Sunday, October 20, 2013

Even Better Than Sleeping in a Monastery

Rila Monastery, my heart was set on sleeping in one of their monk cells

Sleeping in a monastery. It’s something that everyone has to do once in their life, right?  The Rila Monastery in southwest Bulgaria lets people on “spiritual pilgrimages” stay in a basic monk cell for a small fee, and so I had my heart set on arriving to the Rila Monastery Saturday evening in order to claim a bed in one of these cells.  After all, if The Loong Way Home isn’t a spiritual journey, then I don’t know what is?

Again, the only complication was the fact that the Rila Monastery sits 40 km up in a valley, which is no big deal, but again, the climb came at the end of a long day, with 85 km in my legs already, to be precise.  As the afternoon passed, so did the hours of light and I thought arriving before dark was going to be a real challenge.  I could have stayed down at the start of the climb and hitchhiked in the following morning, but that didn’t have the same appeal as sleeping in an authentic monastery.  I was REALLY determined to experience a night in a monk’s cell, so I continued to pedal uphill as dusk approached.  With about 10 km left in the climb, I did something I never do…..I became sensible and realized that it was going to be impossible to arrive before dark! I was ready to surrender to my stubbornness and get a hotel for the evening yet, I had waited too long because there were few hotels along the road and the one that were open were full!  I had 5km left to pedal and there weren’t any in between.  I had no choice but to keep on pedaling.

I turned on all my illumination possible to be safe while I continue my journey.  I have a light on my helmet, one that clips on to the back of my clothes, and another on the back of my bike.  I turned them all on as I slowly pedaled up the hill.  Luckily there were no cars on the road because everyone else, who had some sense, had already arrived at their destination.  My options starting passing through my head, I could still try to make it to the monastery, find the campground ahead, or just free camping along the side of the road.  I continued to pedal as I contemplated what to do.  The road climbed up and up leaving the river further below which made camping alongside the road impossible because of the drop off.  At that moment, in the darkness, I made out a sign for the Rila Monastery, and sure enough in front of me. I could see a stone structure. 

I rolled right through the arched doorway, onto the cobblestone courtyard and up to the church where I could make out the shape of a few monks.  All was quiet and still there.  A few tourists were still looking at the church exterior with a flashlight, but there was no one around.  Before I could greet the monks, they shooed me away.  I don’t know if it was the spandex biking outfit (which I thought is hard to make out in the dark), the lights flashing everywhere that looked like a disco ball, or the fact that I looked ridiculous riding a fully loaded bike, but the monk didn’t want me in his monastery.  I kindly asked for a room and he replied saying “Hotel 200 meters”.  I couldn’t believe it, I had finally made it to the monastery and there were no if, ands, or buts, to it! This monk didn’t have a tender side to him. Maybe he was related to the Serbian border guard?!?!? 

His friend, the monk standing next to him, was a bit more compassionate and had me follow him around the corner.  My hopes were up as he guided me to another place inside the monastery,….the cells, of course!  He dropped me off at a door and just left.  Were the monk cells here? Was I going to be able to stay after all? I was starting to feel relieved when out came two monks, who also shooed me away!  They told me it was full, no vacancy.  At this point I begged them to put my sleeping bag anywhere and once again they told me about he hotel 200m up the road. 

Who would have thought this was a hotel....glad I stopped and asked!

There had gone my opportunity to stay at the monk’s cell! I was upset, but had to act fast as it was now completely dark and the temperature on my GPS read about 4C, and I still had no where to sleep.  The hotel 200 meters away looked too classy for me, so I didn’t even bother stopping, I continued down the road, searching for the campground or places to wild camp, whichever came first!  About a kilometer down the road form the monastery I spotted the camping sign, but it looked like it was another kilometer down a small gravel road with no lights. I was not motivated to follow it.  However, on the left there was a house that had lights on and so I thought I would ask them if the camping was open, or just downright ask them if I could put my tent in their yard.

Bulgarian is just as difficult for me to understand as the Slovak languages and it was really impossible for me to understand this family.  There was an elderly man, wife, and younger man outside in the cold, god only knows why they were talking outside rather than inside where they could be nice and warm.  From experience, I knew I needed to ask them to camp while showing them my sleeping bag so they knew I could handle the cold.  I went right to the pannier with all my camping gear and showed them my tent and sleeping bag, but again, like the man in the blue pajamas at the hotel in Macedonia, they were appalled at the idea of me camping outside.  They went inside their house to get something and came out with another woman, Nadia, who spoke English.  I explained to her that I needed a place to camp but she told me they wanted to invite me in to their house which was a kind of hotel.

I had hit the jackpot once again!  It turns out the house, was a type of “casa rural”, similar to a mountain hut, a real basic accommodation for families. They only had one family at the moment and plenty of extra rooms.  The house wasn’t heated except for a few individual rooms and the common dining room, but I had my own room with an electric heater.  It was in much better condition than my experience in Macedonia at the old hotel.  I took a quick cold sponge bath, changed, and headed downstairs with my “emergency food” for dinner.  The elderly couple was in the dining room with the other couple and their son.  Nadia spoke enough English to be able to keep up a simple conversation and translate for the others and all the questions they had for me. With everyone sitting around the table, and looking at the time, I figured, naturally they had already eaten dinner. I ate some dried fruit, crackers with peanut butter and felt thankful to be inside, warm, and cozy.  We talked for a long while as I ate and the idea of going to be early was sounding enticing.

We had yet to start the BBQ at this point, just appetizers!

Kebapi, traditional Bulgarian sausage

I’m not sure how the topic surfaced, and I wish Nadia would have told me earlier, but it seemed they were all there, gathered, waiting for another family to show up so they could have a BBQ and dinner.  Of course they insisted that I stay to try all the Bulgarian food and drink, I would be considered extremely rude if I didn’t.  I guess my peanut butter crackers was an appetizer.  Sure enough, at about 9:30pm another family arrived.  Their hands were overflowing with all sorts of dishes, appetizers, meats, and salads.    The mountain hut had been completely transformed from a quiet peaceful refuge to the meeting point of two Bulgarian families with enough food to feed an army and guess who was the guest of honor?!?!  I really don’t know how I get myself in these situations-It was unbelievable!  30 minutes ago the monks had shooed me from their monastery and I was searching frantically for a place to sleep in the cold wilderness and now I was about to indulge in an all-you-can-eat Bulgarian buffet with traditional food, in the company of 8 other people! 

I felt like I was part of the family

I tried everything they put in front of me from homemade Bulgarian whisky and wine to meat kebabs, salads, pickled peppers, and cheese galore!  It was like we were all one big happy family eating, talking, and drinking until the wee hours of the night.  Sleep and rest was going to have to wait until another night, because these types of parties don’t happen on a regular basis!  I was fascinated and completely engrossed in my surroundings.

I was sad to go the next morning, what wonderful hosts

I had become so fixated on the idea of sleeping in a monastery to experience Bulgaria in a unique way, but now I was part of a Bulgarian family get-together.   I don’t think I could have possible experienced a more authentic and traditional experience.  In fact, I was grateful the monks had shooed me away from the Rila Monastery so I could meet these families and enjoy their company, culture, and food!  


  1. Hey! Amazing experience, do you have directions to the "house hotel" I'd love to visit!

    1. Yep! It's about 2 km down the road from the monastery, you can't miss it. There is a camping sign right before it on the right side of the road that goes down a narrow road and this big house is on the left. There is a gate in front of it. No English spoken! Have fun, great people! I'd love to know if you can actually sleep at the monastery, especially women!