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.
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.
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.)