I visited the Rila Monastery the first time in September 1987. I was in Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws and they took me to what is certainly the most famous of monasteries in a country full of them and what is likely the most famous site in the entire country. We walked around within the monastery walls, admired the colors of the frescoes against the backdrop of the surrounding Rila Mountain. On a grassy spot just outside the monastery, we spread a blanket and lunched on the луканка (lukanka, hard salami), кашкавал (kashkaval, a cheddar-like cheese), tomatoes, and a hot loaf just baked in the monastery’s ovens.
The second time I visited Rila Monastery was July 1, 2016. We stayed at the Valdis hotel and restaurant. It’s not so much a hotel as a collection of modern bungalows set in a garden on the Rila River. Each has a small terrace looking onto the river and the mountain. We had river trout, potatoes with dill, and salad for dinner, French toast and steamed milk for breakfast. Across the way from Valdis is a fountain with water that flows down the Rila Mountain; we filled our water bottles there before setting off for the monastery above.
Rila’s significance to Bulgaria and world culture, its church and iconography, its spiritual meaning for pilgrims, and the sheer physical beauty of its mountain location have all been amply described and photographed. But on this second visit, I noticed not the lushly painted icons, but the geometric almost Bauhaus style of decoration found everywhere outside the church itself. Reds and whites and blacks, geometric shapes, contrasts of metal, wood, stone, and brick.
All of this is beautifully contrasted with the pots of blooming flowers grown by the monks and the mountain forest rising all around their retreat.
I only wish the still-operating monastery ovens had been selling that delicious bread. That and the tiny post office remind you that however ancient the site, people still live and work here.
Sedmochislenitzi (Seven Saints) is a park and playground located almost dead center in Sofia. It is named after the church of the same name standing in the park’s main square. We’ve been there countless times. A long market with many vendors borders one side on Graf Ignatiev Street. From fall into winter, there are not only seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, but also pumpkins split in half, baked and sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts. In mid- to late summer, you can buy clear, plastic drinking cups filled with raspberries and eat them with a tiny plastic fork. Summers, my son likes to stop at the corn vendor who sets up her cart at the park’s entrance and get an ear of the steamed corn that is a popular snack. On the beach, vendors carry coolers, tongs, salt shakers and napkins, walking among the sunbathers calling “Tzarevitza molya” (“Corn please”).
The church’s site as a place of worship long predates its current incarnation. Before the Sedmochislenitzi church, there was the Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque, built in 1528 and named after its patron and builder Sokollu Mehmed Paşa. Mehmed Paşa was originally from a small town in Bosnia, but he rose steadily and at age 59 reached the pinnacle of Grand Vizier, thus holding nearly absolute power and answerable only to the Sultan himself.
The Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque began its evolution to the Sveti Sedmochislenitzi Church when on September 30, 1858, an earthquake struck just after noon prayers began. Although the epicenter was to the south, the magnitude seven earthquake caused severe damage in Sofia. The French Le Mémorial d’Aix reported that the earthquake “destroyed 35-40 stone houses, 20 minarets, a mosque, the barracks, and the local telegraph office.” More than three weeks after the earthquake, reported Le Mémorial d’Aix, the aftershocks had not stopped and “the entire population had taken refuge in the squares and in the gardens.” The minaret of the Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque was one of those that collapsed. The mosque had to be abandoned.
After Bulgaria’s 1878 liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the building was used as a military warehouse and prison. Bulgarian Prime Minister Petko Karavelov was imprisoned for three years in the mosque cum prison when his political opponents used various 1887 garrison uprisings as an excuse to get him out of the way. Back in power for the fourth and final time, he quite naturally led an effort to close the building and convert it to a church. The exterior maintains the three rows of thin dark red brick alternating with one thicker layer of stone, the original white mottled gray and brown with age, characteristic of medieval mosques and churches.
Less than a year after the church conversion was completed in 1902, Petko Karavelov died and was buried there. His grave and that of his wife abut the church building and are enclosed by wrought iron gates. There is no church cemetery. The asphalt plaza surrounding the church is full of young children racing past on bikes and scooters. Balls often bounce onto the grave and have to be retrieved.
My son was fascinated by the Orthodox priests we saw go in and out of Sedmochislenitzi Church. Bearded and often with long hair tied in a low ponytail, their black robes go down to their ankles. Orthodox priests may marry and we frequently saw a priest out walking with his wife and young children. Several times at my son’s request, we walked into the church. On one of these occasions, an elderly priest with a full head of white hair greeted us and saw his interest in the bouquets of flowers set in vases. Father Ivan Mihov Nikolov gently took his hand, guided us to a small side room, and gave him several flowers from a vase there.
You can easily buy flowers from a florist store or streetside stand, but people often buy from one of the many older women who sit on packing crates near busy corners and in front of store windows. They sit behind large vases of different flowers and a few already made bouquets set down on the pavement. Such women specialize in flowers and are buying them wholesale to resell. Other older women set themselves up on packing crates near busy corners with what they’ve brought from their home gardens in nearby villages. They set up their wares on a box or a cloth and they don’t need much room. Year-round, they come with what they have on hand. A big ball of celery root with its green shoots, two or three bags of dried legumes, and a few parsnips— pasternak in Bulgarian, just like the Nobel prize-winning author of Doctor Zhivago. A small bouquet or two of flowers, rose hip berries, bunches of parsley, preserves in re-used jars from long ago store-bought products, dried herbs collected from walks in village fields and mountains, liter bottles once filled with cola now with whole milk you must boil once you bring it home.
We enjoy Sedmochislenitzi as part of a large park with cafés at either end, gardens, playground, and enough car-free asphalt to allow city children to get full use of bicycles, skateboards and skates. The children play, we talk. Life at Sedmochislenitzi has an easy pace.
One Saturday, we went to Sedmochislenitzi. When we arrived, as often happened, a wedding was in progress and the wedding party was being photographed. This does not deter children, including mine, from skateboarding, running, jumping, chasing pigeons, biking, while the big day is being celebrated. No one minds—no one even comments or seems to notice. Elderly people hobbling through the park with canes are not deterred from slowly passing through as the bride is posing against the church walls and I’m quite certain there are wedding albums that include my daughter, son or both. Friends of both children were either already there or showed up shortly, and all had a grand time running around the church and playground. Then the proverbial “circle of life” showed itself as the wedding party dispersed. The next event on the Sedmochislenitzi church schedule was a funeral.
The priest began a prayer. Completely oblivious to the proceedings, my son and a friend were practically touching the hearse as they played. The casket inside was clearly visible as the windows were not blackened, smoked or otherwise made opaque. In the open casket, the dead man’s head was raised up on a pillow, able to be seen clearly by not only me but by the children. The presiding priest stood looking at the casket and crossing himself. The children on the playground kept playing and the adults seemed entirely unperturbed by the proceedings. The day warmed up considerably from the morning’s chill, the sun shone and we stayed on at Sedmochislenitzi for several hours before returning home.