10.31.2015

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery, Rila, Bulgaria
 On Tuesday morning, Spencer and I made our way to our hostel's breakfast and discovered that we were signed up for a day trip to the Rila monastery, which is an Eastern Orthodox Monastery about 120km from Sofia. Our hostel arranges all-day tours to the monastery for only $10 for the two hour transport there and back (as Spencer likes to say, 'You can't beat that!'). We had initially signed up for Wednesday, but apparently some ballsy person moved our name to Tuesday instead. So far our trip has been pretty impromptu - we don't exactly know what we are doing nor when, and are just going with the flow and seeing what presents itself, and thankfully, thus far at least, it has worked out pretty well! We quickly ate and were greeted by our driver, a large Slavic man wearing shorts in the 50 degree autumn chill. Also going to the monastery were two Aussies (with whom Spencer and I would hang out with over the next few days) and a guy from Macau.

After two hours of driving through the rolling mountains with brightly colored leaves, we finally arrived in the small village of Rila and, soon after, the monastery complex itself. But before entering the monastery, our driver took us to a little spot in the woods where we climbed the side of one of the mountains for about 30 minutes until we came upon a small, simple church and a cave.
The Simple Church and Path Leading to the Cave
 Ivan Rila, Bulgaria's patron saint and their first hermit, after whom the Rila Monastery was named, lived  in this cave for 12 years (he would have made a fantastic Peace Corps volunteer). It's rumored that Ivan preformed many miracles, and students from near and far flocked to Rila for his guidance. His students would later be the ones to build Rila Monastery and name it after Ivan himself. We took a brief walk around the outside of the church, which sits on the mountain's precipice before entering the cramped cave flanked by rocks with tiny bits of paper with wishes written on them hidden among the cracks of the stones. Once we entered the cave, which was barely large enough to hold us 5 people, we proceeded up some more rock steps before coming to a small hole in the ceiling which led outside the cave. In order to get out we all had to scale the rocks and squeeze through the tiny hole. It took some time for me on my broken foot, but somehow I managed not to break any more limbs!
Cave Exit
A short distance further was a small mosaic of Ivan next to a small mineral spring with fresh water from which we drank. We took 20 minutes to descend down the mountainside and then were dropped at the entrance of the monastery complex and given 2 hours to explore.

The outside of the complex is unremarkable, but the minute you enter the gates, the stunning beauty hits you. The complex is formed by the walls of the monk living quarters, which are styled in traditional white plaster and wood beams. There's a larger brick plaza in the middle of the compound, and in the midst of it all is the monastery, itself quite large.
The Monk Quarters and Church
The Rila Monestary was established in 927, but the current building was built in the 19th century, and it doesn't need saying that it is a work of art. Colors abound in the golden dome, the black and white striped arch doorways, and that's not to mention the walls and ceilings that are covered in brightly colored (though often violent) frescoes that leave not an inch uncovered.

Inside is equally as gorgeous. The black and white striped floor tries not to distract from the wall frescoes which detail the various kinds of torture that sinners receive in hell. Despite the grotesque theme of the paintings, they are painted in vivid and vibrant colors.

Sensory Overload
We walked around the nearly empty complex and tried to absorb the stunning beauty of it all. If the monastery itself wasn't enough, the whole complex sits in a valley, flanked on every side by huge mountains covered in trees of every autumn color imaginable. My senses were on chromatic overload, but in the best way possible. Especially as I haven't seen the changing seasons over the past two years, I had no difficulty appreciating the natural beauty of the colored leaves.

After an hour of walking around the monastery, we settled down at the nearest restaurant and nursed drinks as we looked at the mountainsides surrounding us and sat alongside a rushing stream. The cool autumn air nipped at my skin and as I tried to soak in the awe-inspiring beauty of it all, it finally hit me that I'm not longer in Cameroon.

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