Day 22: The Final Countdown

Well folks, this is it – the last day our the DeCaigny Abroad Trip 2017.  Today we only had a few last things to wrap up in Sofia, including the inside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and Pa wanted to get a Harley-Davidson Sofia t-shirt.  We slept in, did a bit of housekeeping for our travel tomorrow, had a leisurely breakfast and headed out towards the Cathedral.


Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an Orthodox Cathedral, one of the largest in the world, built in the Neo-Byzantine style.  It’s also known as the main tourist attraction in Sofia.  Alexander Nevsky was not Bulgarian, but a Russian Prince of Novgorod who in the 13th century led a Russian army to defeat the Teutonic army (you can see the dramatization of this in Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Alexander Nevsky”, with the score written by Sergei Prokofiev).  It was named after a Russian prince as opposed to a Bulgarian one, because it was built in memory of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War (liberating Bulgaria from the Ottomans).  Anyhow, the name of the Cathedral was changed between 1912 – 1916 to St Cyril and Methodius as Russia and Bulgaria were on opposite sides in WWI.


There is no entry fee to the Cathedral, but you do have to pay 10 LEV ($7.50 CAD) to take photos.  I paid and the lady at the desk gave me a piece of paper with some Cyrillic written on it, and a little man in black robes approached me as I entered, gave my paper a little tear, and said “safe photo”.  There is little to no talking in the Cathedral, so the silence was deafening.  I definitely could have done with some orthodox chant.  We quietly walked about, watching the faithful light candles, pray to the saints, and line up and pray to the alter.


Like many of the Orthodox churches and cathedrals we’ve been to, there is a giant chandelier right above the alter and in front of the iconostasis.  Alexander Nevsky is a really beautiful building, but I would say I have definitely seen more breathtaking Orthodox churches.


After we felt like we had spent a sufficient amount of time in the Cathedral, we stepped out into the sun and headed to a nearby restaurant called Cattedral for some lunch – pizza, risotto and Irish breakfast for Pa.  We finished up and ordered a taxi for Pa using this app called Taxi Me.  It’s essentially like Uber, but finds you good and reliable drivers who won’t gouge you.  The driver pulls up and Pa hops in, on his way to Harley Davidson Sofia, so Ma and I walked around the nearby university grounds and sat on a sunny bench and talked about next year’s trip.


After about 25 minutes or so, Pa returned, purchase in hand.  We had discovered by accident that Sofia actually has a pretty popular pedestrian only boulevard just steps from our shitty apartment called Vitosha Boulevard, lined with shops, bars and cafes.  We decided to do a bit of a cafe crawl, so we started at a place where we got sparkling water and ice cream.


Moving on, we came across a few street musicians, a cellist and a guitarist/vocalist who were playing some original works as well as some covers.  We grabbed a bench and watched for a while.


After watching the musicians, we wandered some more and eventually got to the end of the street.  By that time, we decided to find a place for dinner, and had read about a restaurant on the strip called Boom Burger, so we decided to try it.  We had some beers, burgers and onion rings and it reminded us of Cannibal Cafe in Vancouver.  We settled up and headed back down the boulevard, looking for a good place for Ma to get some dessert and Pa and I to get some rakia.  Rakia is a liqueur in the region, usually made from grape or plum, and is a lot like brandy (or the Palinka we had in Romania), and Pa and I figured we had to have some before we left.  We found a busy patio and Ma ordered a slice of cheesecake, and Pa and I each ordered a shot of their finest rakia – only burns a little bit going down!  We paid our delightful waiter and waddled back to our apartment, ready to pack for our flight tomorrow and ready to come home.  Until next year, Europe.


Day 21: Head For the Hills

This morning we were up bright and early for our final tour on this trip – Boyana Church and Rila Monastery.  We were to meet our Viator tour group at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at 0900hrs, but they ask that you show up at least 10 minutes early, so naturally we were there by 0820hrs.  We were fine with that though, because we had awesome light to capture the outside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (which we will be checking out tomorrow).


Once everyone had arrived (not everyone on time, ahem), we all hopped on the mini bus and were on our way to an affluent community just 20 minutes outside of Sofia called Boyana.  In Boyana there is an old and very small church, built in the 11th and 13th centuries and featuring some very early painted icons in the orthodox tradition.

We pulled into the parking lot and enjoyed the beautiful yard, peaceful and quiet but for the chirping birds.  The leaves are starting to turn colour and the air was crisp, definitely autumn.


As previously mentioned, the church is a very small UNESCO world heritage site, and there could be only 10 of us in the church at a time, so we took turns.  No photos were allowed, but inside are icons describing the saints, the king and queen, and the nobles who donated the money to build the church and earn their fast-track ticket straight to heaven.


Once all 3 groups of 10 had made our way through and gotten the mini tour, we all piled back on the bus and we hit the road for the 2 hour drive south of Sofia, into the Rila Mountains for Rila Monastery.  Our tour guide Marina told us stories of Bulgaria, the different ethnic groups, the story of how God created Bulgaria:

“When God was dividing up the lands for the different nations, Bulgaria was last because we’re always late.  We it finally came to us, all the lands had been assigned and there was nothing for the Bulgarians.  We said ‘who are we supposed to live with?  The Greeks?  The Serbians?’  God felt bad so he told Bulgarians ‘don’t tell the other nations, but I will give you part of paradise – mountains and sea.'”

The drive up to and through the mountains was really lovely – like a more mountainous Okanagan.  Lots of wineries, lots of vineyards, lots of houses with with beautiful grape vine trellis shading their yards, which were full of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers.

We pulled into the lot and entered what looks from the outside like a walled compound:


We entered to find the gobsmacking striped and arched brilliance that is Rila Monastery.


Rila Monastery is the largest monastery in the country and is named after Ivan of Rila, a reclusive hermit of a man who loved to live in nature (apparently once lived in the trunk of a tree) and whose relics allegedly have healing properties.  The monastery itself was founded in the 10th century, but due to years of religious turmoil in the country (Ottoman Turks would knock down any church they could), the buildings we see today are from the mid 19th century.


We as tourists and pilgrims are only allowed on the ground floor of the structure as it is still a working monastery, able to house up to 400 monks.


We then moved on to the Cathedral, again Orthodox (the main religion in Bulgaria) and again, no photos in the sanctuary, but the outer domes housed some icons, showing the Garden of Good and Evil, Judgement Day, and why we should always confess (spoiler: you go to hell if you don’t).


The iconostasis is quite the thing to behold – it took 5 years to carve out the incredible detail and is covered in 17 kilos of gold.  The sanctuary also houses the bones (relics) of Ivan of Rila, kept in a box under a cloth in front of the iconostasis.  Our tour guide told us that there are often many people who make the pilgrimage to Rila for Ivan’s healing powers, and we even witnessed several orthodox monks line up, crouch down and kiss the box.


After the tour we had almost 2 hours to ourselves, so we grabbed lunch at a restaurant just outside the monastery walls, recommended by our tour guide, so we stuffed our hungry faces with chicken kebab, shopska salad, homemade bread and beer.


We finished up and headed back in to the monastery to get more photos and just enjoy how beautiful the buildings are and how peaceful the setting is.  Pa decided to climb the tower, so Ma and I bought a book on the monastery and a few fridge magnets (as always).


By the time Pa got back down from the tower, it was time to meet up with the rest of our group and get back on the bus.  We grabbed a few last glances and boarded, dozing on the 2 hour drive back to Sofia.  We were dropped back off at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, so we grabbed a cab to our little neighbourhood, had some treats and lemonade at a cafe and turned in for the night, ready for our last day of vacation tomorrow before our sojourn back home on Wednesday.