Near Rila, Bulgaria
04.08.2007 -17 °C
When I set out on this journey there were only a few can't miss spots on my agenda. These sites were to serve a guiding purpose in developing my itinerary, but around them I hoped to remain flexible enough to respond to a suggestion of a fellow traveller and stray from any defined path I may have set for myself. At the top of my list was Rila Monastery, tucked away in the the mountains of the same name, a little over two hours south of Sofia. It has been a site of interest for me for several years now, ever since I saw a picture of the monastery in a book that I read about the region. The monastery is perhaps Bulgaria's most treasured attraction, and thankfully because its not the easiest of places to get to, it is crowded but not overly saturated as I imagined leading up to my arrival. To get to the monastery there is only one bus in the morning, and one bus out in the afternoon, which given the trips length leaves one with little over an hour to enjoy the site. Even then, because of the great number of people on the one bus, the queue for getting back on starts to gather more than 30 minutes before its departure, leaving 15-20 people forced to stand for the duration of the return trip. Thankfully I was able to snag a seat in the last row of seats.
The monastery did not disappoint, meeting even my lofty expecations. It is set in the mountains, isolated maybe 20-30 minute drive from the closest town. I wish I was eloquent enough to describe the design and makeup of the place in lieu of a picture which I lack right now, but I am afraid I can't really do it justice. In brief though, there is a church in the center of the complex, which dates from the late 19th century as the previous one had burnt down, with colorful paintings covering most of the front and side walls of the exterior. It is then surrounded by a four story trapezoid like figure, the cells that the monks would stay in but which are now used to house many of the tourists who come for the night. I regret not having done this, 15 usd for a cell on the complex and all the time I desired to hike and enjoy it in relative solitude. Next time perhaps.
Unfortunately I had a pretty frustrating accident shortly after my arrival. As I prepared to take my first picture of the day I noticed a ledge a few feet to my left and decided that would be a better spot to snap my photo. Confident in my jumping ability, I lept up only the snag my foot, falling to my side. In my right hand was my camera, with my lens protuding, the only crutch I had to break my fall. It smashed hard into the stone. The camera was dead. The worst of timing really but thankfully one of the fellow travellers at my hostel who had made the journey with me kept with him a spare camera, which he graciously let me use for the duration of our stay. I was able to quickly put it behind me and enjoy my stay. I was really surprised by how little it undermined the experience. The next few days though were then spent scouring sofia in the rain for a good replacement. The prices were outrageous. All of the cameras were marked up almost twice the price of what they would be in states, or at least from the many online vendors that taunted me as I read reviews on the web. Pretty disappointing but now I have a much nastier camera to take pictures with, so it is perhaps a blessing in disguise.
As for Sofia, it seems like a city with a lot potential which I unfortunately experienced predominantly in the rain. It has a small town feel - few tall buildings, treelined sidestreets dominating the center - which never seems to really wake up, no hustle and bustle. To be fair, I was particularly sensitive to that moment when the city comes alive, as I arrived at the bus station at 5am, sat in the train station until the sun came up, and walked 2kms to the hostel during hours when you expect the streets to be full of people heading to work, starting their day. But that never really happened. People slowly trickled onto the streets, but it never seemed like a capital city. I can attribute part of this to it being the start of August, a time when most european capitals slow down as people head to the beach on their holiday, but not all of it. It just seemed to more like an sprawling village with no real defined center, no central square at which people congregate. There were some monumental government buildings sprinkled in, with some fantastic churches on yellow cobblestoned streets, but again, they seemed at odds with everything else going on around them. All that said, it was a really nice place to spend a few days. I had heard very little positive about the place from those I have met on the road but I had no problem spending three nights there, and enjoyed walking the city for hours on end, even in spite of the rain. All in all, the average person might not see much charm here but I did, and expect to return someday.
Finally, I know I am behind a few cities and will do my best to make these up these next few days. Since last writing I have spent two nights in Plovdiv, two nights in Veliko Turnavo, and then one in Bucharest. I am actually in Brasov, as it will be my intention to really see Bucharest on my way back to the Bulgarian coast, as I head to Istanbul. So, expect either individual entries, or a comparative one, on the remainder of my time in Bulgaria. Then Brasov/Transylvania.