Having lived in New York City for the past six years, we are somewhat starved for nature. Yes, we try to chip away at our hunger by taking short trips outside the city or visiting my family’s cabin in the Great North Woods. We have slowly been working our appetite back to fulfillment, but years of living in the “Concrete Jungle” leaves a lot of work to be done. After our journey today, we feel satisfied. The warm contentment that comes only after an amazing day surrounded by lush green forests rests solidly within our souls and we are happy.
Today, we visited the Rila Monastery which sits nestled in the Rila Mountains, the highest range in the Balkans. Bulgaria is filled with monasteries, and this one is easily the most beloved and visited by tourists. Hostel Mostel, the hostel where we are staying, arranges daily trips for this two-and-a-half hour journey outside of Sofia. Accompanied by our driver, Ivan, and a French traveler, we set out into the Bulgarian countryside. As we began to wind our way up into the mountains, the warm air sweeping through the car cooled and the surrounding forests grew thick with foliage. Feeling confident with the sharp turns, Ivan sped around bends that were starting to make me a bit queasy. And then, out of nowhere, the monastery appeared before us. Grateful to be there, we slowed to take in the sights. Driving past the monastery, Ivan pointed out places to eat lunch and other points of interest, but then kept driving. We were momentarily confused, he explained that he was first going to take us to a small cave just three kilometers up the road.
The minute we climbed out of the car, the beauty overwhelmed me. Images of my family’s home in Canada flooded my brain and immediate happiness ensued. Ivan told us it would be a 15 minute hike to the cave. It was balmy–65 degrees, sunny with a lovely and light breeze. The perfect day for a hike. I only wish I knew this was going to be part of the trip–I wore my sandals, which worked but would not have been my first choice. Before spotting the cave entrance, we came upon an old church. In broken English, Ivan explained that this was used hundreds of years ago by monks (we later discovered this was the original location of the monastery).
After wandering around, he led us into the cave. Now, we have had two “cave experiences” on this trip–Waitomo Caves in New Zealand which was amazing, and Heavenly Cave in Vietnam which was underwhelming. Those trips bare little comparison to this one. Upon entering, Ivan told us a monk lived alone for 12 years in this cave, filling his time with prayer and religious study. We had to double over to enter the cave which was pitch black inside. Probably 15 feet long, 7 feet wide with maybe an 8 foot ceiling at its highest point, this was a cramped space. Ivan lit 3 small candles to provide some light for us to see the ledge where the monk probably slept. The tiny space made it impossible to imagine living there for so long. Ivan motioned us to a ladder in the corner which led toward daylight. He began climbing to exit through the top of the cave and indicated we were to follow. As I watched him squeeze through the hole at the top, my self-consciousness made me question whether or not my round hips would fit through. I slowly started up and twisted myself into one awkward position after another until I was able to emerge on the other side. We all made it safely through, which is an especially good thing–apparently legend has it that only those without sin can fit through the exit. Glad we made it, though I’m not so sure the legend holds true.
After sampling some delicious spring water, we descended the slope so we could continue on to the monastery. Phil and I found ourselves walking slowly, taking deep breaths of the crisp clean air, and wishing there were a hammock for us to spend more time soaking in the environment. Eventually we forced ourselves back into the car, but not without lamenting the fact that beauty like this can’t really be captured in words or photos (as much as we like to try). It can only be experienced.
We ventured back toward the Rila Monastery. Built in the 10th century, these grounds hold a special place of importance in the hearts of Bulgarians. The monastery, which has been threatened by destruction from the Ottoman Empire as well as a disastrous fire, prioritizes the preservation of Bulgarian culture. It has been rebuilt and maintained as needed throughout the years and now attracts thousands of visitors. The architecture is striking, but we were most impressed with the paintings which cover the walls of the church entrance. Meant to teach the lessons of the Bible, these sometimes cartoonish depictions are quite entertaining. We particularly love the facial expressions and the ways the devil tries to tempt people into doing evil deeds. Both entertaining and educational. What more could a person want?
After wandering the grounds for a bit, we took some time to soak in just a little more nature before we got back in the car to head to Sofia. One of the things I found so amazing about the journey back was that in the span of twenty minutes we saw a monk checking a cell phone, a family of pigs running out of the woods into the road, a BMW speeding around a tight turn, and a farmer driving his horse-drawn cart. This constant juxtaposition of old and new continues to emerge during our visit to Eastern Europe, and that is what makes this such a great place to be at this moment in history.
As if to punctuate the thoughts I was already having, our driver stopped by a privately owned museum (of sorts) on our way back into Sofia. Really, it was one man’s collection of antiques that he had on display for visitors who gave a small donation. Old cars and motorbikes caught our attention first, but it was the bust of Stalin and the wall of old TVs and radios that had us enamored. Our French friend was fascinated by the WWII era bombs which were on display. A cross between a museum and a junkyard, visiting this collection was the perfect end to what can only be described as a perfect day.