What could be more relaxing than starting your day with coffee, friends and art making?
The Fulbrighters did just that. We gathered in the dorm’s lobby where there are several tables (perfect for art making) and a small coffee shop. Like my students, the teachers asked if they could eat and drink while doing their artwork. “Of-course”, is my automatic response.
As they filled the seats, I can feel the excitement rising in my heart. I am introducing iconography, an art form that has been and remained to be a major part of Bulgaria’s identity. Bulgaria was one of the first Eastern European nations to adopt the Christian faith; icons were the “bible” for the people since literacy was very low during this time. Christians believed that icons are sanctified objects that help them to feel the presence of God. Icons are traditionally stylized and unrealistic works of art.
The artists selected an icon from the collection I have accumulated thus far. They copied the image using watercolor and paper. The materials fitted the occasion since we had limited time and space for an authentic experience in icon painting. Once the brushes flowed, I could tell that my artists were relaxing and enjoying the process. It was a delight to see the paintings developed so quickly and that everyone was having fun. Carol may not have seen this as relaxing but we had fun nevertheless!
At 11:00 a.m., we boarded the bus with our overnight bag for Rila Monastery. I should mention that Kristin Grattan stayed within the luggage limit as this is Camp Bulgaria in her mind. The drive was approximately an hour from Blagoevgrad. We drove up to an altitude of 1147 meters, which meant cooler air for our weary campers.
Rila Monastery is a symbol of everything that is Bulgaria: the majestic mountains that surround the monastery, the monastery with its long history that was intricately woven with the country’s politics, culture and education. During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185- 1396), the royalty gave this land to the Bulgarian people to build a monastery to establish and propagate the veneration for Saint Ivan Rilski, a hermit and a miracle-worker. The cave in which he lived is up on the mountain. Supposedly, he performed many miracles but the most important miracle of all was healing the possessed. People heard about him all over the land and he became a national hero. After he died, pilgrims flocked to this holy place to honor the humble man whom the Church later ordained a saint.
The monastery has become a tourist destination in recent years. We felt the frenzy of the place immediately upon arrival. It was like an international fair. A variety of languages can be heard as bus loads of people congregated at the entrance. We were taken back by the expansiveness of the complex and the ornate Church of Nativity. There were three domes that rise rhythmically over the central nave. Surrounding the church is a monumental open porch. Its walls and ceilings are covered with beautiful frescos depicting religious people and events of the bible. The cobble-stone courtyard is light and airy. The 300 or more monks’cells surround the main church and act as a “fortress”, protecting its inhabitants over the years. Now these cells are available to tourists like us. We wouldn’t consider them as bed and breakfast or hostels….as a matter-of- fact; we don’t know what to call them. Although we were forwarned that there would be no shower at this place and that we shouldn’t expect any modern conveniences, nothing could have prepared us for our overnight stay at the monastery. Reality hits hard when we checked into our six person room for the night and then discovered that the bathroom was down the hall and one floor below. It wasn’t an ordinary bathroom but an ancient facility that deterred us from our nightly consumption of fluid and fellowship.
We dropped off our bags and headed for a long and challenging hike up to St. Ivan’s cave which was 4.8 km, uphill all the way! We saw open fields with gorgeous colors of gold, violet, yellow, orange, brown, white wild flowers and tall grasses. I wished I could have stopped and painted the scenery before me. It was absolutely breath-taking. The mountains rose in the background and above them were clouds and mists that mingled together to create a mysterious shroud that was constantly changing. The quick flowing rivers dotted the land; creating an obstacle for the hikers and at the same time provided us its relaxing sound of gurgling water. Once in a while, we encountered a waterfall. Its power drowned out our voices, reminding us of our place in this universe. Nature has a way of bringing us back to our humanity, no matter where we stand in this beautiful world.
The climax of the hike came when we entered St. Ivan’s cave. It took a minute or so for our eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the cave and then we discovered an altar with three icons. We paid our respect silently then one by one, we carefully climbed up the steps leading to a narrow and twisting opening. The opening leads up to another level of the mountain. Legend has it that anyone who has lived a good life will pass thru this opening. The hikers in our group all passed this test including me. We were cheered on by a group of children who had traveled through the cave before us. It was all very exhilarating!
In the end, it was me, Kristin G and Larry that trudged down last from the mountains. Our bodies sore, our feet wanted to scream and Larry’s knees wanted to be stay upon the mountains and forget about the climb down.
We met up with the rest of the hikers at the foot of the mountains, at a restaurant closest to the monastery. We enjoyed the little luxury and conveniences of the facility before heading to the monastery. Knowing that the gate closes at 9:00 p.m., we stayed out until a minute before curfew, such rebels we are!
Back to the room of six women, we ventured to the bathroom together. What a great bonding experience this was for us. I told Pat that I have done my penance, between climbing all the way to the cave and enduring this pit-i-ful bathroom, I have definitely earned my way to heaven. We went back to our room and had a snore- strip party, courtesy of Pat. The only thing we heard throughout the night was the church bell.