Bulgarian Odyssey

Views on BG | July 28, 2010, Wednesday // 08:48|  views

The author with Eileen Sutherland outside her straw-bale studio in Hotnitsa. Sutherland is among the many British expats in Bulgaria. Below, the Rila Monastary, home of the intricately carved Rafail's Cross. Photo By Rachel Guthrie For The Washington Post

By Tyler Guthrie

The Washington Post

The hard cider has proved to be unpalatable, and the rocket stove cracked after the first use. But all in all, things are progressing pretty well. Slowly, the old mud bricks that were once the backbone of a 19th-century pigsty, now carefully soaked and stacked, are becoming an interior wall of a straw-bale studio in Hotnitsa, Bulgaria.

The environmentally friendly studio is for Allan and Eileen Sutherland, a semi-retired British couple my wife, Rachel, and I met through the cultural exchange Web site Help Exchange. A village of 400 or so, Hotnitsa is home to a surprisingly large community of Brits who have settled here for cheap land and the opportunity to build a new life from the ground up.

As it's a dream of ours to someday hop off the grid a la Tom and Barbara Good (for those unfamiliar with classic British TV, see "The Good Life"), Rachel and I are willingly trading our labor for a nice place to sleep, three bountiful meals a day, all the red peppers we could possibly eat and the opportunity to become familiar with many of the practices of permaculture and self-sufficiency.

For two weeks, we've been clearing space for a forest garden and working to bring electricity to the studio. Our ultimate destination in Bulgaria is the Orthodox monastery housing Rafail's Cross in the southwestern Rila Mountains, but we've come here first to slow down from our hectic travels and give our credit cards a rest while getting to know a few of the many expats who call this part of Eastern Europe home.

After placing the last mud brick in the wall dividing the entryway from the living room, Rachel and I begin to cover and seal it with a layer of cob, an adobe-like building material of sand, dirt, clay and straw. Mixing it by hand is an arduous but contemplative task that makes the centuries-old cob cottages and pubs I've seen in Wales and England seem that much more impressive.

One palmful at a time, we squeeze the cob into all the cracks we can find and then spread it evenly over the bricks. It would be sweaty work if not for the 18-inch-thick straw bales insulating us from the heat of the day. A building technique born in the American Midwest, straw-bale construction has become highly popular among eco-conscious budget builders the world over.

As we smooth out the last layer, we hear the click of the gate outside and footsteps coming up the path. The workday is often interrupted by the grandmotherly next-door neighbor, who lumbers over uninvited (but always welcome) to deliver yet another bushel of peppers and lecture our hosts in Bulgarian on the proper way to plant, harvest or eat a certain crop.

These footsteps, however, belong to two burly men and a dolled-up reporter, who asks whether the Sutherlands would like to be filmed for a Bulgarian National News series about sustainable solutions. Allan consents to the interview, with us as the backdrop. As he details the purpose of the straw-bale project, we continue smoothing out the already-finished wall, silently wondering how long we can carry on before it becomes obvious that we have nothing left to do.

At the end of our time with the Sutherlands, we hitch a ride into the nearby town of Veliko Turnovo, once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) and now a charming regional center. We roam the cobblestone streets looking for a guesthouse I had scouted out online but failed to jot down the name of. Feeling confident that we'll find it, I rely on my traveler's instinct and a vague recollection of what the front door looks like, but it isn't long before we're lost.

"Looking for a hotel?" a middle-aged Australian man yells from an empty bar. As I begin to describe the guesthouse we're seeking, he interrupts. "You can stay here at the Loft Hostel; you'll have it all to yourself and I'll give you a great deal." He begins to badger us, and after we firmly decline and walk away, he calls out, "Stupid [expletive] Americans!"

An elderly Danish couple overhear the exchange and politely suggest that we find lodgings with them. Relieved, we follow them around a sharp bend in the winding Yantra River and through a narrow stretch of town toward the Tsarevets, a medieval castle that was once the seat of power for most of the Balkans. The old man's cane clicks softly against the stones as my wife makes mental notes of various sites for later exploration. In vain, I continue to peer at signs and doorways looking for the guesthouse I'd lost.

When we reach the Danes' temporary abode, Hostel Mostel, we find a cozy manor house divided into three dorm rooms and several private ones. Unprompted, the staff explains that the cheapest dorm room is empty and ours if we don't want to stretch our meager budget for the entirely reasonable private room with bath.

Veliko Turnovo, as it turns out, is a town for sauntering, and it isn't long before we've seen most of it. We head up to the Tsarevets, the fortress on the hill, and try to suppress our laughter at the display near the entrance: a half-size mechanical king and queen that burst into song commending our choice in visiting the best location in Bulgaria. For .50, I don a suit of child-size armor and have my photo taken astride what appears to be a papier-mâché horse.

There is, in fact, little in the fortress but old ruined walls and what we have heard are poorly rebuilt new ones. The exception is a seemingly ordinary church at the center. In contrast to the traditional exterior, the interior boasts arresting murals that look to me like Byzantine cubism. Charcoal, gray, red and white figures adorn the walls, witnesses to a Christ crucified upside down. On either side of the nave are mixed-media displays of the Madonna and child - surprising, since Orthodox churches usually require strict adherence to the sacred regulations of traditional iconography.

After several minutes, we leave and continue our stroll out of town. The countryside and the houses we pass are much nicer than I had expected, and I get a glint in my eye when I notice the listed price of a cute three-bedroom abode for sale: about ,000.

In the brisk early morning we are off to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, crammed into a small bus and listening to the running commentary of an awkward young Australian traveler who's on a year-long global tour. His off-color stories, which we acknowledge with an occasional polite nod and mumbled "uh-huh," would be amusing if not for the fact that they distract from the scenery.

A few hours and several fanciful tales later, we arrive and check into a room before wandering the afternoon streets. Surprisingly beautiful, Sofia is a poetic city full of many old ruins and just enough Eastern European oddities to remind you where you are. In billboards, scantily clad women promote the most mundane products, while mannequins of Barbie-like proportions stare blankly from shop windows.

The city is modernizing quickly on the heels of Bulgaria's recent economic boom and its 2007 entry into the European Union. Though poverty, unemployment and corruption are still problems nationally, the country has come a long way since 1990, when the first free democratic elections took place after 44 years of communist rule. Today, nearly 6 million tourists visit annually to ski in winter or explore the country in summer.

From Sofia's cinematic Zhenski Pazar, the women's market filled with fruit stands, ceramics and hundreds of other people's grandmothers, we walk south past the massive Moorish-revival synagogue. We pass the Banya Bashi mosque, constructed atop thermal springs 500 years ago, and continue to the St. George rotunda: a 4th-century church and the oldest surviving building in Sofia.

Beyond that stands the photogenic, multi-domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Built in a neo-Byzantine style in the early 1900s, it commemorates Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman rule. Its domes are massive and many and like the rest of the city, the cathedral does not disappoint. By now, we are very hungry, and after a quick visit to the nearby flea market, we set out to find a restaurant where we can rest our feet.

We take a seat in Pod Lipite, an atmospheric if campy restaurant not far from the cathedral. The food is good but does not exceed our expectations. Here, we meet another British couple who live in a nearby town. Loud and demanding, the husband, in a Hawaiian shirt, criticizes the "ass-to-front" Bulgarian ways, while the wife pounds the table repeatedly to draw his attention. As she pulls a cigarette from a pack, she leans over and says, "At least in Bulgaria we can still smoke. If you don't like it, one word: tough!" Many cigarettes later, we are more than sufficiently versed on "dealing with the natives from those who know."

As night falls, we venture through chic streets until we find the Apartment, a second-story cultural hub and a gallery for young artists. Unsure of what the venue actually is, we walk timidly through what appears to be someone's living room to the kitchen, where a friendly girl greets us. "What would you like?" she asks in English. We take some tea and a small piece of cake and find seats in one of the many rooms filled with plush chairs and sofas. Locals lounge nearby, listening to streaming music, while we chat into the night.

The next day, we catch a bus to our main destination: the Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains, about 70 miles south of Sofia. The largest and arguably most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, it was founded in the middle of the 10th century, near the end of the First Bulgarian Empire, by the hermit Ivan Rilski, who later became the country's patron saint. Through seemingly endless struggles with the Byzantine Empire and then the Ottomans, and despite having been destroyed more than once, the Rila Monastery has cemented its place as a center of national identity.

From the outside, the complex is underwhelming and looks more like a boarding school than a center of religious life. But once you're inside the courtyard, the playfulness of the architecture and the colorful stripes painted on the buildings lends everything a magical air. Most of the current complex dates from the Bulgarian National Revival period, which started in the 18th century and ended with national liberation in 1878, after the Russo-Turkish War.

The main church, which houses several famous icons, stands in the rectangular courtyard, which is surrounded by a few hundred residential chambers, a library and a former kitchen containing huge cauldrons. Colorful frescos adorn the church portico. Eager to find Rafail's Cross, a much-celebrated object of national devotion, we make our way into the monastery museum, hurrying past the many artifacts and gifts from various czars and sultans on display.

In the back of the building, in a room all its own, we find the 2½-foot-tall cross. Carved by a monk named Rafail from a single block of wood, it's exceptionally intricate, depicting 104 biblical scenes with 650 individual figures. So minuscule are these figures, I find it difficult to see the detail without pressing my nose to the glass of the display case. I'm not surprised that Rafail went blind after dedicating 12 years of his life to creating it. I feel as though I could go cross-eyed just appreciating this magnificent work of art.

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Tags: Bulgaria, Hotnitsa, sofia, Rila Mountains, Rila Monastery


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