Sunday, August 22, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #12: On the Monastery Trail in Bulgaria

The old capital of the medieval kingdom--Veliko Turnovo--is perhaps my favorite city in Bulgaria. One of its attractions has to be the scores of monasteries, easily visitable using the city as a base. I was able to experience 6 or 7, both in my 2003 and 2004 trip. As much as I was tempted to return, I determined to see some new regions of Bulgaria, using Vidin, Plovdiv and Melnik as bases. And so I sought out Bulgarian monasteries once again, but these were more far afield, and it took a bit of traveling to reach them. I visited Lopushanki Monastery (west of Montana,) Cherepish Monastery (south of Vratsa,) Bachkova Monastery (near Asenovgrad,) Rozhen Monastery (east of Melnik,) and of course, Rila Monastery (outside of Rila.) Every monastery is unique and has its own "feel" to it, for lack of a better word. I will cover the first four in this post, and Rila will be treated separately later on.

I am glad I took the time to find Lopushanki, a small and remote monastery in northwestern Bulgaria. A whitewashed church, a two-story and galleried frame residence for the monks, a barn and few outbuildings were the extent of the monastic complex. As I was walking along the path to the church, I came across a monk, a shepherd herding their sheep and a young boy, perhaps 5 or 6 years old. The monk, who spoke halting English, was welcoming and pleased to learn I was an American Orthodox. If I recall correctly, he told me their were 6 monastics at Lopushanki.

The shepherd led his sheep towards the pen, the monk bid me good day and the little boy and I entered the church. He sat down somewhat officiously behind a table where the candles were laid out. I pushed a leva across the table to him and he handed me two candles. No candles had yet been lit, so I was momentarily at a loss as to how I was going to light mine. Seeing my dilemma, he pulled a box of matches from his pocket and struck a light. I thanked him, and he replied "No problem." I think there is no more ubiquitous Americanism throughout the world than this simple phrase. And I do not mind it a bit, for it is one of the most useful tools where communication is a problem. I glanced around and the young boy was standing at attention in the entryway to the church, crossing himself three times before leaving.

The church was not ancient--dating back to only the mid 19th century. The style was neither Byzantine nor Russian, but seemed typical of village churches seen in this region, as well as in Romanian Wallachia. A high, columned exo-narthex wrapped around the front of the church, with a soaring, gigantic fir in front. The interior was whitewashed, so all the icons were either hanging or on stands. I particularly remember the icon of Cyril and Methodius. The carved iconostasis was immense and quite impressive.

After leaving the monastery, I looked around the nearby village of Georgi Damyanova. The hamlet is poor and remote, but seems to be holding its own. Unlike some of the dying villages I had observed on the main highway, Georgi Damyanova was an old settlement, and not a planned Communist town. I stopped briefly to look at the simple village church and overgrown graveyard. A plaque on the front of the 1873 church commemorated the victims of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the First World War. (In the West we are conditioned to framing eras by those events affect us, such as World War I. For the Balkans, and especially Bulgaria, the Balkan Wars are even more significant.) On the west side of town, however, is a relic of Communist central planning. Here the simple rural lane gives way to a wide esplanade with a once-landscaped divide in the middle. A long, three-story building with expansive sidewalks and plaza stretched along one side. Of course it was now all grown-up and beginning to look decrepit--though I do not think the building was yet abandoned. It's position here, at the edge of a small village, in the middle of nowhere, on the road to nowhere, struck me as a bit bizarre.

Cherepish Monastery lay about an hour and half drive further on, south of Vratsa. On the highway out of this city, in the course of several miles, I passed 4 prostitutes plying their trade alongside the road. There was no doubt as to their occupation. And of course, this is so sad. As I was driving past, however, I started thinking--except for the hairstyles, makeup, and perhaps the quality of what little clothes they were wearing, these ladies were actually dressed no differently than the affluent American and western European young women and girls I had seen while transiting through airports, etc. Many of these young women were in fact traveling with their parents, who apparently see nothing wrong with their daughters dressing like street-walkers. And once back home, I find it everywhere--the shortest of shorts, or skirts that barely cover their underwear. If this makes me sound like a prude, then so be it. The Bulgarian prostitutes strutting and posturing along the edge of the highway know exactly who they are and what they are doing. There is more brutal honesty in their actions than in the pretense of the other situation I have just described. But enough of that.

My experience at Cherepish Monastery differed markedly from Lopushanki. The former is located close enough to the capital to make it an easy day-trip for pilgrims from Sofia. And so it was--the monastery was covered up with visitors, mostly elderly. Cheripinski is wedged alongside a rushing river in a narrow gorge. Parking is up on the road, next to an outdoor restaurant conveniently located for the returning pilgrims. As I was waking down, I was impressed to see many elderly and infirm, some on canes and walkers, coming back up the hill from the monastery. In the midst of their chatting and visiting--which sometimes gave the appearance of a picnic outing--the real ascetic labor of many cannot be denied. The monastery was founded in the 13th-century, but destroyed by the Turks and rebuilt many times. The current monastic buildings, mostly dating from the 17th-century, are all white-washed and in good repair, with flower gardens and fruit trees dotted here and there. A small monastic cemetery lies between the church and the river. The church itself is not large, a barrell-vaulted affair with a fake dome. The icons within are very westernized--I particularly recall those of Sts. Constantine and Helen and Sts. Cyril and Methodius. The site that particularly attracted my attention, however, was St. Nicholas' Chapel, in a shallow cave high about the rest of the monastery. At the end of the climb one finds a small chapel and behind a glass pane, the skulls and bones of probably hundreds of monks. Many of them may have died at the hands of the Turks.

After Cherepish, I was fatigued and decided to make for Sofia rather than visit another monastery in the general area. I was to stay there two nights before making my way to Plovdiv and Bachkovo Monastery, one of the country's most historic. Founded in 1083 by two Georgian brothers, like most in the Balkans, Bachkovo was burned by the Turks and rebuilt numerous times. The present Church of the Virgin Mary was rebuilt in 1604.

Bachkovo is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria and may actually receive more visitors than Rila Monastery. Just outside the village an extensive car park and busy restaurant mark the entrance to the complex. The filled lot and the buses parked to the side indicate that you will hardly be alone while visiting. A long, sloping walkway leads from the car park up the hill towards the monastery. Food vendors and souvenir and craft stalls line both sides of the walkway. All of this leads one to fear a side-show type atmosphere at the monastery. Such was not the case at all, and in fact, Bachkovo was one of my more favorable experiences in Bulgaria.

The monastic compound completely encircles the main church and bell-tower, a cobblestoned courtyard, a diospyrus tree brought over from Georgia 200 years ago, and flowering beds. I had feared something of a side-show character with the crush of people, but this failed to materialize. The crowd consisted of men, women and children of all ages, though young families seemed to predominate. As I approached the church, a line formed that almost stretched outside the narthex. This was not the queue to enter the church exactly, but rather the line to venerate the wonder-working icon of the Theotokos, on the right as one entered the nave. As I was to learn, this silver-plated icon dates to the 13th-century and was buried and hidden from the Turks for several centuries. I took my place in line and waited. Everyone was quiet and reverent, and no one pushed or acted impatient, as each person was allowed as much time as they needed to venerate the icon. Iconography covered every inch of the nave, but it were dimly seen, being covered as it was with centuries of candle soot. But the church seemed ablaze with light from the 12 candle stands I counted in the nave. I continue to be struck by the piety of these people. While the scene outside might be called festive, once the Bulgarians were in church, it was all seriousness. They knew what they came here to do--they came here to pray. And when I lit my candles and said my prayers, I was no longer a foreign visitor in an alien culture, but one of them--as my prayers intermingled with theirs, and those of the saints surrounding us, and ascended upward.

On the outside of the church is a plague written in Bulgarian, Russian, English and Hebrew, commemorating the Patriarch Kiril and the Exarch Stefan who, along with Tsar Boris III, took decisive steps to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jews by the Nazis in 1943. Kiril and Stefan are buried at Bachkovo. Before leaving the grounds, I admired the murals on the outside of the refectory, giving the history of the monastery. I also visited the Ossuary Church, the only original 11th-century structure remaining. I would have liked to seen the portrait of the 14th-century Tsar Ivan Alexander Asen within, but the church is some distance from the main compound and wisely is kept locked.

That night, I stayed in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city. The new city is nice enough, but tourists come here for the largely-intact Old City. I wandered about this area for some time, and visited the Church of the Virgin Mary. This is a simple barrel-vaulted, three aisle basilica. The church dates to about 1249, as Nicholas Choniates mentions it in some of his writings. In the 1880, the Russians donated a bell-tower, built in the style of that day. The addition looks very strange indeed, tacked onto the medieval church. Apparently, vespers were over with. A youthful-looking priest was taking a young lady's confession, and a man was near the iconstasis, praying. The iconography was of the 19th-century, westernized Greek variety. I particularly noted the icon of the Archangel Michael. On my way back to my room, I pasted a caravan of cars festooned with streamers. It was a wedding party on the way to their church. After all, this is Saturday night in an Orthodox country.

I visited Rozhen Monastery on my last day in Bulgaria, as I was returning to Greece. I had spent the previous night in Melnik, 20 km. north of the border. This little town is struggling to survive, primarily on it's quaintness. Originally a Greek wine-growing town of 20,000, Melnik suffered during the Balkan Wars, and when peace was declared between Bulgaria and Greece, the Greeks left for their country and in turn, the town was repopulated with Bulgarians from the other side of the border. Today, Melnik is only a village of approximately 300 souls, nestled in a valley of the bizarre sandstone mountains in the Pirin range. The town was a popular get-away for well-connected Communist apparatchiks, just as it is today for Sofia's elite. Still, there does not appear to be enough sustained tourism to support the local establishments. The shade of two 500-year old plane trees make lingering in the town centre not at all unpleasant. I stayed at a new hotel on the edge of town and enjoyed some delicious trout. The pool looked inviting, but as a measure of my continued ill health, I did not even dip a toe in it.

Rozhen Monastery is up in the hills, several miles past Melnik. Indeed, it was more or less at the end of the road. During my time there, I was the only visitor. Like Rila and Bachkovo, Rozhen is a walled compound, with a single gated entry into the cobblestone courtyard. The monastery dates back to the 13th-century, but due to continued Turkish deprivations, most of the current buildings date only to the mid 18th-century (though some iconography remains from the 16th-century.) A sprawling grapevine, planted 300 years ago, covers much of the area between the church and the surrounding buildings.

I saw only one monk at Rozhen. He was reading in the church, and after acknowledging me as I came in, continued his reading. I lit some candles, and then I venerated a Portiatissa icon of the Theotokos, which I learned had come from Mount Athos in 1790. On the south face of the church, flanking the doorway into the narthex, are two incredible frescoes--the Ladder of Divine Ascent on the left, and the Last Judgement on the right (again, my fascination with this depiction.) Both date to 1611.

I savored the quiet at Rozhen. Out in the courtyard, I heard nothing other than the sound of birds and insects, I suppose. We were several miles from the nearest village and automobile traffic. Finally, here at the end of my Bulgarian monastery ramblings, I caught a brief glimpse--perhaps--of what the monastic life must often entail. You may notice from my pictures that I have none showing the monastics or other people that I met along the way. I do not know if the monks would have permitted me to take their picture or not, but I did not intend to ask. I have a belief in treating people I encounter with dignity, and not as curiosity pieces--something I can bring back and show and have people think, "oh, isn't that quaint." I just do not do that. Maybe I am being overly sensitive, but I will leave that sort of thing to others.

(Two more Bulgaria posts will follow. After that, I should have three more posts on Greece, before finishing-up. Having embarked upon this endevour, I am now getting anxious to bring it all to a close.)


s-p said...

This is all so amazing. Even if it is vicarious your travelblogue makes it alive. Thanks!

Milton T. Burton said...

I agree with you about not photographing the monks.