Rila Monastery: Sleeping with monks

This morning we left Sofia for the Rila Mountains to slumber an evening in the old monks' cells of the eponymous monastery. As the sign at the entrance says, God chose the Rila Mountains for their beauty and peace as a good place to develop one's spirituality. If it's good enough for god, it's good enough for us. Rila Monastery sits in a pined valley; granite mountains hallelujah around it, crescendoing to a too-blue sky with candy-like dollops of clouds. A river sounds out further down the gorge, constantly refreshing and cleansing the energy.

The monastery itself is freshly painted. Broad wooden stairs and walkways creak, but the colors pop. I admit I was a little shocked when our bus arrived. I thought it would be cool to stay a night in a monastery hailing from the 10th century, but I didn't expect its vibrancy. The white and blue and green and gray of cloud and sky and forest and rock deepen the brightly painted colors of the building, even before you enter its massive gates.

Inside the marble and stone cobbled courtyard is a flurry of tourists snapping photos and buying souvenir rosaries, Virgin Mary plates and Bulgarian wool socks. Bearded monks robed in black walk the grounds and gather to sing a few times a day. By 6 p.m. most of the tour buses have snaked back down the hill, so the monastery belongs to the few of us who have decided to stay here for the night, and to the monks of course. A week and three countries later, this will still be, by far, the highlight of our trip.

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