Greetings from Sofia,Bulgaria

Sveti Beti and the Price of Fish
2nd June 2013

I was up early before the alarm having breakfast and preparing a picnic for lunch today. Julie struggled to get going this morning. Her cup of tea on the bed-side cabinet ended up going cold as she literally came around with moments to spare before she had to get up , get washed 'n' dressed and get out at 8:30am.

Ahead of us was a frantic trek across the city to the South Eastern corner of the Alexandur Nevsky square.

We took the most direct route possible, across Neofit Rilski then up the 6th September street, followed by the cobbled 15th November. We hurried up hill with the clock ticking down towards the 9am scheduled pick-up. We got there by the skin of our teeth.

We had booked and paid €50 for today's excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Rila Monastery over the internet from so I was expecting to see a coach or a mini-bus with a crowd of people waiting but there was absolutely nobody there!

We weren't sure if we had missed the bus or they were running late or if we had the wrong day or in completely the wrong place. Fortunately I had all the booking confirmations and contact details with me, so I phoned them up.

They answered. I explained our situation and at first there was some confusion over our existence. They had no record of anything arranged for today. Thankfully after quoting a booking reference they found our details.

Once they believed us they dealt with the situation very professionally, phoning me back regularly keeping me informed. They had arranged for a driver and were sending a car over. 45 minutes late he arrived but at least he did. It also gave us plenty of time to study every inch of the cathedral!

He was driving an old beaten-up Pegueot 405. It must have been his own private car because there was a child seat strapped in the back. He asked if one of us could sit in the front (to save him from having to unstrap the child seat) but I refused.  He wasn't happy! He actually huffed.

I think he realised his bad reaction and forced out a "No problem" through a gritted smile. He huffed again and begrudgingly moved the chair.

We set off once Dimitar (or Dim to his friends) set his SatNav for the 120km journey which we thought was a little odd given as he later told us he had visited the Rila monastery over a thousand times.

One would have thought he knew the way by now!

The further out we travelled of Sofia the lower the standard of the buildings became to the point where we were passing ramshackled tin huts that looked more like a Congolese shanty town!

Beyond the boundaries of the city however the towns and villages improved, to the point where a few grand homes for sale that caught our attention.

Dim equally improved once we broke out of Sofia. He seemed to relax into his driving and some friendly banter. We talked about football.

He followed Manchester United because Bulgarian star Dimitar Berbatov once played for them. He also followed Barcelona preferring the humble Messi to the big headed Ronaldo.

He had a good grasp of English and said he had visited the UK often to visit friends in Newcastle. In fact when he said the thing he enjoys the most was to "play Sunday League football then go to the pub with the lads" he said it in this odd Geordie accent! He didn't look the most athletic type. I think he enjoyed the pub more than the football.

Slumped in his chair his heavy-lid eyes looked like he was about to fall asleep. It was with some relief we stopped at a petrol station to fill the car up with fuel as we entered Piperevo, just outside Dupnitsa. I decided to buy Dim (and myself) a coffee to go in an attempt to wake him up!

It was a really tasty coffee despite the rather dubious advert for the Afro Coffee. There was a pair of afro-haired sunglassed characters from a 70's blaxploitation film hovering were around a cup of coffee with the tag line "Sweet for the ladies".

What was that all about?

Fuelled and caffeined we continued down Bulgaria's highway 1 until we reached the junction near the town of Kocherinovo where we turned towards the Rila mountains.

After a 110km of relative monotony things began to get exciting beyond the town called Rila. We entered a land of lush green slopes, waterfalls and monasteries.

The road snaked up following the path cut through the hills by the Rilska river. Dim warned us that most people feel car sick on these winding roads.

"Especially the ladies" he added rather condescendingly.

Along the way we passed the high walls of the Mehana Ribarnika Convent which was still actively in use. The fact that it wasn't open to the public made it quite intriguing.

A few short miles further we finally arrived at the Rila Monastery where we pulled over into a small car park filled with coaches.

Dim wasn't going to accompany us, he was only being paid to drive not to be a tour guide so we arranged to meet him back at the entrance in two hours time.

It wasn't much to look at from the outisde but I knew there was something special waiting for us inside. Prior knowledge however still didn't prepare me for the sheer wonder as we walked through the Western arch of the Dupnitsa gateway.

We entered a large courtyard of smooth flagstones framed on four sides by four floors of dormatories. The monk's cells were fronted with attractive white washed arches.

I had read that it was possible to stay overnight at the monastery but I never found out how to make a reservation. I imagine that would be quite an experience!

The centrepiece was the stunning Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption positioned right in the middle of the courtyard. The arches of its arcase were decorated with bold black and white stripes and it's upper section in a narrower red and cream stripes.

It was very busy on the eye but quite striking.

The closer we got however the further our jaws dropped as we noticed the fantastic murals covering the exterior walls.

Every square inch, including the ceiling, was covered in brightly coloured frescoes of saints and scenes from the the bible. It was breathtaking!

What we see today is mostly from the late 19th century when it was reconstructed after a fire destroyed much of it in 1833. It was originally founded in the 10th century to accomodate the followers of St. Ivan of Rila, an asetic hermit who performed miracles and lived in a cave an hour's walk up into the hills.

It's still possible to visit the cave and a small church nearby but we decided not today.

The monastery flourished for centuries until the marauding Ottomans destroyed it in the 15th century. Then with donations from the Russian Orthodox Church and also Mara Brankovic, one of Ottoman Sultan Murad II many wives, the Rila monastery rose from the ashes once again.

During this period Rila monastery became the focus of national pride preserving the Bulgarian language and culture which was in danger of being lost under the Ottoman rule.

We spent time looking at the frescoes. There were some weid and wonderful biblical scenes depicted. The ones that created a lasting impression were those illustrating the purgatory of hell with the devil and his cohorts as these horned and winged half-man half-goat creature.

The vividness and intensity of colours was a marvel especially being exposed to the elements.

It must be constantly being restored back to its original vibrant state. I wondered how much of these paintings were based on frescoes that were present in the 15th century monastery or were they very much a 19th century creation.

Having finished studying the art we entered the Church.

There was a no photo policy which usually wouldn't stop me but this time I kept the camera in the bag. A decision I now regret but at the time seemed appropriate. (I had to buy a few postcards to get a few images of the inside. )

Copyright Jacques Bravo

The interior walls of the church were also covered in iconastic murals only darker in tone than outside. What little light there was came from a few candleabras and some sunlight filtering in through the five small domes.

However there was a brightness at the end of the church as we were drawn towards the spectacular golden altar piece or iconostasis. It was a masterpiece, equisitively carved from wood and gilded.

Other items of note inside was the tomb of Tsar Boris III. A simple stone cross to mark the final resting place of the Bulgarian king allegedly poisoned by the Nazis in 1944.

There was also a silver casket which rather eerily contained the preserved left hand of St.Ivan, apparently. I've never understood this ancient relic concept where body parts of a holy man were preserved.

We returned outside and took a closer look at the Tower of Hrelyo, built in the 14th century it's one of the features that somehow survived the several raids and destructive fires. Whilst it still performs its duty as a bell tower it is now also a gift shop selling all conceivable souvenirs of your visit to the Rila Monastery.

We had a quick look for something small, cheap and not tacky as a memento but there wasn't anything that fitted that criteria.

Having done the main attraction we sat down on some steps in front of the monk's accomodation, looking across the courtyard towards the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and ate our picnic.

I had a bag full of food. The cheese and onion sandwiches went down a treat followed by some delicious dolmades and a piece of burek.

We soon attracted the attention of the resident mongrel who sniffed us out and came to sit next to us.  She didn't beg or make a nuisance of herself but waited quietly for a donation.

We rewarded her patience with a few crusts which she ate very gently.

It was now coming up to about 1:30pm and we noticed how most people were beginning to leave. Eventually the courtyard was almost empty and we began to appreciate our surroundings and the serenity amongst the mountains.

I must have had eyes bigger than my stomach this morning whilst preparing the picnic. We were both full yet we had hardly eaten a third of what I packed!

Then all of a sudden, like a dog with a rabbit, my attention was captured when a monk walked past.

Not one for being rude and asking him to pose for a photo I took a sly snapshot of him whilst he posed for some one else! I suppose the celebrity status is an occupational hazard of being a monk at Bulgaria's top tourist attraction.


After lunch we visited the Treasury Museum. We paid 6 levs each to enter but as it was free to enter the monastery itself we didn't feel at all ripped off by having to pay extra for these.

There were two floors of exhibits mostly from the Rila Monastery such as the original doors to the Hrelyo's Tower, a 14th century ivory inlaid throne for from the Church of the Nativity and rather suprisingly many swords and muskets.

It did seem at odds with a monastic lifestyle but they survived during dangerous times and needed protecting.

There was plenty of gold and silver on display, jewelled boxes, communion cups, richly decorated robes and bibles.

The main attraction was known as Raphael's Cross. A wooden cross that had hundreds of miniature biblical scenes carved with a needle and magnifying glass until the monk who created it lost his eyesight such was the concentration requried.

My favourite artefect however was a 10th century book written in a long lost script known as Glagolitic. I found its mysterious text fascinating. St Cyril and St Methodius are again attributed with creating the script and is like no other. It had a more Eastern feel to it,similar to Georgian perhaps, with curly symbols that bore no resemblence to the Roman or Greek alphabet.

I wonder what happened to it? Why it fell out favour and Cyrillic took over as the alphabet of choice for the Slavs?

We left the museum and sat outside admiring the four tiered architecture of the accomodation block whilst tucking into some more of our packed lunch.

I was itching to get up there to see the view over the whole monastery from the top floor.

But I was dettered by a sign at the beginning of the staircase that said "Walking into the monaster's residential floors is not allowed!" 

There are rules and then there are rules and I certainly didn't like the idea of trespassing.

We still had over half an hour before our scheduled rendevouz with Dim our driver so we walked around the yard. In the opposite corner to the Treasury Museum we came to the Eastern entrance known as the Samakov Gate.

It led out onto a small bridge that spanned a river and continued up towards a collection of restaurants and souvenir shops.

Neither of which were of interest to us so we turned on our heels and re-entered the monastery.

Within the Eastern gate was the entrance to another museum. This one was celebrating the monastery's agricultural history. It was a further 3 levs to enter.

In one of the first rooms we saw elements of a mill powered by the water from the river. In the next room there was an enormous domed brick oven, large enough to have roasted an elephant!

We conitnued through to the kitchens where a large collection of pots and pans were on display.

It was more exciting than it sounds. Especially peering into the large 18th century cauldron used to provide mass catering for the monks and pilgrims. There was something about it the brought the place to life for me.

This wasn't one of those museums you exit through the gift shop, in fact to leave you had to re-trace your steps, back through the kitchen, beyond the giant oven and past the mill.

Whilst it wasn't as interesting as the treasury museum it was still worth the entrance fee.

By the time we returned out into the courtyard we were, for a brief period, all alone. It felt so special and rewarding. Our solitude was only disturbed by one or two walking about as we were. It was so peaceful.

We wished we had timed our visit a little better and arrived now at 2:15pm.

As it was, it was time to leave.

Giving Rila Monastery one more look we walked closer to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and past the small post office on the way back to the Western Dupnista gate.

Dim was there at the entrance waiting for us. We weren't late but he did seem eager to leave. Ahead of us was a long drive back towards Bulgarian capital.

The journey was spent mostly listening to Dim talk about the services he provided as an international tour guide with escorted tours to lesser known areas such as Macedonia, Serbia etc.

He handed over his card.

His tales didn't bore me but his dronning voice must have because I struggled to say awake. I almost gave myself whiplash as my eyes rolled and my head dropped suddenly.

Thankfully before I slumped into a deep sleep we reached the outskirts of Sofia where we headed for Boyana, a leafy suburb up on the slopes of Mount Vitosha.

"This is like the Bevery Hills" said Dim then explained "It is where the wealthy choose to live"

We were here to visit our second UNESCO World Heritage site of the day, the 11th century Boyana Church. Whilst Rila Monastery was bold and brash Boyana in comparisson was to be a little gem.

Just above the main square we turned up and parked. We collected tickets from a booth and walked through a wooded park filled with North American Sequoia Redwood trees towards a unassuming red brick church. It didn't look like much at all but its treasures lay inside.

Dim explained that only eight people at one time were allowed to enter and we had to be escorted by a guide. It was all included in the price.

We sat outside waiting our turn with another four Bulgarian students. Before long the door opened and the full compliment of Japanese tourists came out shepherded by their guide. That was our queue to enter. The first room was the relatively modern 19th century addition, with bright white washed walls and a few examples of restored paintings on slabs of plaster.

Our guide Katka spoke very good English although in an extremely broad Bulgarian accent. She gave us a brief background to the church.

It was constructed in three sections, the original church dedicated to St.Nicholas was built in the 11th century. It was followed by a 13th century extension in honour of St. Pantelimon, and then completed by the 19th extension on the extension.

After setting the scene she opened the door and we all followed her into a dimly lit room. When our eyes adjusted we were simply blown away by the incredible floor-to ceiling fresco covering the entire crypt.

It was exceptional.

An inscription dated the frescoes from 1259 and that they were comissioned by a local Lord (sebastrocastor) called Kaloyan.

There was even a portrait of Kaloyan and his wife Desislava on the walls. He is shown holding a model of the church to signify his donor status.

King Constantin-Assen Tih and Queen Irina were also represented.

Katka drew our attention to how the artist had captured realistic expressiveness using techiniques that weren't seen until Giotto arrived and the birth of the Italian Renaissance over half a century later.

She also pointed out a scene from the last supper where the artist had introduced very local produce to the table such onions, radishes or turnips!

It's a shame that the name of the artist (or artists) is unknown.

The original 11th century church was also redecorated by the 13th century masters. They painted over the top of existing frescoes and in some places pieces of plaster had fallen off revealing the original 11th century mural beneath it. It was an unexpected thrill to catch a glimpse of artwork almost a thousand years old!

Boyana Church was only reopened in 2006 after being closed for over fifty years to protect it from further deteriation and for restoration work to be done.

Humidty and candlelight had taken its toll over the centuries but now the church is air-conditioned keeping it at a constant 18C and the lights used emit no heat protecting this World Heritage site for generations to come.

We left after 15 minutes, the maximum time allowed for the visitors. It may seem short but actually the time was enough to experience Boyana Church. Even so, we left reluctantly.

Back in Dim's car we arranged to be dropped off at the "palace of culture" more commonly known as the NDK. It was one part of the city we hadn't seen yet despite only being a stone's throw away from the end of Vitosha Boulevard.

We thanked Dim for his time and slipped him 20 levs for staying awake and getting us back safely.

The NDK was a huge hexagonal concrete building, a modern 5000 seater venue for international acts. Looking at the list of past performers it's clear to see that rock lives on in Bulgaria!

Guitarists Gary Moore, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and bands Uriah Heap, Nazareth, Thin Lizzy and Status Quo have all rocked the NDK!

As we entered the park we were approached by balloon wielding chuggers, professional charity muggers who extort money by making you feel guilty.

One came over to us, Julie turned on her heels and was out of there like her purse depended on it but it was too late for me. I was caught under her spell.

She reached out and I accepted a red balloon. Whilst I was rummaging for some coins to donate she said (after saying it in Bulgarian) "It's free." and left.

So they weren't chuggers afterall but just trying to raise awareness about something which I knew nothing about. At least I got a free balloon.

"You're a sucker for a pretty face" said Julie, a charge I couldn't deny.

We continued our walk through the park along a large paved area that would usually have had a spectacular fountain running the length of much of it; but not today. There was a bit of a theme developing!

Next we came to the jaw-dropping awful 1300 Years Monument, quite possibly the ugliest memorial anywhere in the world!

It was built in 1981 to commemorate 1300 years of a Bulgarian state. It wasn't meant to look unfinished but it sadly appeared in such neglect.

This mis-shaped concrete tower rose from a bunker. It was of course disrespectfully graffitied and dreadfully stained with rust bleeding through its surface. Then there was this thing jutting out like there had been a structural collapse exposing the streel girder beneath.

From a distance it actually looked like a condemned building, which in fact wasn't too far away from the truth. Pieces began falling off almost immediately after it was built!

However on closer inspection did reveal some redeeming qualities. There were several figures attached to the lower section of the twisted steel construction. One was staring pensively at an orb he held in his hand. Another one, a lifeless figure bound in cloth reminded my of the Pieta,

no ... really ... there was beauty in there somewhere.

Even so most locals still want it knocked down!

Moving on we walked up Vitosha Boulevard stopping for a refreshing cold drink at Cafe Bisou.

We didn't stay long. After a tiring day we were rapidly running out of steam. For once we did the sensible thing and retreated to our apartment to recharge.

Three hours later we roused refreshed and hungry.

On our short list of resataurants was one called Mahastirska Magerhitsa. It's menu was based on the traditional food served at Iskrets Monastery which seemed fitting given our visit to Rila and Boyana today.

We set out unable to cross Vitosha Boulevard without stopping at what was becoming our favourite watering hole at Cafe Bisou. After a swift one we headed down Han Asparach a dimly lit side street. We knew it was no. 67 so it wasn't difficult to find.

It looked empty at first which is always a concern as you hope it's a popular place to eat. The outdoor dining area was all nicely laid out but not a soul to be seen.

Fortunately as we walked futher in we found everyone hiding down an alley between 67 and 69. A dozen busy tables beneath a clear corrugated perspex roof.

We were shown to a table by a very jovial waiter who handed us this heavy wooden-bound menu. It was quite extensive with pages upon pages of choice. They had kindly translated all of the dishes into English.

Some of them were absolutely hilarious!

We particularly liked "Male Marrow Against Divorce" !! And another dish called Lyubina Strastnitsa described as "Order for the bride but beware not to make her angry. Say more often - cheers wife!"

What was all that about?! Was the translator going through a nervous breakdown at the time?!

It was also interesting how most of the meat dishes had the average weight of meat in the dish. Useful to know (I suppose) when deciding.

The waiter came to take our order. Julie went for the lamb cutlets "Wolf style". He suggested perhaps she would be better going for the Lamb Grill which was a lev cheaper and had an extra 100g of meat. But Julie stuck to her choice.

I wanted to try the "Cheers wife" dish but again the waiter countered with a suggestion of his own and pushed me towards a salad platter. "Same price" he said. So I went with the flow.

I also ordered a lentil dish which was specifically described as being produced from a traditional recipe found at Iskrets Monastery. The waiter nodded his appreciation as if to say "excellent choice".

We also threw in some mashed potato and saute potato to our order. You could tell we were hungry!

My salad arrived first. A large plateful of various dips, lettuce leaves, shredded carrots, a nettle ball. It all looked very fresh.

But then I spotted a slither of proscuitto in the middle of it all! Aaargh!

Usually I wouldn't eat off the same plate as a piece of meat but tonight I made an exception, carefully eating up to a centimetre around the wafer thin slice of pig. Unfortunately the intriguing nettle ball that I was so looking forward to devouring had been contaminated.

When they collected the plates I pointed out the unexpected slice and asked for some reassurance about the lentil dish.  They promised me that it was free of meat. We had visions of them rushing back into the kitchen and sieving out the flecks of ham!

When it arrived it didn't look like much. Its best feature was the funky pattern on the bowl. I got Juile's phone out to take a photo.

As I focused the shot I fumbled and the phone slipped out of my grip falling right into the middle of the dish. I think I was in shock as I sat there motionless for a second watching it sink without trace beneath the thick soup.

It took me a while before dawning on me that I should perhaps scoop it out. I felt so stupid. I wiped it down and was so relieved when the phone was still working. Anyway, the lentil dish tasted good despite not looking very appetising.

Julie had the lamb cutlets "wolf style" which came looking like a pile of bones on her plate. Whilst the meat tasted good there wasn't much of it on the chops. The mound of mash potato hit the spot though.

We skipped dessert and paid our bill, which was the most expensive of our trip so far but still very reasonable.

On our way back to the apartment we stopped at Cafe Memento for a night cap. It certainly seemed to be the most popular bar on Vitosha Blvd which was very convenient for us being just around the corner from our apartment.

The 108 steps back up to the top floor seemed to take a little longer tonight as we scaled the staircase to the top floor and to bed.

 Next day >>

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