Dave the motorhome is on sacred ground, sort of, he’s spending tonight in the car park in front of Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains, Bulgaria (N42.13545 E23.34633).
Last night we went to sleep with the sound of the mountain stream rushing alongside us. It sounded like the white noise of an un-tuned TV and almost drowned out pampered pooch’s snoring at times. In the middle of the night I woke with a dead hand and aching hip, Dave was on a bad bed wonk (which is in fact a good shower wonk as the plughole is towards his rear) and I felt like I was about to fall out. Unable to get comfortable I moved pampered pooch and his bed, multiple blankets, soft toy and sleeping bag (most of which he never uses) over to one of the shorter benches and got out our spare sleeping bag to spend the rest of the night on the long bench. It was the first time in ages that I’ve needed a sleeping bag to keep me warm!
This morning we waved goodbye to Charlie’s favourite mountain restaurant – he legged it off yesterday, went for a run all round the tables before ignoring the ‘no entry’ sign and snuffling around the kitchen before Jay collared him, the staff and customers just laughed – and set off back down the mountain. The road weaved through the tall pine trees, a gap in them signalled either a ski run or chairlift, strange to see all green and empty in the sunshine. Occasionally we’d see a little cart piled up with big sticks on the road and a glimpse of colour among the trees as people gathered wood. Dropping down, the temperature rose until we reached the Bansko ski resort.
Heading back to the main road north we drove through fields of crops with people in them working. It was like turning back the clock as most of it was being done by hand or with a horse. The roads were surprisingly good, a huge sign revealing that there had been a €23m improvement programme funded by the EU, and we soon reached Blagoevgrad (but of course the road signs all said Благоевград – can you see why I’m struggling to navigate?) and the countryside instantly turned industrial, before quickly correcting itself back to countryside again.
In a tunnel cars flashed at us and Jay vowed to swap over one of our dodgy headlights as soon as we stopped, after all we don’t want to get in trouble with the police with our limited Bulgarian. However a couple of kilometres up the road the reason for the flashing became clear: a police speed check point. Fortunately Dave isn’t one for speed and although we weren’t quite sure what the limit was as we went past them they didn’t bat an eyelid. Our map of Bulgaria proudly boasts on the front that it shows all 46 speed cameras in the country (I suspect there about that many in our home town of Nottingham!) we’ve passed three so far – perhaps we might organise our tour to visit them all?
Following the brown tourist signs we reached Rila (the town) and Jay pulled up to a stop outside a little shop which looked like it might sell fly screens. Our current screen, named Ann (click on the link to find out why), has seen better days and was letting huge insects in as she’s developed gaps, so we thought we’d upgrade. We looked for a Chenille Door Curtain which we’d seen many other motorhomes sporting, then hit on the idea of getting a retro plastic multi-coloured one (like both our families had when we were kids), and where better to buy it than Bulgaria where time stands still and all the houses still have one! I ventured inside and in my best mime I asked if they had one, the shop assistant knew exactly what I meant and a couple of minutes later and 3 Lev (€1.50) we had a new fly curtain – Ann 2.0!
We went for a quick leg stretch around Rila, wandering up to the local church we peered through the ornate metal fence at the frescoes painted on its façade. As we passed the local hospital and hoped that neither of us get ill on this leg of the trip as one of the ambulances looked like it would never get through an MOT. The town was a strange mix of smart new-looking houses and ones about to fall down – a couple which had fallen down and one with just felt for a roof. As the heat got too much we retreated back to Dave and carried on the drive up to the monastery, stopping for a spot of lunch under the shade of the trees which covered the mountains around us, and lined the whole route.
Reaching the monastery I jumped out and asked Demtira, the ticket man, how much it was to stop (as we’d spotted a layby just around the corner which would be free), it was 6 Lev and we’d be OK to stop overnight as long as we were gone by 9.30am – we could do that, so we parked Dave in a space in the shade. After a quick leg stretch for pampered pooch we entered into the monastery.
Jay sat under the shade of the loggia while I went for a walk around the outside of the courtyard. Four stories of cloister look down onto the courtyard in the middle of which sits the Church of Birth of the Virgin Mary. A lot of the places you can’t get into as they’re are living quarters for the monks (100 rooms out of the total of 300) and visitor accommodation. It’s a sort of very basic hotel which you can pay to stay in. We decided against visiting the museum or icon collection as it was enough just to wander around the courtyard, gawp at the frescoes on the outside and inside of the church. We eavesdropped as a group of Japanese tourists had the exterior church frescoes explained to them while they clicked away with their cameras – I would love to have been a fly on the wall inside the church when they all went in as no photographs are allowed.
Entering the church it seemed very dark and gloomy compared to the brightly coloured paintings on the exterior, but some of the frescoes are being renovated or cleaned, and behind the scaffolding the colours were so much brighter. While we were there a woman and two girls, wrapped in the green capes provided at the entrance to cover shoulders, were led by the priest to a small box which he unveiled, unlocked and they lent forward and kissed the contents. When we got back to Dave I had to look up on the old t’interweb to see what it could have been – seems it could have been one of many things! The church preserves the coffin with the relics of founder of the monastery St. Ivan of Rila, the 12th century Virgin Hodegetria wonderworking icon, the 17th century St. Ivan of Rila wonderworking icon, and many other iconostasis and icons for believers to kiss.
The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila (to give it its full name) is steeped in history having been built in 927 AD and moved to its current site in the 1300’s, however only the tower remains from then. Jay has been reading about the more juicy bits of history. Unknown to many there’s a British writer; James Bourchier, buried just outside the monastery. He loved this place and was a journalist and advocate for Bulgaria before and during the first world war, the Bulgarian people love him, and when Jay asked Demtira where his grave was he told him how Bourchier had done great things for his people. There is also a grave in the main church which has a cross over it saying it belongs to Boris III who was the King and leader of the country during World War II. He refused to let Hitler deport the Jewish people from Bulgaria and died of a ‘heart attack’ just a few days after returning from a meeting with Hitler in 1943. His body was buried here, then the communists exhumed him and re-buried in Vrana Palace near Sofia in 1944, they moved him again to a secret location at a later date, leaving only his heart encased in a glass jar in Vrana Palace which was found after the communists had lost power, and brought back here 20 years ago by his wife.
Most of the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1833, but donations poured in from wealthy Bulgarians so rebuilding was quickly started. While it’s not the oldest of monasteries, it is certainly a very beautiful and tranquil place to visit. Even if you’re not a religious person it’s worth a trip for the architecture alone.
P.S. A priest has just been out and blessed a couple of blokes and their car! It was an Opal, so not sure how reliable they are in the first place. The bonnet was lifted so the engine could get its own spray of water, but unfortunately it looks like the driver drove off with the bonnet not fully down. Hopefully the blessing will stop it springing up as they make their way down the winding road back to Rila.