1. Hitchhike to Rila Monastery.
Hop a series of trucks and fancy cars to the bottom of the southwestern Rila Mountains in Bulgaria. You will be too proud and traveler-snobby for the buses that charter tour groups from Sofia. Instead, admire the mist-clotted hillscapes and try to ignore the fact that you’re still 160km from your next capital city.
In the gas stations on the side of the highway, listen to whispers of a famous monastery in the mountains. What the hell, you’ve got time, it’s still hours until dusk. You can still get to Macedonia in time. Stick your thumb out and wait an hour for some wealthy weekender to take pity on you. A bleary-eyed horse stares at you from the wheat fields.
2. Explore the grounds.
Wander around the grounds of an Eastern Orthodox monastery, with checkered corbel running up its four tiers. The church will immediately catch your eye. Its rippling Cordoba arches foreshadow Judgment Day in saffron and poppy-red and goldenrod, all melting into vibrantly blue skies. Drool over the iconostasis and woodcarvings, the garish frescoes of damnation, the gargoyled water fountain, the bulbous domes and stilted arched windows.
Distract your faithful traveling companion with lectures on Ottoman tower houses and the homes-on-stilts that resulted on account of neighborly disputes. Apparently, you were less likely to scream at your friend’s son’s transgressions with your daughter if he held an advantageous position from which to pelt you with stale bread or pinecones.
3. Check out the church.
Don one of the chartreuse satin capes to modest down your tank-top shoulders. Wander around the inner sanctum of the church. For all its high ceilings, it is surprisingly small. Every inch is ornate and gilt ad nauseam, a vast feast of draconic proportions. Marble floors and gasping sunlight will make the inside as cool and still as a cave.
The saints — sitting in their triptychs, gazing lost in thought with slightly concerned crinkles — unnerve you. One of the black-bearded Fathers sweeps by in his box hat and night robes; you feel a wind stir at your ankles. Be a good disciple (of the do-as-the-locals-do sect) and light a thin-stemmed candle and stick it in the sand with a prayer.
4. Sleep in a monk’s cell.
Give up on Skopje for the day. You will hear they charge about 15 bucks (20 leva) for a night to sleep in one of the cheaper monk cells. For 30 leva you can have your own private bathroom. Laugh inwardly like a pompous hippie at the prospect of spending extra when there’s a large bathroom all around you. Then your inner history-geek will kick in as you realize how cool it would be to sleep like medieval monks.
The cells are simple, smothered in white paint and smelling like perishing plaster. Let yourself be led to a tiny room with three cots, a few built-in drawers, and a single French door window. Your traveler-in-cahoots will already have her backpack sprawled out on one of the beds. Haggle with your backpacker’s card to get it down to 15 leva a night.
5. Wake up to the bells.
Wake up at dawn, to a faint thrumming beat. A peek outside confirms a monk circling, clacking on a wooden stake with a mallet, like a medieval metronome. Another pulls a rope in the Tower of Hrelyu, prodding its bells to ring out. Being the history geek that you are, consult your guidebook about this Tolkienesque name.
The tower is named after a powerful commander who rebuilt the monastery in the 14th century, and was to have been used for storage, imprisonment, and / or as an asylum. Born in 1334, the oldest building remaining is all stone and belfry, and its milk-white columns encase green bells and a glassed box of gears and bolts. Lean on the old wooden balustrades and watch as the resident black, shaggy dog bounces on the cobblestones.
6. Explore outside.
Check out the world beyond the stone walls; breathe in the high valley air that hides deep in the pocket fold of the Rila Mountains. Wander through pines, yellow hornpoppy, bilberries, cowberries, and pink-purple spike heather — or so the guidebook says. You studied the elevated humanities, not botany — you couldn’t tell the difference between a cypress and an oak.
Loftily muse on the possibility of not being able to trust one’s own senses. Your faithful friend will want you to shut up with the philosophy and to go sketch in her journal. Pass angels and haloed saints to a little bridge under which a stream courses violently. Sit down, meditate, take a picture.
7. Have lunch.
Hungrily drag yourself out of cheese shops to more substantial fare. Just outside the monastery walls and down the hill, there is a restaurant. Order shopska salad — you’re addicted by now to the soft sheep cheese Bulgaria should be world famous for — and some chilled tarator soup. Have coffee with gorgeous steel spoons with square handles, etched with the word: Rila.
8. Explore the area.
Feel compelled to wander the dirt paths and traverse wooden bridges; after all, you are in the lush and verdant mountain, stuff of legends. Pass a gaggle of local youths who say hello hello how are you then rattle off Bulgarian. Take off your sandals and balance on the boulders in the stumbling stream. Stretch out on the bank and idly watch your trekking-mate hike up her striped skirt to dip her feet in the chilly mountain water.
9. Head out.
By late afternoon, it will be time to leave. Strap on your fermenting backpacks and amble down the hill. Breathe in clear alpine air you know you’re parting with for some time. Catch a ride down the winding road with an angel sent by the Saint of Hitchhikers. Sniff the too-clean watermelon conditioner in the back seat and wait for your aspirations of a serene monk-like life to disappear back into the mountains’ fold.
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