Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #14: Return to Rila

This post is perhaps the hardest one that I will write in this series. Describing the Monastery of St. John of Rila—“the Jerusalem of Bulgaria”—is in itself, not a problem. The difficulty lies in the fact that I have been here before, and more importantly, that prior visit turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. Anything I write now will, of necessity, be set in the context of my initial impression.

On June 6, 2003, I walked into the monastery church as a traveler who was simply visiting Bulgaria’s most noted national monument. Even today, Bulgaria is hardly on the beaten-path of mainstream tourism. Any traveler who purposely finds their way to this country will almost invariably make the trek out to Rila. And so, I arrived as a tourist without an agenda or any expectations. If I was “searching” for anything, I certainly had no consciousness of it. When I walked out of the church, my life was headed in a different direction, though it would be some time before I could begin to comprehend what had happened.

In retrospect, I have sometimes wondered if I have put too much emphasis on my experience here—if I have somehow constructed a “back story” to fit the new realities of my life. I do not think I have, thought I am careful to avoid embellishing the story in its retelling. But when you get right down to it, Rila Monastery in June of 2003 marked a distinct division in my life. In my mind, the demarcation is clear--there is everything that happened beforehand, and now all that has transpired since.

I am hesitant to relate the events of 2003, for in so doing I might edge too closely to that dreaded, cliché-ridden Journey to Orthodoxy conversion story. At one time, these stories were something of a cottage industry in Orthodox circles. I have been blogging for nearly five years now. Back in the foolishness and immaturity of my first year or so, perhaps I posted one myself. Now that I know better, I am too embarrassed to search back and check. From time to time, I have certainly alluded to my first exposure to Orthodoxy, but it has always been in a tangential manner, never head-on.

Conversion stories are tricky to pull off. First, they are, by definition, intensely personal things. For Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, the retelling of their particular “journey” (to use a much over-used word) often comes off sounding terribly self-absorbed. When we resort to recounting our particular beliefs, or our thoughts, or our feelings, or our angst or our individual experiences in the context of our coming to the Faith, this can appear, despite our best efforts, as just more Protestant self-centeredness. In Orthodoxy, the spotlight is never on us as individuals. There’s never any of this “just me and Jesus” business to it. We are there, to be sure, but with the Trinity, and the Theotokos, and the cherubim and the seraphim, and the angels, the saints and martyrs and the whole host of heaven, and my brothers and sisters in Christ. It can be crowded at times. All I am saying is that for ex-Protestants who have become Orthodox, there is a much greater need to start praying, rather than to keep on talking about how you found the Faith.

Some fall to the temptation to present your particular, specific experience as a template for others to emulate. It seldom works that way in real life. The human heart is a profound mystery. Who is to say what will change one and leave the other heart unmoved? And so, my experience at Rila Monastery should not be seen as any “Path to Orthodoxy,” but simply as the way I stumbled into the Faith.

Also, conversions can be messy things, particularly when it involves severing ties with a strong tradition that may very well include long-standing connections with family and friends. In my case, the messiness was compounded, as I left a tightly-knit family and restorationist group that firmly believed that it was The church. In the construction of these conversion stories, we are tempted to cast ourselves in the most noble light possible. Certainly our motives were pure and right. Those we left were selfish and petty. We heap praise on those searching souls like ourselves who had the wisdom and insight to find our way to the Apostolic Faith. Those we leave behind are invariably small-minded and narrow. If the path we have chosen is the one of enlightenment, surely the path we left was that of darkness. And so it goes. One is hard-pressed to tell a conversion story without resorting to self-justification. And to the listener, this need to continually retell one’s conversion story may leave the impression that there is still unfinished business, as they say, with the former church.

For these and other good reasons, I have held back from writing at length about any of this. But my experience at Rila was not nearly the whole story, only the spark. Seven years have passed now—perhaps enough time to put events in their proper perspective. My friend and I were traveling on the cheap that year, with frequent-flyer miles, rather than cash, burning a hole in our pockets. Under these circumstances, Bulgaria fit us to a tee. We flew to Istanbul, where we boarded the creaky old Balkan Express for a night train ride to Sofia. I had done my research, and allocated a few days in Sofia, two days in Veliko Turnovo and environs, and a day-trip to Rila. Under the wheel of our rental car, I piloted us safely out of the city centre. Before long, we were well into the countryside. The pot-holed highways and the presence of horse-drawn wagons soon opened our eyes to the realities of Bulgarian driving. We passed the ruins of collective farms and industrial plants, as farmers harvested their hay by hand and vendors sold fresh cherries and other produce along the roadside. But this bucolic scenery soon gave way to the dramatic, for the monastery lies nestled deep in a mountain valley.

When one suddenly comes upon the complex, it is as if your have approached a fortress, rather than a monastery. Frankly, it seems strange to say this now, but we had never been to a monastic institution, and had no expectations, so the sheer walls of the enclosure, rising four stories, did not surprise us, particularly. What we did realize, however, was that our journey out here had been a wise use of our time.

Once inside, the walls, we knew the church was going to be like nothing we had ever experienced before. The portico that wrapped around three sides was completely covered in frescoes—every inch of every wall and in the domed ceilings as well. Even as unused as we were to this sort of thing, we could easily determine that the entire biblical story was laid out for us to see—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Archangel Michael, Lazarus and the Rich Man, the fiery chariot of Elias, the Last Judgment with the Pharisees being pulled down to Hell by the demons, etc. I became dizzy looking up at the domed ceilings and trying to determine the scenes depicted.

And then we stepped inside the church. This, I was really unprepared for. I was no neophyte when it came to European churches—or so I thought. Having been to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Winchester Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, Yorkshire Cathedral, St. Giles Kirk, Notre Dame, St. Chappelle, St. Denis, Mont St. Michel, St. Trophime in Arles, and Grossmunster, I was prepared to approach the subject at hand in the manner of a thoughtful, informed traveler. I would walk around the interior of the church, have a long look at the artwork—chin in hand—and then move on, remembering enough of the quaint peculiarities to discuss it at the cafĂ© later on, or should someone actually inquire back home.

My friend and I were also coming at Rila from different religious angles. He was (is) a disgruntled Anglican, at that time in absentia, in protest of the standard Episcopalian absurdities. He is now grudgingly at home in the ACNA. While he espoused the High Church Anglican line, I have come to realize that his sensibilities are all Low Church evangelical. Without being too critical of my friend, I think he would be content if the Episcopal Church would just go back to the days without women priests (and this would take care of the openly gay ones, as well, for you are not going to have the latter in a church that forbids the former), use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, with all the men appropriately suited-up, the homilies kept short, and not made to otherwise intrude into one’s life. I, on the other hand, was an elder in the Church of Christ, a restorationist group that had, we taught, “restored the New Testament Church” in the early years of the 19th-century. As a practical matter, this consisted of running the Faith through the wringer of Lockeian scientific rationalism until every bit of joy and beauty had been wrung out of it (as I have since come to understand.) Our church buildings were utilitarian by design, intentionally sterile and clinical, devoid of any crosses or Christian art, though we seemed inordinately fond of red carpeting and dark paneling. So, while I had naturally appreciated the beauty of the artwork and architecture within western European churches, I was conditioned to look askance at it, seeing it as totally unnecessarily to the “simple Gospel” we believed we had restored. And those were the presuppositions we each held as we stepped inside.

But to get to the point: as I walked into the church at Rila—for the first time in my life—I was overcome with the realization that I was in a place that was…holy. This was not based on the beauty of the church—for there was that, to be sure. Unlike the Cathedral of Aleksandar Nevsky with its iconography darkened by the soot of decades of candles, the frescoes inside Rila were vivid and alive. From eye-level, up the walls, into the 5 domes, the iconography enveloped you in the story of God’s love and redemption of mankind. The golden iconostasis was simply incredible. And the flickering of candles—everywhere—illumined both the icons and the iconostasis. Admittedly, this was something I had never experienced before, but I was hardly swept away by this Eastern exoticism. No, there was more to it than that. Considering my background, I had never considered that a place, or things, could be sanctified or holy. As one of our former preachers has since observed, “I was a poor fit for the Church of Christ.” Even so, I never really questioned our utilitarian stance. We might have sentimental attachment to a particular church building, but that was all it was. What mattered was the Word, and we encountered that Word between leather-bound covers. Only.

That a place could be made holy by the prayers of the Faithful was a foreign concept to me. And now I see that I (we) had never come to grips with the full implications of the Incarnation—of God becoming flesh. With us, the Christian faith was very much an intellectual construct, something we deduce from Scripture, and then verify and re-verify by proof texting. This in no way discounts the sincere faith and piety of many within my former church; I am just stating how--for us--it was never experiential. And as hard as we tried--and believe me, we tried very, very hard—at the end of it, we had just put on another show. The sermon might have been thought-provoking, and the singing uplifting and we might have hunkered-down and really thought about the Cross as the Communion tray was being passed around, but in the end, nothing happened. Maybe deep down I already sensed that, but the realization of it did not begin for me until this day in Rila. I advanced into the church a half step at a time. There was no way I could approach it in the normal tourist manner. I would take a step and stop. I never knew that holiness could be something you could actually feel.

I did not know exactly what to make of all this. But I did know this one thing--that God was in this place. This was, as they say, the real deal. Now, to my old Church of Christ friends who might be reading this (and there are a few, I suspect), they will shake their heads and say that I just got carried away with emotion. I did get carried away, but not by emotion. Authenticity is not validated by the mere claiming of it. What had happened to me was that I had stumbled into the Church that simply “is” what my old church strove so mightily to become.

While standing there, I remembered something I had seen from the day before at the Cathedral of Aleksandar Nevsky. I was not accustomed to people coming into a church simply for the purpose of praying. Sure, we prayed in church, but we only went to the building for services, never just to pray. And so, I was standing near the back of the sanctuary, watching people come in from the street. I noticed that they would buy candles and then go light them in front of the icon stands (I do not think I even knew enough at that point to know that they were icon stands.) But anyway, I watched a young man in his early twenties approach an icon stand near the front of the sanctuary. I remember how he looked--he had a dark complexion as most Bulgarians, somewhat lanky (one saw few obese people in 2003 Bulgaria), wearing jeans, tennis shoes, etc.—in short a typical young person. I watched him as he crossed himself in slow, sweeping motions and then touched the floor. Three times. And then he bent down and kissed the glass covering the icon, and lingered there just a moment. Witnessing that, at that moment, revealed something about the true nature of reverence, and of worship—something I have never learned in 25 years of being “in church.” When he left, I walked over to the icon stand and saw that it was of the Virgin Mary. And the next day in Rila, I remembered his devotion. As I said, I was not sure what to do with all this—the clouds did not suddenly part and everything became crystal clear. But, as I turned to leave, I now knew the reality of the Church was far more than I had ever contemplated, and that there were places sanctified and made holy by the prayers of the Faithful, and that there was a way in which worship and reverence could truly, authentically take place.

My friend and I walked out of the church, each affected, though in different ways. My friend was impressed by the sheer beauty of the church and its natural surroundings, but it went no further than that. I, on the other hand, had been deeply moved. Our travels would resume their natural course, and once home, I returned to my normal routine of home, work and church. But Rila was always in the back of my consciousness, and other dominoes would soon fall.

There were some of my thoughts as I made my way to Rila again, seven years later. Coming from Plovdiv, I charted another “shortcut” through the Pirin Mountains. Here, I experienced the worse roads Bulgaria has to offer, I must say, and I probably averaged little better than 25 miles per hour. But there was plenty to hold your interest. The road followed a narrow-gauge railroad, and I had the pleasure of seeing the two-car train pass me in a mountain valley. Surprisingly, many of the isolated villages I passed through were Muslim, and many of these peasants were out selling honey and fruit along the roadside. But after a while I tired of this, anxious to get to Rila, and the main Sofia-Thessaloniki highway was a welcome sight.

I mentally prepared myself not to be disappointed, for the return visit could never compare with the first. But I should not have been worried, Rila never fails to impress. The only disappointment was outside the monastery itself. Outside the north wall of the monastery, there is a clutch of outdoor cafes, a small store and a shop or two. Back in 2003, my friend and I visited with a young iconographer in his outdoor shop at the end of one of these establishments. That particular building is now gone, being replaced with the concrete framing of what appears to be a 3-story apartment taking its place. The church was much as I remembered. The frescoes on the porticos fascinated me every bit as much as before, and I spent an inordinate amount of time gazing at each one again. The nave was actually larger than I remembered, a bit more than the “little monastery church” of my recollection. In the small south chapel, I had also missed the grave of “Good King Boris,” Ferdinand’s son and Eleanora’s stepson. He helped the Church protect Bulgarian Jews during World War II, and died under mysterious circumstances at the hands of the Nazis. His remains were largely hidden during the Communist years. I find it appropriate that he is buried at Rila. His Wikipedia entry styles him “Boris III, the Unifier.” I like that.

But the one thing I earlier missed was that which was most special to me this time--the casket containing the relics of St. John of Rila himself, the saint whose name I was to take two years later upon being received into the Holy Orthodox Church. Taking advantage of a break in the line, I went up and prayed over his relics. I do not expect to ever return, so I lingered there, realizing how blessed I was to be doing that very thing, in that place. Afterwards, I lit five candles and offered up prayers for all. While standing there, I noticed a young father with three very young children, one in a stroller. One by one, he would lift them up and let each light a candle. He would then hold them to the icon so they could cross themselves and kiss it. Somehow, while managing these children, he also managed to cross himself and venerate the icon. That family at prayer is the last image I take with me from Bulgaria. There is hope for a people like this. And there can be hope for people like me, as well.

(Three more posts remaining in this series)

Monday, August 23, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #13: Boyana and Eleanora's Grave

I spent two nights and a full day in Sofia. For much of this time, I lay collapsed on my bed in the hotel, trying to feel better. In good conscience, I could not stay in the room past 10 in the morning, so I did venture out. More than anything else, the strategic location of park benches dictated the path I chose. That said, I enjoyed being back. I stayed on the same block where I always have, close to the center of things. Sofia is a vibrant city. And while it will never be the next Prague, the city is pleasant to the eye, with enough neo-classical architecture remaining--some crumbling, some being gentrified--to make things interesting. While one can still see depressing Communist-era apartment blocks, many parts of Sofia compare favorably with any modern European city of its size.

Once I left my hotel, I instinctively headed for the vicinity of the Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral. I stopped a while at the flea market, but saw nothing of interest this time. I did visit the Church of St. Sophia, which I had missed on previous visits. The church dates back to the year 361, being rebuilt in the 6th-century and remodeled to its current form in the 8th-century. By the early 20th-century, the church was a crumbling ruin. Major restoration began in 1937 and was renewed in 1998. While it seems that Orthodox services may still be conducted in the church, the building seems primarily a museum and/or archaeological exhibit today.

I cut across the plaza to the cathedral, Sofia's most recognizable monument. Technically, this was the first Orthodox church I ever entered, on 5 June 2003. And in retrospect, an observation from that day loomed large in my subsequent course of life. But what really signified came on the following day (of which more in the following post.) I stayed some time in the cool and quiet sanctity of Aleksandar Nesky. Throughout the day, a constant flow of people came in off the street to pray, light candles and then resume their routine. With many, I suspect this pattern is as much routine as anything else they do. The sanctuary is immense, so the worshippers that come during the day never feel crowded or rushed. I left after a while and wandered about the city, but could not muster much enthusiasm for sight-seeing, either in the park or at the old royal palace, with its fresh coat of yellow paint. After a late lunch, I found myself back at the hotel, where I was actually able to sleep a little. That afternoon, I just walked down the block to the Cafe Athene, where I enjoyed some coffee and dessert, and engaged in a little people-watching, one of my favorite activities. But I soon grew weary again, and returned to my bed. So, all in all, I did very little in Sofia beyond trying to recoup my strength, without much success.

I left out early the next morning. My original plan had been to take the Dragalevski lift up Mount Vitosha. But after breakfast, I knew that was not happening. What I did do, and what made my entire sojourn in Sofia worthwile, was to visit the Church of St. Nicholas, or Boyana Church, a UNESCO monument. I had failed to do so in my previous visits, and this is unfortunate, for Boyana Church is a real treasure. The suburb of the same name is located on the slopes of Mount Vitosha, overlooking Sofia. In modern times, it has been a desirable enclave for those who could afford it. It remains so today, as many neighborhood streets show evidence of condo creep. But up one cobble stoned lane, towards the end of the housing, is a small park with towering fir trees. And therein lies Boyana Church.

The original church dates back to the 11th-century. One is immediately struck by how tiny it all is. Boyana was never anything but a small village church--which it remained until 1954. But even in medieval times, wealthy Sofians enjoyed living close at hand, but also slightly away and above it all. Usually a close relative of the Tsar was left in charge of Sofia. In the middle 13th-century, the Sebastokrator Kaloyan, grandson of Tsar Ivan Asen I (as well as of the Nemanjec ruler of Serbia,) established himself at Boyana--and became the church's benefactor. Research has uncovered three different layers of iconography within the church, and some of each are revealed. Most of the frescoes date from the year 1259, the work of iconographers Vasiley and Dmitar. Since the church is small, one is able to get an unusually close inspection of the icons.

The small church is considered to be one of Bulgaria's greatest cultural treasures. Once inside, it is not hard to understand why. The iconography is incredibly beautiful. Some art scholars credit Boyana's realism with presaging, to some degree, the Italian Renaissance. Of course there are the expected frescoes one finds in most any Orthodox church, but many of the scenes and saints depicted are not those usually seen. One wall contained scenes from the life of St. Nicholas. The church contains two icons of St. John of Damascus--one from the 12th-century and one from the 13th. And beyond that, there is an icon I have never seen painted on a church wall before--one of St. Ephrem the Syrian. In the narthex is a portrait of the Sebastokrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava, as well as one of the Tsar Constantine I and Tsaritsa Irina. I tagged-on to a tour guide who was explaining everything to a small group of visitors--in Italian. This was not at all bothersome to me. I was able to tune it all out and savor the great beauty before me. In my three visits to Bulgaria, Boyana was one of the most meaningful sites I experienced.

Next to the church, on the south side, is a small plot of ground marking the grave of Bulgaria's Tsaritsa Eleanora. Her story will take a little telling. In the mid 1880s, the Great Powers chose Ferdinand of Coburg to rule over Bulgaria, to replace their earlier choice of Alexander of Battenburg. Of all these newly-minted 19th-century Balkan dynasts, none took to the job with more enthusiasm than Ferdinand, or with more panache. As a Coburg, he was closely related to half the royal heads of Europe. And from his Bourbon mother, he was related to the other half. Interestingly, a Hungarian grandmother provided untold wealth, and descent--if remotely--from actual Bulgarians.

Ferdinand relished his role, and had expansive plans for an emerging Bulgaria. In the era of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, he desired expansion in those areas where he thought his nation had legitimate claims--Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Thrace, and like the Bulgarians tsars of old--Constantinople itself. Bulgaria made great gains in this direction in the First Balkan War, but lost them all when their Balkan neighbors banned against them in the second.

Princess Clementine, Ferdinand's mother, chose his first wife--Maria Louisa, daughter of the Duke of Parma. The duke had been deposed as a child in the unification of Italy. But he retained his wealth and traveled with his enormous family, from one estate to the other, in a string of private railroad cars. Duke Robert had perhaps gone to the Bourbon well once too often for his first wife. Of their twelve children, only three were not mentally handicapped, of which Maria Louisa was the eldest. By his second wife, he fathered twelve more, including Zita, the last empress of Austria.

Ferdinand and Maria Louisa's marriage was brief, and not particularly happy. First, he was reputed to be bisexual, and spent regular holidays on Capri, a noted destination for wealthy European homosexuals of that era. Secondly, their marriage arrangement included the provision that their children be baptized and raised Catholic. When Ferdinand, the ruler of an Orthodox nation, reneged on this proviso and baptized his heir as Orthodox, Maria Louisa and her Austrian connections were incensed. She left the country for a while, and her cousin the Emperor arranged to have Ferdinand excommunicated. But the controversy subsided. The couple had children in very quick succession, with Maria Louisa dying soon after the birth of the fourth.

Ferdinand was in no particular hurry to remarry, but after several years he took the middle-aged Eleanore of Reuss as his second wife. Some have speculated, given his proclivities, that the marriage was one of convenience only, and was never consummated. Whether true or not, Eleanore was no mere ornamental queen. She became a loving stepmother to Ferdinand's young children. The two boys and two girls were close to Eleanora, and grew up to be stable and conscientious, not at all given to royal scandals. This is due, one would imagine, much more to Eleanora's influence than Ferdinand's. She worked tirelessly for the welfare of the Bulgarian people. During the Balkan wars and the First World War, Eleanora volunteered as a nurse. By her dedication and compassion, she won the love of her adopted nation. Eleanora's health began to fade, and she died in 1917. Her wish was to be buried beside this rural church, which itself was at the heart of the Bulgarian people she had come to love.

During the Soviet takeover following the Second World War, thugs came to the churchyard, dug up the grave and stripped it of whatever jewels they could find. They then pushed the marker in and covered the site so that it would no longer be known. But the Communists tenure was not long enough to erase historical memory. Sometime after their fall, Eleanora's simple monument was excavated and replaced as before. The plot is now well-tended, and a small brass plaque states: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In my opinion, this grave--more than material prosperity, or new roads or the condominiums being constructed down the hill--signifies Bulgaria's return.

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.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #11: On the Danube

I entered Bulgaria through the back door, at the remote border crossing east of Zajecar, Serbia. My entry bogged down at bit, particularly at the last station on the Bulgarian side of things. Maybe I got off on the wrong foot, as I had apparently interrupted the young lady's cellphone conversation. Repeated instructions to me in Bulgarian, in a louder and louder voice of her part, did not move the process along any. Reinforcements were brought in. Apparently, I had to pay a "road tax," which I was perfectly willing to do, but they would accept payment only in Bulgarian leva (a country I had not yet entered) or in euros (which currency I had not used since Greece.) They scoffed at the idea of being paid in Serbian denars--the only money I had on me. We seemed to be at an impasse until I remembered that I had 3 five-dollar bills stuck back in my wallet. I gave her two of those and good-naturedly shrugged in a "this is all I've got" manner. She looked at the bills and then left her booth to go back to the main building. She returned with another worker who spoke a little English. Apparently she was resigned to taking the U.S. money, but then saw that the two bills I gave her were different (one being the "new" five-dollar bill.) I explained to them that the denominations had recently been changed and that it wasn't counterfeit. By this time, I think she was ready to get rid of me. She pushed some change (in leva) at me and motioned me on. There are two lessons to be learned from this. First, a repeated shrug in the face of incomprehensible instructions/questions eventually gets you moved-on (this worked at another border crossing as well.) And second, always keep some euros (not dollars) in reserve, no matter if the country uses them or not.

I was not at all put off by this, as Bulgaria is one of my favorite countries. And a government employee on the Bulgarian-Serbian border can hardly be expected to know English. The guard who did speak a little of my language asked if I had ever been there before, and was surprised to learn that this was actually my third trip to Bulgaria. Like I say, I like the place.

One is immediately struck by the change on the Bulgarian side of the border. The roads are pot-holed, the villages are markedly poorer, and one sees an abundance of horse-drawn carts on the road--things not really seen in Serbia. Forty-five years of harsh Communism did a number on Bulgaria. The central planners destroyed traditional villages and moved their residents to new communities adjacent to the collectivized farms. I remember reading that at the height of Communism in Bulgaria that there were only 900 farms in the entire country. I vividly remember the grown-up and deserted farms from my visits in 2003 and 2004. At that time, Bulgarians were once more tilling small individual plots out of the failed collectivized farms.

This was my first impression on returning to Bulgaria. The first buildings I passed were the ruins of one of these farms. And the new towns built nearby are generally dead or dying. Of course, no churches were built in the Communist towns, so there is today no core to these villages. I did see one of the larger towns where a smart new Orthodox church had been constructed, but this was not the norm. In short, there is nothing to hold residents in these post-World War II settlements, and the people move into the cities. I do not mean to paint too bleak a picture, because the landscape itself is very beautiful indeed--just empty of people. And this seems to be much more of a factor in northern Bulgaria, where the terrain was more adaptable to large-scale farming, than in the south. From my observations, it seems many more traditional villages survive in the south of the country.

My destination was Vidin, in the far northwestern corner of Bulgaria, along the banks of the Danube. I found the city to my liking. In fact, places like this are the very reason I travel the way I do. Parts of the old city remain, with traces of the medieval fortress still standing. Vidin also retains quite a bit of early 20th-century neo-classical architecture, much like one finds in central Sofia. Added to that are far too many of the grandiose, overblown Communist municipal buildings and apartments, complete with accompanying weed-choked and trash-strewn plazas, parks and fountains, and wide boulevards with few cars. And finally, there are the monuments to modernity, built in the exuberance of the early post-Communist years, many now themselves falling into well-deserved ruin. You might say Vidin can be a bit scruffy, but it is the kind of place I like. You never know what you are going to find on the next street over--it could be most anything.

I booked a room at the Hotel Rovno, a modern high rise, apparently the best place to stay in the city--not that there was much competition. Room and breakfast ran about 35 dollars a night. The hotel is constructed so that every room has a view of the Danube. By the time it reaches Bulgaria, the Danube is an impressive river, as wider or wider than the lower Mississippi. From my 6th-floor balcony, I had a nice view of the barge traffic up and down the river, with Romania beckoning in the distance. I was tired and planned to turn in early, so I asked the front desk about the best place to eat close by. They recommended a sports bar just down Tsar Aleksandar II Boulevard. I found the joint easily, just past the abandoned casino. I enjoyed my pasta and Zagorka, while watching a bit of the World Cup. Zagorka is one of the two main Bulgarian beers (and the only one whose name I can remember.) I had apparently forgotten just how high octane it is, for once back in the hotel, I had to stop and sit in the lobby for a moment--to try and remember which floor I was on.

The next morning I set out for Romania. As I said in the first post, my scaling-back on my itinerary ended up being at Romania's expense. And this is unfortunate, for the country has much to offer. I had originally planned to angle northwesterly through Serbia, crossing into Romania east of Belgrade, and then driving on to Timisoara in the southwestern corner of the country. From there, I had hoped to drive easterly in the lower Carpathians for a couple of days before heading south into Bulgaria. As things turned out, Romania ended up being just a day trip for me.

The one place I particularly wanted to visit was Curtea de Arges, which I thought to be just barely within my reach from Vidin. The Orthodox cathedral there is an architectural gem, and also contains the tomb of King Ferdinand of Romania, as well as that of Queen Marie--the real ruler of the country. For some reason, Balkan royalty has always interested me. Serbia and Montenegro produced homegrown monarchies, but the Great Powers selected a Danish prince for Greece, and German nobility for Romania and Bulgaria. If it had not been for World War II and the brutal imposition of Soviet Communism, all three countries might well be constitutional monarchies today. (This is even true in volatile Greece, where the monarchy had trouble hitting its stride. The 1967 coup which deposed King Constantine II was partially driven by simmering animosity against him for his staunch anti-Communist stance during their civil war. The irony here is that he was probably the most exemplary representative of the monarchical principle in modern times.) Michael, the last king of Romania, now lives in the country. Likewise for Simeon II, the last king of Bulgaria, who even served a term as Prime Minister. Constantine II is now being allowed back into Greece and is building a home in the Peloponnese. Perhaps he will no longer have to slip in secret to the Patmos monastery as before. Many of their confiscated properties have now been returned, except of course, in Greece. But there is no groundswell of support for a return to monarchy, however, with polls never rising about 25% for that option.

But back to Marie: she was a queen straight out of Hollywood central casting--classically beautiful, flamboyant, with a instinct for the grand gesture, and often seen in flowing gowns as if she were the romantic lead in a Rudolph Valentino movie. The granddaughter of both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II, Marie found herself married off at age 17 to Ferdinand, the colorless crown prince of Romania. The couple was famously unhappy together, and neither was particularly faithful to the other. Of her 6 children, only 3 are unquestionably Ferdinand's. But no matter, the romantic nature of Romania suited her to a tee, and provided Marie with all the stage she desired. During the First World War, she convinced her husband to join the Allied forces. At the time, this was not a foregone conclusion, as Ferdinand was a Hohenzollern, and Marie herself was a first cousin to the Kaiser. But she was also a first cousin to George V, and Nicholas II and Alexandra. And, with a capital city billed as the "Paris of the East," there could be no other course. The war went disastrously bad for the Romanians, and they suffered greatly as the German forces overran much of the country. In all the diplomatic jockeying at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Romanian interests began to lose ground. Queen Marie arrived in Paris to try and salvage the situation. She was charming, persistent and persuasive. Romania came out of the Conference 60% larger than before, and their current borders owe much to Marie's intervention. To the Orthodox reader, Marie of Romania will be known primarily as the mother of Princess Ileana, later Mother Alexandra of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA.

To reach Curtes de Arges would require an early departure from Vidin and a quick crossing of the Danube--neither of which came to pass. I needed to get some Bulgarian leva first, and walked to a couple of modern banks down the boulevard. Neither would accept my U.S. dollars in exchange for leva. I could step out to the sidewalk, however, get some euros from the ATM, and they would exchange those. I am afraid the days of the high and mighty dollar are over. And so, I was a little late in leaving Vidin. I hoped it would not take long to cross the new bridge over the Danube. Apparently I had misunderstood about the new bridge--there is one under construction, but it is far from finished. The only crossing is by ferry. I certainly enjoyed this adventure, but the time involved at the borders on each side, waiting for the ferry and then the crossing itself, made my arrival in Romania much later than anticipated. Not knowing how late in the day the ferries operated, I decided to pass on Curtes de Arges, and just take Romania as it came--come what may.

Calafat is the Romanian port town opposite of Vidin. As far as border towns go, this one was actually pretty nice. Calafat was laid out in broad blocks, with impressive churches and an attractive and relatively bustling city centre. I found an exchange booth, and traded a few U.S. dollars for leis. The town soon gave way to the gently rolling prairies of Wallachia.
This is not the Romania of tourist brochures. Flat and agricultural Wallachia is little visited by visitors, most of whom flock to a few sites in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. And my experience was confined to the stretch of road between Calafat and the industrial city of Craiova. So, my observations are made with these limitations in mind. My first thought was how this region compared with Bulgaria, just across the river.This part of Wallachia is poor, to be sure, but noticeably less so than comparable Bulgarian villages. The fields are planted in grain as far as can be seen. Farmers sell their fruits and vegetables along the highway. Horse-drawn carts are seen here and there, but large tractors in the fields as well. I saw no ruins of collectivized farms. The villages one passes through predate the Communist era. While many of the homes are in need of repair, they display a distinctive Romanian style, a proud and defiant testimony against over 40 years of central planning. And above all, each of the villages had a center, a core--the parish church. In short, in this brief glimpse of Romania, I came away with the distinct impression that Communism inflicted less damage here than on their neighbor to the south.

I decided I would turn around at the bustling city of Craiova. A Greek restaurant and a hot bowl of moussaka put things right. On the route back to Calafat, I pulled off at a beautiful monastery, and was reminded of the distinctive nature of Romanian Orthodox architecture. I walked around the grounds and the cemetery, but saw none of the monastics. But that is fine, I do not expect these institutions to operate as tourist attractions. At Calafat, a queue had formed at the ferry dock, and so I had to wait a time or two before I could wedge my hatchback onto the ferry between all the semi-trailers.

Back in Vidin, I strolled down to the city centre. This is a great town for walking, with parks and broad public spaces. Late in the day, nearing dusk, I found few people out. The city seemed half-empty. I walked down to the impressive neo-classical Orthodox Cathedral, which occupies an entire leafy block. The double doors were locked tight, with a Bulgarian flag flying on either side. Somehow that image stayed with me. Perhaps I was just a little late, but the church should have been open, with candles flickering. And the flags of no nation need adorn any Orthodox church. Vidin's ugliest building is located on the east side of the church square, a sparkling new structure in burnt orange and plate glass--the "MallVidin." Lord have mercy. In a couple of years, the Danube River bridge will be completed, which should breathe new life into Vidin. In this future hoped-for prosperity, my hope is that what is worth saving in Vidin is preserved.