Saturday, July 5, 2008

Following clear water to Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery by Night

The most spectacular Rila Mountains National Park, forming a natural border between Bulgaria and Macedonia, is especially famous for harbouring the mantelpiece of Bulgarian culture; the Rila Monastery.

The Monastery of Saint John of Rila was founded in the 10th century. Saint John was a hermit, who secluded himself to a life in the mountains of meditation and fasting, much like Buddha or Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. For seven years he had no belongings, slept in a cave and taught his spiritual revelations, until his followers respectfully built him this magnificent monastery. Rila Monastery is at almost 1200m, allowing for intense hermitude and fresh air for deep spiritual enlightenment.

It has a significant role in Bulgarian culture as the monastery is claimed to have been home to Saint Methodius and Saint Cyril, the pair who invented the modern cryllic language, also used by other Balkan cultures. Furthermore, during the Ottoman empire, the Monastery held safe letters and documentations regarding Bulgarian history, preserving Bulgarian culture.

The trek up to the monastery was a two day journey. We followed an unmarked trail through a steep ravine carved by the Bristritsa River, Bulgarian for "clear water", and it is indeed crystal clear, fresh off numerous mid-summer glaciers. The mountains are ALIVE and the ecosystem is wonderfully rich, home to more wild flowers than ever witnessed before.

Bistritsa River Valley

The unmarked trail allowed for exploration as it was often overgrown with wild scrub, bush and nettles. We climbed boulders, jumped rocks across river and streams, laid in colorful meadows mesmerised by fluttering dabs of joy above treeline. We ascended 2000m in 7 hours, eventually summiting a rocky ridge to Ivan Vazov hut, 2300m, northwest of Rila Mountain.

Ivan Vazov Hut

Ivan Vavoz Hut is a stone, cement, and yellow-wooden alpine gem perched on the mountain with accomodation for up to 73 people. Pack horses wander freely, and staff is funkliciously free, playing with numchucks and enjoying beer for breakfast. Power is plentiful, generated from a nearby stream, water runs freely in toilets and at the taps; life is green and good at the Huts, except for the bitter atmosphere created by money-hungry and too-cool-for-tourists staff, which is just too bad. So we play backgammon until we are too tired to count.

The Rila Mountains are also famous for the Seven Lakes of glacial origin that lie between the peaks. We do not join the hardcore trekkers and instead buy a postcard... Down the meadows, and through pine forests we descend to the Monastery, where we attend mass. Bulgarian Orthodox mass varies greatly from West Christian mass; devotees face each other, and the priest in black robes faces the wall decorated with halo-ed saints and golden statues, chanting a prayer. When he leaves, he joins the rest of priesthood to continue singing from behind the wall, out of view.

We spend the night in one of the 300 rooms in the residential quarters of the Monastery, and sleep soundly in the dark chamber under three blankets.

Rila Monastery