It’s the first day of elementary school here in Blagoevgrad and there are dozens of moms and dads dropping off their kids. And what are they carrying in their hands? Not the newest and fanciest lunchboxes. No, they are carrying flowers to give to their teachers. Now that is a nice tradition and very typical of Bulgarians who are always insisting on giving somebody something. That’s how it was when Mark met a poor farmer while biking last week (see his blog post here) , and that is how it was when we went to the Rhozen Monastery this past weekend.
To be honest, Mark and I are not big fans of visiting churches. Sure, we do our share as tourists and sometimes we are glad we did. This was one of those days because something very unexpected and wonderful happened.
There was only a smattering of people when we arrived (quite the opposite of the Rila Monastery, which was packed with tourists and buses and is, as I mentioned previously, known as the “Jerusalem of Bulgaria.”). Rhozen was quiet. Very quiet. The few people who were there were very intent on lighting candles and visiting the icon– a painting of Virgin Mary whose eyes follow you– that allegedly provides miracles to those who pray in front of it. It’s a very sacred and beautiful space at the foot of a Pirin Mountains that dates back from Middle Ages. http://www.bulgariatripsandtours.com/melnik-rozhen-monastery/
I don’t know that I’ve ever been so moved in a religious building (other than my own). I don’t really know why. Maybe it was the delicate way the monk took care of the candles. Maybe it was the way you could practically hear the people silently praying in front of the icon (read the story about it here ). Or maybe it was the feeling of a connection to the craftsmen who carefully painted the frescoes and patiently carved the wood. Or maybe it was the quiet.
And then, our own little miracle happened.
It turns out that our tour guides for the day, Tsenko and Elmira, knew this monk from a long time ago (Tsenko’s company at one time helped raise money for renovations and general upkeep of the monastery). Tsenko gestured towards us to follow him and we walked up to squeaky steps to the third floor to the private quarters. The monk unlocked what appeared to be a study room and we were told to sit down because we were invited for coffee.
We sat, quietly, for about 10 minutes while this monk prepared the coffee which, it turned out, was more than just coffee. Out comes this bearded monk carrying a tray with beautiful hand-painted espresso coffee cups, water, chocolate and …rakia. He carefully set each cup down in front of us and then we made a toast. For the next half hour, we drank the special monastery-made rakia (my guess is that it was at least 50% alcohol) in between sips of espresso and bites of delicious Greek chocolate, an absolutely perfect breakfast! We found out that he is one of two monks who lives on the grounds. Imagine, just 2 monks left to serve their God and take care of this historic place.
Tsenko and the monk were chatting away and, at one point, they even exchanged cell phone numbers by calling each others phones. Yes, phones! This really surprised me given that there are signs everywhere stating that no cameras, phones or even “excessive laughter” was allowed in the monastery. But here, in the private quarters of this ancient monastery, there was laughter and pleasure and rakia and phones.
I very much wanted a photo of our new friend and asked Elmira if it would be disrespectful to ask him if I could take a picture. She said she would ask. Miraculously, he said yes (see photo below). I also managed to snap a few other photos including the aftermath of our breakfast and a few other things I hope give you the feeling of this special morning.
From Rhozen, we went to Melnik to do some wine tasting and then to Sanduski to breathe the fresh air of the mountains (said to be very good for asthma and other medical conditions) and then back home. Earlier in the week, we went to the international ski resort town of Bankso. I’ll post more about those trips another time. In the meantime, you can read Mark’s blog because he nicely summarizes our trips to those places.
But really, it is the people here who continually surprise us. Their generosity of spirit. Their pleasure at giving to strangers. Like most of you, we knew very little about Bulgaria before we came here. Now, we feel connected and see things in a way you can only feel when you live somewhere. It’s something that brings us joy every day.