Drifting Through The Crossroad of Empires

Rila Monastery

The beginning of the journey didn’t bode well. Bulgaria Air was nearly two hours late. We eventually boarded an unmarked plane with ancient seats and the sort of old-style seatbelts I hadn’t seen in at least a decade.

An unmarked plane didn’t bode well…

The in-flight magazines were dog eared and torn. One had a piece of chewing gum folded into it. The man on the cover — the CEO of an electronic payments transfer company — looked like a thug, with arms crossed over his suit jacket, chin tilted up, eyes glaring at the camera. We see him again on the interior pages in torn jeans, with one hand shoved into a pocket. His expression is defiant, like a communist villain in an 80’s film, or a Balkan gangster. The magazine opened with ads for casinos before moving on to gentleman’s clubs (‘Kama Sutra Night Club: The Art of Seduction in Sofia City’) and something called an Erotic Bar.

What sort of business is he in? None of yours!

But once in the air, the service was as old school as the plane’s interior. Flight attendants handed out newspapers, gave edible ham and cheese sandwiches in economy class, and even served tea with Bulgaria Air’s signature chocolate. That mix of Communist-era overtones with traditional hospitality summed up so much about this crossroad country on Europe’s eastern edge.

When’s the last time you saw a signature chocolate on a flight?

It took some time to extricate ourselves from Sofia the following morning. And before you jump to lewd conclusions, please note that Sofia was not an errant chambermaid with whom we’d somehow become entangled. I’m speaking of the capital of Bulgaria, named after the Greek word for “wisdom” (σοφία) sometime in the mid-1300’s. Before that, this centrally-located Balkan city was known to the Romans by its Thracian-derived name Ulpia Serdica, and as Serdonpolis to the Byzantines who came later.

Unfortunately, we were destined to leave “wisdom” behind, something regular readers of this blog may believe I’d already accomplished years earlier.

The road to the south stretched into the distance of a broad valley scooped out like a basin. We were passing through a cultural palimpsest where slender minarets and the smoke of kebabs sizzling on spits over charcoal burners occupied the same visual frame as the dome of an Orthodox church. Turkish continuities, the result of centuries of Ottoman rule, melded with traces of an earlier Slavo-Byzantine Kingdom, but shadows around the edges hinted at regions much further east, perhaps as far as the vast Central Asian steppe. We were still in Europe, but this was a zone of transition.

An hour’s drive took us to the base of the Rila Mountains, where we stopped in the foothills town of Kocherinovo for a bite of lunch. We wanted to try the tarator: a cold cucumber soup flavoured with yogurt, garlic and dill, the opening salvo of so many Bulgarian meals, but thin soup wouldn’t be enough. I hadn’t eaten all morning, and I was suffering from a hunger that started in my toes and ended just under my hat.

Meshana skara: the mixed grill pinnacle of Bulgarian cuisine

And that’s when I accidentally ordered the meshana skara  — the mixed grill pinnacle of Bulgarian cuisine. Grilled chicken, mutton kebabs, and beef, loaded onto softly roasted onions, potatoes, and paprika pods. It was brought sizzling from the kitchen on a hefty cast iron skillet, provoking exclamations of surprise from Tomoko, but no reaction at all from the old men sipping coffee on the veranda, for whom this comprehensive sampling of the animal kingdom was not an unusual sight.

At first I’d thought I’d made a gastric mistake, the sort of poor choice that drags your stomach down into your boots and lodges it there for the rest of the day. But it turned out to be one of the best meals we were to eat in Bulgaria, and we nearly finished it all.

With basic needs taken care of, we followed the gorge of the Rila River, beneath a sharp zigzagged spine whose indentations were thatched with fur and pine shadows. The cliffs closed in as we climbed higher, until we eventually reached its ancient end point: five tall walls with tiled roofs that mark Bulgaria’s most important religious centre.

Frescoes line the walls of the church inside Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery was founded by students of St. John of Rila (876 – 946 AD), a mountain ascetic who lived in a nearby hermitage. Revered as a saint during his lifetime, legends say that wild animals approached him without fear, and birds landed in his hands. Even today, the narrow road is lined with parked cars and shuffling pilgrims who go to Rila in search of salvation.

It wasn’t until we reached the main gate that I realized I’d seen this view before. Rila Monastery was visited by the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor on his legendary walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1930’s. There’s a photograph in the frontispiece of the third (posthumously published) volume of his classic trilogy that shows Paddy standing in front of this very same door: dusty in his traveler’s clothes, with a brown kalpack on his head, and a steel-hilted dagger thrust into a braided Transylvanian belt. I’d forgotten about the connection until then.

The courtyard of Rila Monastery

Inside, we found a broad flagstone courtyard that Paddy described as a lopsided pentagon lined with cascading tiers of galleries supported by semicircular arches. Today those dormitories house some 60 monks. Priests rushed past on errands, with flowing black robes, tall cylindrical hats and their hair tied back in buns. Long beards waved like kelp in the breeze of their passage.

The church was painted in the round with outlandish frescoes in which red-skinned devils with protruding ribs and very bad overbites tormented unbelievers like me with fanciful tortures. 

“Look at this one,” I said, summoning Tomoko to the wall for an important lesson. “That devil is whispering in this woman’s ear like a ventriloquist. Is that why women say such terrible things? Because devils make you do it?”

“Yes. And I’m possessed by a devil right now,” she replied. And then she kicked me in the shin with her hiking boot and walked away.

“Is that why women say such terrible things? Because devils make you do it?”

I remained unrepentant as I limped along behind her into the church, where soft light fell from the windows of a narrow dome. My eyes took time to adjust to the dimness, and then the gold-plated iconostasis came into view, followed by the frescoes that covered every wall. We lost ourselves in these painted worlds for at least an hour, until an aggressive tour group shoved me aside. It must be very annoying to be a monk living in a UNESCO site.

That saint has a bit of a Merlin look about him…

Photos © Tomoko Goto 2019

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.



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