Inside Bulgaria: From Roma to Rila
A light rain was falling the morning we left for the Rila Monastery located about 70 miles to the south of Sofia in the Rila mountains. It has become one of the most popular tourist spots all over Bulgaria due to its history, unique architecture and beautiful surroundings.
On the way, we stopped by a Roma quarter in the village of Dupnitsa. Roma is the politically correct reference to the gypsies. A quarter can be compared to a community or barangay in the Philippines. Among ethnic groups in Europe, the Roma people are the poorest and most discriminated against. We were expected to meet the Roma children and have lunch with one of the families there.
I saw the children waiting for us when we arrived. By then, the sky had cleared and the rain was gone. They were excited to see us and mobbed our vehicle like we were celebrities. I found out later that the place is rarely visited by outsiders. As I gazed my eyes around, it reminded me of my hometown in the Philippines.
Our guide advised us to be careful and be prepared to be stared at when we walked around the neighborhood. She added that some residents might even feel our presence intrusive. Certainly, shooting everything on sight with our digital cameras wouldn’t win any favors. After all, they shouldn’t be objects of curiosity. They shouldn’t be treated like specimens to be numbered and catalogued in our photo collections. We must remember that they are humans just like us and very much entitled to their privacy. If we wanted to take a picture, it was better to ask permission first. If we gave them respect, we’d get it back. Fortunately, we didn’t experience any untoward incident. We found the people friendly and accommodating.
As we stepped into the house of our host, we were welcomed with the traditional bread and salt. For lunch, we were served chicken soup and bread. In Bulgaria, I observed that you don’t break a piece of bread and dip it in the soup as you eat. Instead, you place all the pieces together in the bowl. I’m not sure if it’s standard practice, though.
After lunch, the children performed dances for our entertainment. In addition, we had conversation with the host. Through an interpreter, we learned that most of the women in the area couldn’t find jobs due to prejudice and lack of education. We also learned that the Roma people dissuade marriage outside of the quarter and tend to marry in their teens. It could mean that the girls who performed for us would likely be married in a few years. As I was contemplating how unfair it would be for them, our guide mentioned it was time to say good-bye. One of the kids rushed to my direction and gave me a hug. I hugged him back and felt sad at the same time. I knew we wouldn’t see each other again.
We arrived at the Rila monastery at around 4 pm. It was a magnificent sight to behold.
The monastery was founded in the 10th century in honor of the hermit St. John of Rila (Sveti Ivan Rilski), although he didn’t actually live there and preferred to stay in a nearby cave. St. John would eventually become the patron saint of the Bulgarian people. The monastery had been reconstructed and undergone several renovations throughout the centuries. The Ottomans destroyed most the complex in the 15th century. The present look of the monastery was owed to Bulgarian architect, Aleksi Rilets, in the 19th century.
I found the accommodation at the monastery to be very spartan and fit for a monk. I had to make my own bed and the old bed made noise when I lay on it. The blanket was thick and heavy but provided enough warmth during the night.
The food was excellent, though. I was given a choice of either grilled pork neck or trout. I chose the former that came with potatoes and a generous serving of salad. After dinner, I went to bed. I slept soundly to the sound of the nearby river until 3 am when I was wakened by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake. For a second, I thought I was home in California. I stayed paralyzed in bed. Luckily, the building held its own.
Because of the rainy weather, there wasn’t much to do at the monastery but tour the complex and visit the museum, which contains ancient icons, religious artifacts, and manuscripts dating as far back as the middle ages. It would have been nice if we were able to go to St. John’s cave and hike outside the monastery.
We left the monastery at around noon the following day en route to Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. Ancient ruins abound in this city. I’ll write about them in my next post.