After a great day mostly on our own in Sophia, we were sad to leave but leave we must – onward to North Macedonia and Skopje, via Rila Monastery! We had a light breakfast since it was not great at the Grand Hotel Sophia, and quite frankly we were glad to leave given how old and stuffy the hotel was. One old world touch we would miss though was the greeting on the elevator doormat. If only the bar had been sufficiently old world the night before to handle our request for Old Fashioneds.
The itinerary today was a long day of travel until we reached the capital of North Macedonia (pronounced like a macadamia nut with a hard “ck”), with a stop at Rila Monastery in the city of Rila. We would have lunch after that at the “Friends” restaurant in the border city Varteshevo, and then arrive before dinner in Skopje. We enjoyed hearing our daily briefing every morning by Nida after joining the group in the lobby and boarding the bus.
After a 2 hour drive, we reached the charming, sleepy town of Rila, and parked in front of the Rila Monastery gate to disembark. Rila Monastery is a working monastery with 8 monks, dwindling in size over the years but not in majesty. The grounds and architecture were astonishingly beautiful nestled in the crevice of the mountains, on a somewhat cloudy but bright day.
Our guide for the visit, Reni, lived in the town of Rila and was a devout believer in the Eastern Orthodox faith and in Ivan of Rila (John of Rila), the patron saint of Bulgaria. Spanning the late 9th and early 10th centuries, Ivan lived a hermitic life in a cave, keeping company with nature and pretty much wanting to avoid people at all cost. He joined a monastery and became a monk, but this wasn’t quiet enough for Ivan so he left the order to go life off by himself, completely apart from other humans in the Rila mountains. This of course led to people thinking he was magical, his legend grew due to his increasingly ascetic existing, burrowing deeper and deeper into the Rila mountains cave system the more people thought he was a saint and wanted to visit him. It seemed the less he wanted to do with society, the more society wanted to do with him! And the news of his “healing” miracles traveled quickly, even to the Tsar. Consistent with his character, Ivan refused to even meet with the Tsar in person, not wanting the power and auspiciousness of the visit to change anything. They bowed to each other at a distance, and the Tsar’s gifts were all rejected by Ivan, save a portion of food. This poor guy just wanted to be left alone.
Eventually, Rila Monastery was built by his disciples after his death, and his remains remain there today (supposedly – the relics were moved from Veliko Tarnovo, and as we all know ancient relics travel well in the 15th century). There are many churches across Bulgaria built in Ivan’s honor, but this is the most magnificent. The art on the outside of the main church is definitely worth spending some time on. We in particular liked the portrait gallery as well as the scenes with the Devil.
We had time to walk the grounds, and toured the monk’s quarters and we spotted a few monk around the premises, including taking phone calls.
But the most spectacular thing about Rila Monastery wasn’t the grounds, the architecture, the art or the monks – it was actually a unique wood carved cross, deep at the end of the Rila Monastery museum. Past the relics, past the printing press (which was very cool, even though it came to Bulgaria quite late), past your standard religious artifacts and icons. At the end of the museum was the most intricate wood carving I had ever seen – Raphael’s Cross, made by the monk Raphael in the early 19th century. It is an exquisite example of Bulgarian miniature wood carving, and a labor of love. The artist took 12 years to carve it and died while it was still unfinished. The monk Raphael lived at Rila Monastery. Unfortunately I have no pictures because photography is not allowed in the museum.
After Rila, we continued on to the North Macedonian – Bulgarian border city of Varteshevo where we stopped for lunch at a “Friends” themed restaurant uncreatively called “Friends”, probably unlicensed. We had expected lunch on our own, but we found ourselves sharing tables with the other tour members which made ordering and paying unnecessarily complicated, especially because they preferred cash or one credit card on the bill. At the same time, it was nice to have reserved tables because the restaurant was a popular and singular place in town and it was a holiday so it was overflowing. The Shopska salad and vegetarian pizza Brendan and I shared were really lovely, and a great change of pace – everyone at the table ordered pizza and enjoyed it, and Rose and Shetty were kind enough to pay due to the one check situation. The food was reasonably priced.
After lunch, on the way back to the bus, we passed a small town square where death notices were posted on trees – a different local custom than digital or newspaper obituaries in the US – to advertise the funeral.
We boarded the bus and prepared for the next border crossing from Bulgaria to North Macedonia. At this time, Nida also shared with us the Communist era Chernomoretz chocolate we saw at The Red Flat and passed around a few boxes throughout the bus to celebrate the completion of our Bulgarian portion of the trip. Nida started this tradition in Romania when she passed around the Romanian Rom chocolates, but the Bulgarian ones were much better. We enjoyed the praline and light hint of orange!
After another great day, we said goodbye to Rila and Bulgaria and entered North Macedonia, arriving in Skopje by 5PM.