|Photo: Benoît Peverelli|
I was riding my mountain bike down a steep path into a wooded gorge. Niki Titev, a member of the Bulgarian national mountain biking team, was, predictably, far ahead of me when a woman emerged from the woods at the side of the trail. I stopped and smiled. Clad in a head scarf, her hands stained purple from picking blueberries, Nedjibe was a Pomak—a part of the Bulgarian Muslim minority. When I asked whether I could take her picture, she shook her head back and forth in the charmingly confusing Bulgarian gesture for yes.
While Titev comes to Rila to bomb down the ski runs at Borovets, Nedjibe comes to gather berries and fatten her sheep in the high summer meadows. Across a gulf of centuries, they have these mountains in common.
The pocket-sized Rila mountain range forms the southwestern boundary of the Bulgarian heartland. Its foothills rise from pastoral and bountiful fields just an hour south of Sofia, the nation's capital. At Musala peak, the highest point in the Balkans, the range's sharp granite pinnacles assert an ancient ruggedness before falling off to the south, toward the drier areas along the Greek border.
I visited in August, joining a group of American and Bulgarian mountain bikers for a week spent riding around villages and chalets scattered throughout the range. While our ride was strenuous—miles of rough climbing were rewarded with monumental descents that challenged the abilities of even the most experienced riders—the small size of the range makes many of the places we visited accessible to those less inclined to suffer.
The snug village of Govedartsi, under steep pine-cloaked hillsides along the Iskar River, is one such place. In the stone-and-wood gazebo behind the family-run House Djambazki—alfresco dining is a delightful warm-weather custom in Bulgaria—we ate the bounty of the mountains. Sheep's-milk yogurt, heaped into stoneware bowls and topped with wild honey and alpine blueberries, tasted of the summer pasture we had ridden through earlier in the day.
In many ways, Bulgaria represents the classic Eastern European mix of modernity, Socialist hangover, and tradition. Cell phones jostle with donkey carts, global capitalism jostles with strange economic practices—why, 15 years after the fall of Communism, and with its manufacturer under international ownership, does a small bottle of the light and pleasingly hoppy Zagorka beer cost the same as a large one?
In Bulgaria you get the sense that everything has happened before. This was the home of the Thracians, whose mysterious Bronze Age religion gave rise to the ancient Greek cult of Dionysus. The Romans, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottomans each ruled here for as long as half a millennium, followed by more-short-lived visits by the Nazis and Eastern-bloc Communists. With only a few glimpses of independence during their long history, Bulgarians have nonetheless maintained their own identity and language.
The high alpine meadows, craggy granite peaks, and ancient evergreen forests within the boundaries of Rila National Park make this area unique in Eastern Europe. The park is surrounded by monastery land, Ministry of Forests and Agriculture land, and pastures belonging to villages and towns. All together nearly the size of Yosemite National Park, this is a primeval Europe long forgotten elsewhere. These mountains have always been a sanctuary where outlaws and prophets could escape imperial authorities and keep Bulgarian culture alive.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Saint Ivan Rilski fled the secular world in 927 for a drafty cave deep in the mountains' beech forests. Pilgrims still visit the cave to attempt to pass through its narrow outlet; those who are able to are said to be free of sin. Certainly the narrow opening, its rocky lips worn smooth by generations of pilgrims, is a good measure of one's resistance to banitsa, a rich local pastry made with phyllo, leeks, and salty sirene—a sheep's-milk cheese similar to its Greek counterpart, feta.
The Rila Monastery, an outgrowth of Saint Ivan's retreat, has been in its present location, an easy hike from the cave, since 1335. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most important seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, in addition to being the most visited place in the nation. Its domes sit like ripe figs atop a fanciful mille-feuille in the heart of the Rila Mountains. As dictated by the region's millennia-old tradition of hospitality, visitors can stay at the monastery in converted (and surprisingly comfortable) monks' cells.
One cool morning there, I was awakened by a monk's rhythmic tapping on a carved plank—a medieval alarm clock signaling the start of the dawn service. In the crepuscular light of the shaded valley, swallows began to swarm about the stone courtyard, their cries mingling with the sounds of the river outside the monastery walls and with the soft gurgling of the sacred fountains along the cloisters.
I made my way down the wide stairs, the old wood creaking beneath my feet and echoing through the empty galleries.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, at the center of the complex, candles illuminated gilded carvings and icons as frankincense and the resonant drone of chants in an old Slavonic church language filled the air. Visitors and worshippers alike stood on the stone floor of the nave as an officiant anointed each of us with perfumed smoke from a golden censer.
The monastery is set in the forests of the Rilska Valley, a steep-sided gorge. Muscular beech trees crowd the lower slopes; higher up, woods of fir and spruce take over, then mats of stunted pine, before finally giving way to alpine meadow. Managed by the monks in coordination with national park authorities, this religious nature preserve is the largest of its kind in Europe.
There are many guest lodges within the mountains just outside the park's boundaries. While most have yet to shake off the coarse shabbiness left over from the Communist era, a number have been privatized, with striking results. The Upland guesthouse, near Sapareva Banya, for example, is just an hour from Sofia. Renovated in 2001, the clean and comfortable lodge is nestled among birches and pines at the gateway to the popular Seven Lakes area. While the building retains the angular concrete form that passed for stylish under Communist rule, it has been softened with warm wood accents and Scandinavian furniture. But, as elsewhere in Rila, the real attraction is the outdoors: the broad patio is a perfect spot to energize yourself with an espresso before a long hike, or to relax afterward with a glass of rakiya, the local grappa-like white brandy.
Near one of the rustic stone inns that dot the high mountains—the Macedonia Chalet, which sits on a windswept pass in the center of the park—I looked out over the wooded valley that conceals the Rila Monastery about a mile below. In the distance, the mountains subside to rolling hills, then farmland and red-roofed villages nestled into the sheltered valleys.
We had been riding all day to get to this spot, carrying our bikes at times. A gloriously long downhill awaited us, but we stood in silence before the vista. After a few minutes, Nasko Shumanov, our Bulgarian cycling guide, put the feeling into words: "When you are at the top," he said, "the soul becomes large."
On the other side of the toothed ridge that towers above the monastery, through an alpine pass a tough day's hike to the north, are the Seven Lakes. Perched amid scree, where the winter's snow lingers even in August, these vitreous jewels are among the most popular destinations for visitors to the park.
In 1895, Peter Deunov retreated to these lakes to found the Brotherhood of Light. More than a century later thousands of his followers assemble here each August to sing, pray, and practice their sacred dance beneath the same sheer cliffs of granite. Bulgarians from all walks of life come here in search of something more than either the church or state brings them.
I had been in contact with some of Deunov's followers in California, and through them I was welcomed at the camp. (Even drop-ins are invited to join in the group's dances, although camping should be arranged in advance.) Goro Petkov, a sprightly man who has been hosting foreign visitors here for more than two decades, gave me a tent just below a high ridgeline. From my sleeping bag I could look out across a tumble of lakes, meadows, forest, and granite.
Before dawn I rose from my tent to the sound of a mournful violin. All around, people were creeping out of their tents and making their way to a dramatic point of rock facing the lightening sky. Crowded onto the promontory above a deep gorge, we raised our right hands in salutation as the sun materialized—a heavy orange ball pushing aside the summer haze above Govedartsi in the valley far below. The group began to sing traditional hymns of welcome as the warmth of the light washed away the remnants of the night.
Later, dressed in the white clothes I had been told to bring, I accompanied the others to a high meadow next to an icy alpine lake. There, along the outside of a circle of stones, we arranged ourselves into three rings. As the musicians and choir in the center of the circle struck up quaint hymns, we began the sacred dance, stately and chaste, that moved us around and around the circle through a meditative cycle.
The Seven Lakes area is one of the most popular entry sites into the high mountains for hikers and skiers, and it suffers somewhat from its thousands of visitors. Park officials have plans for reducing the impact while maintaining access, and virtually all of the travelers I met there are keenly aware of the fragility of this natural treasure. The Rila Mountains are an inspiration and delight to the Bulgarians, who make up the vast majority of each year's half-million visitors to the park. It is said that every Bulgarian (there are 8 million) visits the Rila Mountains at least twice in his or her lifetime.
But it is the people who never leave who best embody this place. In the pastures above Govedartsi, I met a shepherd tending his flock. His name was Arangel. He rested on his staff with the look of a man who knows that riches are measured by much more than money. We exchanged pleasantries through a Bulgarian friend's translation (most urban Bulgarians speak at least a little English).
Finally, as we climbed back onto our bicycles, Arangel called after us with a traditional country blessing for passing travelers—"Flowers and roses!"—before turning back to his day.