Bulgarian monasteries

EASTER IN RILA MONASTERY

The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary. Monks in habits, practicing Eastern Orthodox Christians and a couple of clueless foreign tourists are gathered at the gate of Bulgaria's most revered monastery and most visited UNESCO-site long after business hours to wait for a car to arrive.

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MONASTERY IN THE SKY

Seen from afar, St George's Monastery near Glozhene, by the Hemus highway, appears to challenge the laws of both physics and common sense. The compact monastic complex of wooden residential buildings with drooping eaves stands on the top of a narrow rock pillar.

Reaching the monastery is also a challenge. Signage in Yablanitsa, the nearest town, is non-existent and the GPS will send you to a dead-end. The road itself is a narrow band of crumbling asphalt clinging on to the steep slopes. Pray that you do not meet an oncoming car. In snow, it is impassable.

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TROYAN MONASTERY

Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.

Then, there is the Troyanksi Pass, a precipitous road that reaches an altitude of 1,595m before leading down, south of the Stara Planina.

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ROZHEN MONASTERY

Near the town, however, one of Bulgaria's most fascinating monasteries, a delightful example of 16th-18th century religious art and architecture, sits hidden in the hills.

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PREOBRAZHENSKI MONASTERY

The Wheel of Life scene, on the southern wall of the main church, is self-explanatory. Here unfolds the human cycle, the eternal flux mirroring the passing of the seasons. The naivety of the child in spring blends into the confidence of the adult in summer, before settling into the wisdom of the ageing man in his autumn, until it reaches the despair and demise of the old man in his winter; a never-ending cycle put into motion by Death itself.

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ALL ALONG THE ISKAR, Part 2

The first place of interest after Lakatnik might look strange to a foreigner: a five-metre statue of an old man apparently staring into the gorge, at Ochindol village. The 2005 monument represents one of the best known literary characters in Bulgaria, the Dyado, or Grandpa, Yotso from the short story Dyado Yotso is Looking On by Ivan Vazov. The story is about a blind octogenarian from an isolated hamlet in the Iskar Gorge who is fascinated by every single sign of Bulgaria's independence from the Ottomans; from the uniforms of an official and a soldier to the newly-built railway.

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IVANOVO ROCK CHURCHES

No, this encounter of past and present is not taking place in faraway Cappadocia of worldwide renown for its odd rock chapels, but here in Bulgaria. About 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they composed one monastic complex. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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BACHKOVO MONASTERY

Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.

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PONDERING OVER MEANING OF LIFE AT TROYAN MONASTERY

It is not an opinion, but a fact: the Stara Planina around Troyan is one of the most beautiful parts of the mountain range. Covered with thick forest, the slopes tower above you. Cold rivers flow past quiet villages and hamlets, and the hair-raising road to the Beklemeto Pass winds up, and up, and up, until you reach a bald summit at the height of 1,595m, adorned with a menacing monument called the Arch of Freedom.

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ARAPOVSKI MONASTERY: LESSER KNOWN GEM OF REVIVAL PERIOD

Yet, the country is dotted with many monastic complexes, which form the backbone of local tourism and religious life.

The Arapovski Monastery, about 12 km east of Asenovgrad, is one of these. Unlike most Bulgarian monasteries, Arapovo is not located at some hard-to-reach-but-picturesque corner of a mountain. Instead, it is on the fertile plain at the foot of the Rhodope.

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ST ANASTASIA ISLAND

Bulgaria's Black Sea can be calm or full of tourists, pristine or packed with ugly hotels, but one thing it is not: a sea where numerous islands, large and small, are available for exploration.

Only seven islands dot the 354 km of Bulgaria coastline and some of them are so small that they are little more than rocks in the sea. In the summer of 2014, however, one of the islands in the Bulgarian Black Sea became a genuine tourist attraction.

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ST GEORGE'S DAY IN POMORIE

Small, insignificant, yet packed with tourists in summer but empty in winter, Pomorie changes completely on 6 May. Then, the townsfolk flock to St George's Monastery, on the outskirts of town, to celebrate the feast of its patron saint.

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AROUND BULGARIA IN 5 SACRES SITES

You don't need to be a believer to experience something special at some places and some moments. A sense of spirituality can enfold you anywhere, anytime. Being a small but very varied country, Bulgaria has plenty of locations conducive to this. It is a country of many religions, both old and new, long dead or still living, and it is yours to explore with eyes and soul open once you get tired of the beaten tourist track.

RILA MONASTERY

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BULGARIA'S ENDANGERED HERITAGE

Officially, not a single Bulgarian entry in UNESCO's world heritage list is in danger. In actual fact however, in the country of sun and roses, many historical and natural sites are in danger of being changed beyond recognition, or of being completely lost.

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ISKAR GORGE

There's nothing deeper than the Iskar," goes the local folk song, with characteristic parochialism. Even sceptics, however, admit that the longest river running entirely within Bulgarian territory is indeed remarkable. Springing from the plain near Samokov, it flows through the Sofia Plain and the Stara Planina mountains, crosses the Danubian Plain and, after a journey of 350 kms, joins the Danube.

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