For the third time now, we visited the Rila Mountains. This time, however, we went west to the “nature park” which is owned mostly by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and is surrounded on three sides by Rila National Park proper. The main attraction is the famous Rila Monastery, which was originally built in the 1300’s before the Ottoman invasion of Bulgaria. As such, it played an invaluable role in preserving Bulgarian culture and identity throughout 500 years of Ottoman occupation (or “the yoke” as they call here in the Balkans.)
Besides the monastery, there are other chapels and shrines throughout this area linked by trails that would have to be characterized as pilgrimage paths rather than hiking trails, since—to this day—Bulgarians still go visit these sites despite, for the most part, not being very religious. We visited a cave where John of Rila supposedly lived some 1100 years ago. It’s a real tight squeeze; as the tradition goes, supposedly, either you must be pure of spirit to pass or you are absolved of all your sins if you do make it. Architecturally/mechanically it does filter out the gluttons, which—as I have probably mentioned before—is not a big problem for most Bulgarians. At another shrine (pictured) people write their prayers/wishes on a scrap of paper and stuff in the cracks of the rock—al la Wailing Wall. It makes for a strange juxtaposition: ancient cultural/religious sites set in the middle of the natural beautify of the Rila Mountains—imagine a string of actively-used churches in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Svetla, our ‘cross cultural’ guide, is trying to expose us to as many different experiences as she can think of (and we are convinced, trying to shock us,) so this time we travel strictly by public transportation. Granted the buses were old, gritty, hot, and slow; but we remained unfazed. One interesting thing I noticed at the front of the bus above the windshield were football (soccer) stickers, pin-up girls, and iconography of Jesus and Mary all side by side!
Fortress of Solitude
Friday all four of us went the monthly Marine party at the American Embassy; this time it was a BBQ—lots of food for 10 leva. Met some interesting and high-ranking diplomats/embassy staff, but the most interesting observation would have to be about the massive new, ultra-secure compound that is the American Embassy as of two years ago. Its so far removed from its surrounding you could easily imagine you were back in the states. The guards let us in only after Ryan friend Catherine vouched for us and then we had to leave our phones and cameras at the entrance. The floors are covered in 12" x 12" tiles, the plumbing and electrical fixtures were American (they used US-standard 220 outlets throughout, which of course don’t fit either European or American appliance, meaning an electrician has to retrofit every power cord.) I wondered if they even used any Bulgarian cement!