrad Region Balkan Penninsula East to West Ancient Civilizations Straddling the Straight Southern Africa Eastern Africa Ethiopia United Arab Emirates South Asia Crossing Photo Album Trip Logistics Itinerary Transport Logs Route Maps About Us
Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Bulgarian Flag BULGARIA


November 14. SOFIA  "Day Trip to Rila Monastery"  Having only allotted two days to Bulgaria - not nearly enough - we had identified one place that we all really wanted to visit, Rila Monastery, the holiest place in Bulgaria.  It was a day trip outside of Sofia but inconveniently reached via public transport so it was fortunate that we were able to arrange transport through our hostel.  The owner, whose name I regret that I cannot remember, drove us in his car and turned out to be a great guide as well.  

We didn't rush to get an early start since it was just the three of us and our driver he had only just returned from another all day tour to Rila the night before.  We lingered over breakfast and spent some time on the Internet.  Our LP posting had confirmed that we didn't need to worry about getting a visa ahead of time for Macedonia so we resolved to just take the bus over to Skopje the next morning and just see what happened.

Our drive to Rila was a bit harrowing but there was little traffic.  Our guide's compact car was run off of a small LPG (liquid propane gas) tank that had been fixed into back.  It was a do-it-yourself modification that had become a popular way to lower gas costs.  He was easily able to find a station to refill his tank before we set off towards Rila.  Lesley was sitting in front and no doubt had her eyes wide open as we sped past cars and practically flew up the highway.  We made one other stop for coffees at a gas station cafe at the highway turnoff to Rila.  It was a nice break and we enjoyed some sunshine.  By the time we reached the Monastery, tucked way up a narrow valley, the sky was starting to get cloudy and a mist was settling over the monastery.

It was a magnificent monastery.  Individually it surpassed any of the painted monasteries in Romania in its detail and was uniquely different in its stylistic elements but had not lasted undisturbed for as long as the painted monasteries.  The monastery was originally built in 927 but was extensively restored in 1469.  It has been a stubborn stronghold in the maintenance of Bulgarian culture and religion during the centuries of Turkish rule.  It was engulfed by fire in 1833 but was soon rebuilt to its present form. 

We entered from the back gate, the Samokov Gate.  A small tree adorned with red and white woven bracelets stood to the left of the gate.  The bracelets were given to people in March and later tied to the tree with a wish for good luck.  As we came through the gate I was immediately struck by the 23m high Hrelyu Tower that pierced the roofline of the monastery walls and rose higher than the central dome of the church.  The church was positioned at an angle to the walls and as colorfully decorated with red and white stripes on the top, around the domes, and black and white stripes along the bottom, above the archways to the patio.  The patio walls that surrounded the building on three sides were covered in brilliant frescos painted in bold colors, similar in style to the painted monasteries of S. Bucovina in Romania.  Small domes protruded from the patio roof and had vivid images of Mary and Jesus.  Along the bottom of the walls there were some images of the hell realm.  The walls of the monastery were filled with housing for the monks and other rooms and had the same black and white striping along its outer archways but also had ornately carved wooden balconies protruding from various spots.  Some of the rooms featured an obvious Turkish influence with their wood carved ceilings, carpet covered floors and bench seating surrounding the walls.   It was an outstanding collection of styles and colors that made it a completely unique experience.  

We made a stop in the old kitchen that stood on the opposite side of the courtyard from the church.  It was built back in 1816 and had an enormous chimney that extended all of the way up 22m through the several floors of the building.  The cavernous structure was made with 10 rows of arches that gradually narrowed to the small opening at the top.  It was charred black from smoke but the sheer height of the chimney gave the relatively small kitchen a feeling of spaciousness.  A massive pot, the size of a hot tub, stood on one side of the room.

We climbed to the fourth story of rooms built into the walls and were rewarded with a great view out across the domes of the church and into the misty hillsides that surrounded the monastery.  The courtyard was paved with large stones of various sizes.  We were told that this was added as a gift by a visiting Sultan whose daughter was cured of a serious illness after the monastery prayed for her.  Some of the large stones served as tomb stones for monks that were laid to rest in the very courtyard of the monastery, their names faintly etched on the naturally shaped stones.    

Our guide spent some time talking with one of that fathers while we looked around.  He made enough visits to the monastery that he must have been becoming good friends with the monks that lived there.  As he stood talking with the priest on the porch of the church we heard the whiny voice with an American east coast accent bellow to the priest to look her way so she could photograph him.  There was no asking but more of a demand, as though he were part of an amusement park attraction.  At moments like those you are sure that there are some people that should not be allowed to leave their home countries.  Not that we didn't see many inconsiderate travelers from other countries during our travels but it is always more humbling when you are embarrassed by your own!  We chalked it up to the tendencies of tour group travel.  While it has many appeals in term of convenience and guide provided information, the tourists often are too absorbed in their tour group bubble to really touch the place they visit.  In effect the whole country becomes likes one big museum or attraction instead of a tangible experience.

We ran into our new roommate from the hostel, the Aussie fellow with loads of luggage. He had made the visit to the monastery by public transport which had left him in a mad rush to see the monastery before the last bus left for Sofia.  It was poorly designed transport for tourists.  It was a shame that the car we were in was really too small for anyone else.  We were quite cozy as it was.  But, we were glad that we had decided to go via organized transport so we could really spend time to see the monastery at our leisure.  

The interior of the church was splendid but not as unique at its exterior.  It did, however, have a few things that were particularly memorable.  The first was the tomb to Bulgaria's last Tsar that stood in a chapel on the right hand side of the church.  It wasn't an elaborate tomb but relatively new, since just his organs had been buried there.  The story of his death is shrouded in some mystery.  He apparently died immediately after a visit with Hitler.  He was praised by his people for his negotiating abilities and skill at keeping Bulgaria out of WWII and not turning over the countries Jewish population.  He kept dodging the demands of Hitler and it is suspected that he was poisoned by the wicked fascist when they last met and the Bulgarian Tsar still did not show signs of yielding.  The organs were removed from the body for testing but nothing was ever proven.  The communists apparently made away with the rest of the body in order to keep a memorial from being set up that might perpetuate loyalty to the Tsarist government.  Today, the son of the last Tsar, Simeon II (who fled his country in 1943) is Prime Minister of Bulgaria and the position of President is held by the leader for the Bulgaria Community Party, the same group that are said to be responsible for the disappearance of his father's body.  It is one very bizarre turn of events.  Once the Soviet Bloc fell the memorial inside Rila was created with that organs that had been preserved from the last Tsar's body.  

Another interesting detail inside the church was an elaborate reliquary that contained bone fragments from about twenty saints.  The reliquary was a kind of drawer that pulled out from beneath an icon.  The drawer contained twenty little windows which revealed the bone fragments while the icon above was divided into twenty small squares that each corresponded to a window in the drawer, identifying the saint whose bone was seen.  The final noteworthy item inside the church was a large candelabra that was donated by a Turkish Sultan in the name of peace.  The embers of tension still exist between Bulgaria and Turkey to this day.

The greatest bonus of having gone to Rila with a car was that our guide took us to a not so easily found hermitage that was a few kilometers up the road behind the monastery.  He parked alongside the road and we hiked a leave covered trail until we could see a small stone church hugging the side of the mountain.  It was tended by a single man who greeted us when we arrived.  The church was old and had some nice frescos inside but the highlight of this trip was the odd hermitage that stood behind it.  A pathway led around the back of the church were some steps climbed up into a space between large boulders.  It took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dim light provided by candles on a the stone alter inside.  We turned on our flashlights to make our way beyond the alter to a small ladder at the back of the cave.  I started up the ladder first and wriggled my way through a stone hole that led out the top of the boulders and to the mountain side above the church.  This process was meant to perform a kind of cleansing of the soul and I couldn't help but recollect the birthing rock at Baldan Baraivan Monastery in Bulgaria.   It is quite likely that a pagan custom had given rise to this "cleansing" rock at Rila, just as old Shamanist customs were thought to have influenced the "birthing" rock.  Both customary relics from nature based beliefs that preceded Christianity and Buddhism.

Just a bit farther up the trail from the church was a fresh spring that had been made into prayer site.  Small pieces of paper with prayers written on them were tightly folded and wedged into the cracks of a stone wall, not unlike the Japanese Shinto custom of writing a wish on a wooden plaque and tying it to a tree.  The Chinese Buddhists use locks as a wish token at the Great Buddha in Leshan.

The man tending to the church asked us for a ride back to the monastery one our way down so Rob, Lesley and I squeezed into the back seat so he could have the front seat.  When we let him out I took the front seat, with our guides jacked stuffed up behind the right side of my back to compensate for his the crookedness of his recently broken seat.  As we zipped down the valley I felt my palms start to sweat and understood what Lesley  must have been feeling during our ride up to Rila.  The traffic was a bit heavier now that it was at the end of the day and our guide joined in with all of the other drivers in a game of passing, dodging and weaving that was somehow meant to get us to Sofia faster.  As he pulled up to tailgate the cars ahead of us I felt my right foot press against the floor like an imaginary break with my right hand clenched to the arm rest on the door and my left hand wrapped around the edge of the seat.  I casually mentioned that people in our country were quite weary of following cars as close as people in Bulgaria since the law always blames the person behind for any rear-end accidents.  He nodded in agreement and said it was the same in Bulgaria but either didn't take my hint or didn't feel it applied to his driving skill.  I began to wondered how easily our LPG tank would combust upon impact. As this race to reach Sofia continued I felt my eyes widened and began taking long deep breaths to mask my periodic gasps.  It was just a two lane highway with not much of a shoulder so there was little room to maneuver past too many cars at one time but they still dared to pass each other and just force their way in ahead of the next car.  An ambulance came roaring up from behind us with its sirens blaring.  Not a single car seemed to notice or make any effort to move out of the way.  I made another casual comment about how it was illegal in our country not to pull over when an ambulance needed to come through.  Rob and Lesley echoed the comment from the back seat.  Our guide nodded that it was the same in Bulgaria as he sped up to tailgate the ambulance that had managed to squeeze its way past us.  It was a hair raising experience and when we finally arrived in Sofia I am sure that I saw some of the same cars that we had passed or had passed us, probably more than once, since we had pulled onto the highway.  

We returned to our cozy tavern from the night before for another dinner and bottle of wine. Having returned from Rila in tact was worth a toast!

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24