ARTICLES 
Rila Magic
The Sofia Echo, 15th August 2005

WITH icy streams gurgling through lush tree-covered mountains, its easy to see why Ivan Rilski chose the Rila mountains to lead his hermetic life.
Our accommodation was a notch up from Rilskis cave, but only just. Organised as ever, we had completely failed to book anything in advance and first decided to try our luck at the Zodiak campsite where we were greeted with what sounded like a German take on traditional Bulgarian music, a strange mixture of a manic clarinet being played over an um-pa-pa beat. It was a hit with campsites residents, who were already on the dance floor, arms linked, legs flailing every which way giving the impression of a drunken millipede. I think we were all relieved to find that the bungalows were fully booked.
The Bor Campsite proved to be a much more peaceful option. Friends and families sat around, reading and lazing in the afternoon sun. The huts were basic, their green paint peeling, and their beds sagging, but the sheets were clean, the sun shining and the fresh mountain air tinged with the smoke of camp fires was invigorating. After paying the grand sum of 10 leva for a hut for the night we enjoyed a beer at the outdoor cafe, feeling very rustic, sitting by a wood-fuelled stove, on stools made from tree trunks.
We decided to walk the short distance to the monastery to experience it in the peacefulness of the evening. We were happily chatting, idly wandering along the shady road, snaking its way through the mountains, when we were nearly flattened by a car speeding round the corner of the narrow road. After this we were quick to locate the path off the road running along next to the river, a more pleasant, and definitely safer route.
Our dice with death was made worthwhile, however, when we entered the monastery. Its as though all those hundreds of years of the monks silence and contemplation have soaked into the bricks, every stone absorbing a tranquility over time which can now be felt in an almost tangible aura of calm and peacefulness.
A handful of other people were enjoying the quiet evening, filling their bottles with spring water or relaxing after a hard days hiking against beautiful black and white striped pillars. The domed church and old tower are in the centre of the courtyard edged by tall residential buildings. The striped pillars and arches and the numerous staircases of these four-storey buildings containing the monks cells, give them an Escher-like appearance. The church is painted with rich, colourful murals, many of which were signed by the Revival artist Zahari Zograph in 1844. One scene caused a scandal at the time it was painted, as it depicted people bound for heaven, painted on the right, and those bound for hell, painted on the left. Members of the aristocracy appeared on the left.
After sitting and soaking the up the atmosphere, we dragged ourselves away for some supper in one of the restaurants surrounding the monastery, by the rushing stream. Then it was time make the walk back to our hut. The most organised person in our party had brought a torch, but we also had our own guide to help us find our way home. A dog joined us as we were leaving the village. At first we tried to shoo him home, not sure whether he was a guardian angel helping to show us our way back, or a hell hound ready to pounce. Luckily, he was the former, melting away into the night after accompanying us safely to the campsite. We also had a helping hand in the form of the flickering lights in the trees. I was the first to spot these, and when I tried to show my companions they dismissed me as having had one too many glasses of wine with dinner. However, as we walked further it was impossible to ignore the small greenish lights twinkling in the branches above us. The glowworms were everywhere, making our walk home one through an enchanted forest. Emerging into the clearing, the huts looked like Hansel and Gretels cottage, their windows glowing through identical pink curtains. We settled into bed feeling like we were part of a fairy-tale.
The next morning was magic in a different way - fresh and bright, with a few clouds racing across the tips of the mountains. We returned to the monastery to see inside the church, which had been closed the day before as we got there after 6pm. With its glittering gold and vividly painted icons it was beautiful, and even on a summers day the place wasnt swarming with the hordes wed expected.
Breakfast was of fresh doughnuts showered with icing sugar, which found its way over me more than them, and sheeps yoghurt, all bought from a small shop near the monastery and eaten sitting with toes dangling into the icy mountain stream.
It was difficult to leave this enchanting place, and Im sure a return visit is on the cards, maybe on August 18 for St Rilski day, when a dip in the stream in honour of the monk may be in order.

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