Rila Mountains

Wednesday 11th May 2011, Rila, Bulgaria
Tonight we are in the south west corner of Bulgaria near the border with Macedonia (FYROM). We are just very grateful to be on a campsite with electricity and toilets after our exhausting day yesterday.

I have been nursing a cold that decided to turn very nasty during the day yesterday. Indeed I'm in such a poorly way that I could really do with some warm sympathy from our lovely blog followers. However, I know by the time you read this I will have bounced back again.

We left the friendly little village of Biser yesterday morning in bright sunshine and returned to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, to pick up on what we suspected was the major part of the city's attractions that we'd missed on the "guided tour" offered to us by the campsite owners on Sunday. How right we were! We could now do a far better tour of the city than they gave! How can people decide to move to a place because they love it so and yet be unaware of what there is to see and learn about the immediate area?

Gate to the old town, Plovdiv

Wandering the cobbled streets of the old citadel we discovered Nebet Tepe, the main hill, with ruins dating from the Thracian period – perhaps 1000BC. From the top of the granite outcrop we had a vista over the city and the surrounding hills upon which the city is built. Lower down there is a network of attractively restored 19th century buildings dating from the period of the Bulgarian National Revival, when the nation was starting to assert its cultural independence from the Ottomans. There are also an art gallery, a musical conservatory and a Museum of Ethnography housed in a beautiful National Revival house dating from 1847.

Thracian settlement, Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv

Sts Konstantin and Elena, Plovdiv

Museum of Ethnography in a national revival house, Plovdiv

Street in the old town, Plovdiv

Because I was feeling unwell we stopped for a pleasant leisurely lunch up in the citadel and gradually returned to Modestine via the newer part of the town at the foot of the citadel. It is very smart and tastefully modern with attractive 19th century buildings and wide pedestrianised precincts. Beside and beneath the main road through the city can be found various roman remains including part of the stadium beneath the Mosque Square and the Forum and adjacent buildings.

ul Knyaz Aleksandr Battenberg, Plovdiv

Pl. Dzumaya. Stadium & art nouveau houses, Plovdiv

Pl. Dzumaya. Stadium and Mosque, Plovdiv

Pl. St. Stambolov. Town hall? Plovdiv

Sadly we are now back in the lands of graffiti "artists", Plovdiv

The nearest campsite we knew of was still many mile away near the Unesco World Heritage site of the Rila Monastery. On the map it looked straightforward. It took us nearly five hours non-stop driving to reach it! Roads are slow in Bulgaria with many potholes and just as many police lurking in lay-bys to stop and fine the unwary motorist. Driving speeds also seem to be lower here that in other countries we've visited. Add to these problems, all the road signs are in Cyrillic script. Sometimes a sign is also in the Roman alphabet as well but never consistently. Sofia is okay, I can pick up София at a glance. Ian though will advise me to look for signs to Белоградчик whilst I'm navigating my way around potholes on a city ring road, coping with the sunset in my watering eyes and sneezing for England! Now, with your new found knowledge of Bulgarian writing, you may like to make a stab at this ubiquitous household name!

Supersized burger anyone?, Plovdiv

Not surprisingly we missed a turning, ending up miles from where we wished to be. Ian navigated us to the motorway and was triumphant when he worked out a sign that should save us ending up in Sofia before we could regain our route. All would have been well but down a rutted country lane we found our route closed and diversion signs sending us off into donkey cart, goat and chicken territory where village people sat outside their houses trying to sell piles of cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled vegetables and dubious wine in recycled 2 litre water bottles. Modestine's rear axle took a hammering before 50 kilometres later our worst nightmare happened and we found ourselves back in the little town where we'd first lost our way!

It was a further two hours before we finally reached our destination and darkness was falling fast. With hindsight we should have pulled in to a TIR lorry park and asked for sanctuary for the night or even found a hotel along the way but I'd got bloody minded by this time and felt so ill I wasn't thinking straight. I was just adamant we'd reach our goal. And we did! Only to find it deserted with the gate locked and barred and a guard dog on duty!!!

Unable to cope a moment longer I parked Modestine on the quiet mountain road outside the gates where we made up the bed and within seconds I was sound asleep for ten hours! Ian woke briefly during the night. He says he's never experienced such total blackness, far from civilisation with no lighting and no moon.

This morning my eyes and head had stopped aching but I've been spluttering, coughing and sneezing all day. We were grateful for the gas to heat up water for mugs of tea before we drove down from the mountain road to the monastery below. The sharp peaks above us were coated in snow and the rain that has been falling most of the day has been slithering down the windscreen as sleet. As we drove down we passed a herd of horses making their way up to the mountain meadows to graze for the day.

Early morning visitors passing Modestine, Rila mountains

Rila Monastery is the spiritual heart of Christian Bulgaria and is a truly stunning place. The mountain range here contains the sixth highest peak in Europe. Known as the Rila mountains it gave its name to the hermit Ivan Rilksi (John of Rila) who, back in the tenth century lived an ascetic life in a cave in the pine forests up amidst the snows, living on wild herbs and devoting his life to God. Christianity only reached Bulgaria in the ninth century but the rich medieval culture fostered by the Orthodox church went into decline during the centuries of Ottoman rule. It was remote monasteries such as Rila that kept it alive, and objects in the museum showed that their existence was at least tolerated by the Ottomans, as demonstrated by the firmans (decrees or grants) by various sultans confirming their privileges. In the 18th century Bulgarians began to rediscover their cultural and artistic identity. The present monastery buildings date from the 1830s, after destruction by fire in 1833, apart from the 14th century central tower. The monastery developed as a centre for religion and learning, founding one of the first schools for Bulgarians and establishing the first Bulgarian printing press in the early 19th century, largely to produce engraved and lithographed icons to sell to pilgrims. Many of the plates and the presses, obtained from Vienna are exhibited in the museum. It also commissioned craftsmen skilled in painting, woodcarving, metalwork, and stonemasonry. The museum contains a wide range of objects, many of them gifts from monasteries across the Balkans, others produced by the monks at Rila including Raphael's Cross, created from a single piece of wood with 104 miniature scenes from the Bible with more than 600 figures in minute detail. Apparently Brother Raphael worked with a pin as his only tool and went blind in the process. Other exhibits reflected the wide range of the monastery's work. Beside the inevitable vestments, icons and chalices was a set of guns and weapons used by guards to protect the workers in the fields and travellers to outlying cells in what could be a lawless region.

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery, Church of the Nativity

Detail from a mural, Church of the Nativity, Rila Monastery

Detail from a mural, Church of the Nativity, Rila Monastery

Church of the Nativity, 1834-1837, Rila Monastery

Church of the Nativity, Rila Monastery

Arcades with monks' cells, Rila Monastery

Church of the Nativity with Hrelyu Tower 1335, Rila Monastery

One of the monks, Rila Monastery

The buildings themselves are spectacular, nestling in a hollow amidst the forested mountain peaks. The church interior is too dark to fully appreciate the orthodox 19th century icons that cover every inch of wall space. Its iconostasis is regarded as the best in Bulgaria. Many of the icons are decorated with silverwork and there is much ornate metalwork and carved wood furnishings. Outside, the icons are just as spectacular and more easily appreciated. The buildings themselves are constructed around a courtyard with the living quarters for the monks on the upper, balconied floors.

It had been sleeting steadily all morning so before leaving the monastery we stopped for coffee and "happy donuts". Do not envy us. The coffee was fit to float horseshoes while the doughnuts were made from sour dough fried in rancid fat, the taste slightly masked by a sugary, runny chocolate sauce. If that's what it takes to become a saint - move up Satan, make room for another one!

Waiting for the doughnuts, Rila Monastery

Driving up past the campsite later we discovered the gates open and a couple of people camping so decided to linger in the area and spend another night here, which is what we've done. First though we drove as far as the road would take us before petering out into a mountain track. Our route was so very pretty, passing through a forest of beech trees where the leaves were just unfurling creating a bright, green light all around us. Nature's own cathedral.

Beech woods in spring, Rila National Park

Next we passed through mountain pastures where the horses we'd seen earlier were grazing in the cold and the wet. Above us towered the pine forests on the steep slopes of the sharp mountains topped with snow. Parking in the dripping woodland we donned hiking boots, rainwear and umbrellas and set off for a steep, rugged walk along a path winding between granite boulders in search of the cave of Ivan Rilksi and the grave where he is buried. The cave turned out to be quite an affair with both a front and back entrance. Actually it rather reminded me of Rabbit's burrow in Winnie-the-Pooh. A wild thyme with St. Herman and the hermits from around the mountain followed by a blow out on tarragon for breakfast could have poor Ivan stuck for days trying to get out the back way! It would though leave him ample opportunity to dwell on the strangeness of his life style. No chance of whiling away the time logging on to to see what Brother Boris may have added to his Facebook page! The two entrances though did create a good through draught which kept it all well aired and there was even a ladder to reach the upper level where presumably he slept. Later we bumped into an Englishman returning from the cave. He'd had his lamp so had penetrated right through, up the stone ladder and out the back way. He told us that as he struggled to squeeze through into daylight he'd been overtaken by thirty two Chilean miners! (There's something rather comforting about the British sense of humour.)

St. Luke's hermitage near the cave of Ivan Rilksi, Rila National Park

Cosy cave, suit hermit, one previous owner. Front entrance. Rila National Park

The property benefits from air conditioning and has its own private exit, Rila National Park

And a stunning outlook, Rila National Park

With a large, easily maintained herb garden, Rila National Park

We were dripping wet by the time we returned to Modestine and I was fading fast. So we checked into the campsite where I went to sleep for a couple of hours and Ian did a rushed job reading up on the history of Bulgaria. Thus I've picked his brains considerably writing up today's report.