I've never quite managed to become a religious person. I have my own personal beliefs of course, but every religion seems so foreign to me, and there's always a point where I stop being able to follow along with them. Probably it helps to be born into something. Yet, I tend to love religious things, places, and sometimes people. Many of the places that have affected me most deeply have been religious ones. So on Day One of this week of places visited, I will be bringing you to two monasteries in Bulgaria.
(click on any photo to enlarge)
The first monastery is certainly Bulgaria's most photographed and visited. Rila Monastery (Рилски манастир) is central to the Bulgarian Orthodox church and has been a stronghold for Bulgarian language and culture since its founding, which was probably during the 900s. The founder of the monastery was Saint Ivan of Rila, who I was told lived as a hermit in the Rila mountains, without clothes or food, except what he could find. He lived in a cave not far from the current location of the monastery, which was constructed as a place for his students to live.
Most of the monastery that stands here today was built in the 1800s.
There are lovely painted illustrations of biblical scenes under the striped overhang of the church (and inside, every inch of the walls is covered in more paintings, but people are not meant to take pictures of them, out of respect).
After a day of a million criss-crossing bus trips up and down the country in the summer heat to get to a town at the foot of the Rila mountains we found we were out of buses until the next day. It looked as if we were going to have to find a place in town to spend the night, but as luck should have it, an Englishman who had moved to the town a short while earlier came by and offered to give us a lift up the mountain so we could spend the night at the monastery.
After a talk with a monk we had a room to ourselves for the night which was lovely, with a view of the mountains and a river roaring just outside of our window.
(The view from our window)
After the gates shut we found ourselves almost alone to explore the wonderland locked away behind the walls on top of the highest mountains in Bulgaria. I hardly slept a wink all night, listening to the river, breathing the cold, high air, grateful.
In the morning we were up early, singing and chanting calling us out of sleep. Cold water on the face, and into the church to stand in silent meditation and prayer as the monks chanted and incense burned and the icons looked out and were kissed.
All too soon we had wind our way back down the mountain again, but feeling renewed, like the cool purity of the place had set inside us someplace. I wish I could send you that feeling.
Another day we went walking in the hills above Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново) where there are a scattering of monasteries and convents. We wound up through the trees...
past many beehives...
... to the front gate of a monastery filled with fruit trees.
Though its not as grand as Rila Monastery, this place had such charm and such a restful feeling. Soon, soon it was time to wander our way home. We lost the path, and as happens in I think every trip we take, we found ourselves lost in the mountains. The day was winding down and we came across this sign:
We could sound out the words, but not understand them. The strangeness of the sign made us feel slightly uneasy and it was beginning to look like we would be spending a night with the jumping mimes of the mountain. We found blackberries along the way and kept on until we heard bells and the bleating of sheep. A family grazing their flock gave us directions out of the woods and away from all that magic.