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UNESCO World Heritage Site: Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery and Sofia


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Rila Monastery is worth every superlative I can muster!

The journey there was a smooth one through the mountains south of Sofia. We went in a minibus organised by our hostel; a group of young Japanese guys were with us. We had eaten a large breakfast, and on the journey we shared a very large sweet bun, so we didn't need any more food until we'd got back to Sofia.

Originally we were going to be visiting a special cave which lies beyond the monastery first, but just as we got to the monastery a problem with the minibus arose, so our driver told us to get out here and look round the monastery first instead. We had two hours, so by the time we had to meet back up, hopefully the problem would be sorted and we would continue to the cave.

The monastery itself forms a square of monks' living quarters with a massive courtyard; in the courtyard lies a small church, a medieval tower and some trees, and beyond the square there are a few smaller buildings, formerly the monastery farm I think but now a couple of restaurants and gift shops. The monastery is four stories high at least; cream coloured walls with lots of characterful wooden staircases leading upwards. It is still a working monastery today, so we weren't allowed to climb them due to the monks' living quarters being up there.

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Picturesque and impressive though these living quarters were, the main attraction was definitely the church. The outside walls and the undersides of the verandah that ran around three sides were absolutely covered in very brightly coloured and detailed religious scenes. It was utterly gobsmacking!

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The inside was lovely too, covered in murals and icons without an inch of undecorated wall. It was gloomier here, with the main light coming from a few candelabras and the many candles lit in front of the most richly decorated end. I bought and lit a candle of my own, for Dad.

After wandering around the grounds and church happily for quite some time, (and, with Kate and Andrew, having a drink of water from a stone fountain using a silver ladle chained to the side), I went up the medieval tower.

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Dating from 1335, Hrelyo's Tower is the oldest preserved building in the monastery. It was used as the monastery's fortress. In 1844 a belfry was attached to it; this holds the bells, clock and the monastery shop. The views from the top (there are five floors) through the windows were wonderful. I especially liked the one of the roof and dome of part of the living quarters, with snowcapped mountains in the distance behind. On the top floor there was a small out-of-use chapel with some medieval frescoes, but it was closed off to visitors. The door was of glass through so I could still see some of them.

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I bought a postcard and a fridge magnet from the shop and then wandered around happily with Kate and Andrew some more. We looked for the history museum and the ethnographic museum but only found the history one - when there was only about 15 - 20 minutes left before we had to return to our meeting place. We all went in anyway and still managed to have a good look round. It contained such interesting things as old school textbooks from the monastery school that used to be here, a Viennese printing press the monastery acquired in the 1860s, prints made using it, coins, weapons, jewellery and religious gifts from pilgrims and bishops from Russia, Greece and other Eastern Orthodox countries; Bibles, icons, weavings, embroidery, carved wooden crosses, silver plate, etchings and a giant candle (at least two metres high and a foot or two in diameter!) There were also written decrees from the Ottoman Turkish sultans, granting the monastery rights.

This was all on the ground floor - up the stairs there were was more silver plate and crosses, priests' and bishops' vestments, etc., but we had to rush past these because we were now due back at the minibus. The problem had been sorted - great. It took us further on, further up the mountain, to the special cave.

To get to the cave we hiked through the forest up the side of quite a steep gorge, so you can imagine how spectacular the scenery was! After about 10 minutes we came across a look out point, with an information board giving a list of the wildlife that lives in the area; this included wild boar, deer, and at least two different sorts of marten. We didn't see any though.

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About 5 minutes later, we reached our destination. There was a tiny church with a path on one side leading to a shrine and the entrance to the cave.

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The cave itself was very small and dark; you had to climb steps to get into it and it was probably only a few metres long. Within the gloom a small area was set up with a couple of small icons and some lit candles.

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The floor continued rising quite steeply inside, until you reached a few wooden steps followed by a stack of boulders, creating a tunnel you had to climb up through in order to pop out of the top! Only the most stick-thin person would be able to get through the hole without a bit of a squeeze. The girl at our hostel reception had told us that traditionally, people did this to bring themselves good luck; climbing through the hole 'cleansed' them of their sins. There was a large rock next to the hole we had emerged from, so naturally we all climbed up there to take photos.

On the way back down we stopped at the tiny church and went inside. It was a working church, not a museum; it was very atmospheric and colourful inside. We all sat in the wooden seats around the sides of the main room for a bit to rest.

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It was around 5 pm when we got back to the hostel in Sofia. We relaxed for a couple of hours and then decided to go out to a Bulgarian Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had good expectations because the one Chinese restaurant I'd been to in Bulgaria before, in Veliko Tarnovo, was excellent. However, the food at this place didn't quite reach the same standard. It wasn't terrible, but wasn't amazing either. One of our noodle dishes was quite stodgy and the sauce was a little glutinous. We also ordered a duck dish thinking we were going to get Peking duck with pancakes, but it turned out to be battered chunks of duck in the style of KFC. It was still nice though - better than the noodles.

Posted by 3Traveller 13:18 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art museum monastery dad sofia bulgaria icons orthodox_church unesco_world_heritage_site cave_system rila_monastery Comments (0)

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo

Rusenski Lom National Park


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From Cherven we moved on to a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo! They are within a gorge inside the Rusenski Lom National Park, only a few miles from Cherven. Only the main church was open. It was set very high within a cliff - from the ground, we could see only a balcony. The path/ steps up to it was round the back of the outcrop.

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The interior of the church was very small, but the walls were covered in medieval frescoes. One outer wall of the church had been replaced with wood - apparently the rock on that side has collapsed in either the 6th or the 16th century. It felt so strange being inside a place that had been literally carved out of solid rock!

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Once we emerged from there, we walked on to another lookout point. On the way there we stopped to investigate some other caves you had to climb up into.

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Once we arrived at the lookout point - on the other end of the outcrop - we stopped to take in the fabulous view of hills, forest, valley and river.

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The sun still beat down. We heard a lot of goose- or duck-like sounds coming from the valley floor far below us - 'F' said that it was actually frogs making these noises! Apparently they are deceptively small considering the amount of noise they make.

There are other churches within the cliffs further along the valley, but the man in the main church had told us that they weren't open. We considered walking along the valley to the first one just to check, but then 'F' said that there was a rock monastery in Basarbovo, a village to the north, which would almost certainly be open. Instead of walking to the original one and risking that being closed and then it being past closing time for the other, we descended into the valley and back round to the car park to continue on to Basarbovo.

Posted by 3Traveller 12:14 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art sisters bulgaria explorations orthodox_church unesco_world_heritage_site cave_system Comments (0)

Dryanovo Gorge & Monastery

Dryanovo Gorge and Monastery


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It was around two o'clock by now so after lunch in Tryavna we headed straight off to the monastery. It is dramatically set in Dryanovo Gorge - apparently most of the monasteries in Bulgaria were deliberately built in geographically dramatic places. The monastery was quite small but extremely beautiful inside. Every church and cathedral I've been to in Bulgaria has had a stall selling beeswax candles and little religious trinkets and this one was no exception; I bought and lit a candle for Dad.

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In a separate building there was a museum that apparently contained stone age pottery and arrowheads and other things found in the Bacho Kiro cave nearby, but just as we walked up to it, a woman locked the door. It closes early during the winter. To the right of that, however, we saw a door and some steps leading down into a room selling sweets, preserved vegetables and a few handicrafts, so we went in. I saw a wooden bowl filled with colourfully painted, light, wooden eggs, so on an impulse I bought a couple. I imagine that at Easter time, painted eggs will be everywhere!

Then we walked across the river behind the monastery and up part of the mountain for five minutes until we got to Bacho Kiro cave.

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To get there we had to re-cross the river using a different bridge; it consisted of lots of little waterfalls almost joined together. As we crossed it, I noticed that part of it was frozen!

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The time was 15.45 by now and in the winter the cave closes at 16.00. We could see the entrance to the cave from the ticket booth, so 'F' asked the man if we could possibly just step inside the cave and look round the main bit for ten minutes. This was not possible, however! Oh well.

To make up for that, we continued climbing up the mountain for a bit until we reached the top of the gorge. The view, needless to say, was stunning.

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There was a beech wood at the top. We carried on walking for five minutes until we reached the river again, which, because we were further back in the gorge, was at a much higher up stage than where we'd crossed it before. It was filled with giant boulders.

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There was no bridge this high up but there were stepping stones, so we jumped across them and walked for a bit through the beech trees that continued on the other side. After a couple of minutes the trail petered out, so after making a pact to come back again in the spring or summer, this time for a whole day, we retraced our steps and drove back to VT.

Posted by 3Traveller 17:18 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged waterfalls mountains monastery dad bulgaria orthodox_church cave_system Comments (0)

Carnival in the Amazon: waterfalls and caves

Puerto Misahuallí, Cascada de Latas, Jumandy cave system, Tena and Baños


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The first excursion we went on today was to a waterfall trail in the forest a short taxi ride from Puerto Misahuallí. We'd packed up our stuff and left it at the Reception hut before we went, because we had to check out by 12pm, when we knew we'd be at the waterfalls.

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The trail followed a river, passing some smaller waterfalls before reaching the biggest one at the end. There were several swimming holes on the way but despite the humidity we saved ourselves for the one at the end in front of the big waterfall. It took at least 45 minutes to get there. Twice we had to wade through the river rather perilously but luckily nobody fell in! They were at sections where it was more like a stream than a river, but the water was still very fast-running. We'd borrowed wellies from our accommodation so we didn't get wet.

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Once we arrived at the big waterfall we got into the pool in front of it as quickly as possible. The water was lovely, cool and refreshing.

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I floated on my back for a while and the view of the overhanging vegetation and rocks reminded me of the overhanging cathedral wall and vegetation at the Grand Hotel pool in Guayaquil. After a while I swam through the waterfall and stood up behind it. The force of the water drumming on my head and shoulders was tremendous.

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To get out, we retraced our steps; on the way I saw a couple of giant black & electric blue butterflies but they evaded all my attempt to photograph them.

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When we left the waterfalls we caught a taxi truck; it already had passengers in the front and back seats so we climbed into the open air back section. It reminded me of the only other time I've sat out on the back of a truck, in Koh Tao in Thailand.

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Once the taxi truck had dropped us off in Misahuallí town centre we had to run the gauntlet of foam again. I walked tactically so avoided most of it, but others weren't so lucky. They didn't stop at foam either, as 'E' found out with the yellow paint that got thrown on her...

As soon as we arrived back we only had time to give back the wellies we'd borrowed and pick up our bags before we got another taxi truck to our next destination... the Jumandy cave system. This entrance to the site has turned into a local tourism hub with restaurants and an open air swimming pool using riverwater, so before we entered the caves themselves we had some late lunch at one of the restaurants. I had an old favourite, seco de pollo, and a blackberry milkshake. A man with a wooden leg stumped past our table while we were eating - only the second time I've seen a person with a wooden leg in real life, rather than metal or fibreglass (whatever is usually used in the UK).

The caves excursion was exciting. Our guide was an indigenous local doing a job that apparently generations of his family had done before him. He said that when the Spaniards first arrived centuries ago, the Jumandy people hid in these caves for five months to escape them. He spoke only Spanish but luckily the others translated for me.

There was a river running through a lot of the cave system so we had to wade a lot.

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Right near the beginning there was a section where we had to wade up to our middles. Just beyond that was a short section where a line had been strung across and the water was too deep to touch the bottom so we had to pull ourselves across using the line instead. The others had given their valuables to the guide to carry across in a bag, but my camera was too big to fit. I had however cunningly put it in a plastic bag in advance, to keep it dry, so all I needed to do was tie a knot in it and zip the whole thing in my handbag. I ended up hanging my handbag round my neck and then pulling myself up and along to raise the bag up as much as I could. Only one corner of the bag got wet and the plastic bag didn't get wet at all. That was a very adrenalin-filled and exciting 20 seconds! It was like an exercise at the gym but with most of my body submersed in water and with the knowledge that if my grip on the rope broke then my camera might get soaked.

We had been warned beforehand that we would get very wet on the cave trip, so in our group we were all wearing our bikinis underneath our clothes and I was wearing my board shorts instead of trousers.We'd kept all these on after swimming at the waterfalls earlier.

Later on in the tour we had to squeeze through some very narrow sections of tunnel; we also passed by some stalagmites and stalactites.

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Near the end we came across a waterfall with a small pool in front of it - the guide said the water in it is considered lucky - whether true or not, it certainly was refreshing! It was wonderful. It felt slightly surreal to be swimming around in my clothes underground.

Instead of retracing our steps, we exited the caves at a different location. After stepping out into open air we had to climb up a steep slope of rocks before following a path round through some countryside back to the complex. It was now raining. We returned the wellies we'd hired, picked up our bags and some of us got changed; I didn't change because the the facilties had wet floors and were really dark and didn't have anywhere to hang anything up. We were also in a rush. I just wrung out my top and shorts and hoped I'd dry out naturally on the bus back to Baños.

It was past 6pm by the time we left and our tickets from Tena had been booked for a particular time so we had no time to lose. We flagged down a taxi to take us to Tena as quickly as possible. We had bought tickets in advance for a particular time. We arrived at Tena bus terminal just in time thank goodness. On our way out of town we passed by a large dusty volleyball court in the town centre; a game was being played under floodlights. It seemed to be the focal point of local activity in the town.

We arrived at Baños quite late but as we walked from the bus terminal to our hostel we saw that Carnival foam celebrations were still in full swing... once we had checked in and rested a little some of the others went out for a drink and dance, but one or two of us were knackered so we just went to bed. The ceiling of our dorm was painted like a sunrise, a nice touch I thought. I did however have a bowl of chicken pasta at the hostel's bar before I went to bed.

Posted by 3Traveller 11:35 Archived in Ecuador Tagged waterfalls hostel carnival banos ecuador explorations tena ecuadorian_cuisine misahualli freshwater_swimming cave_system Comments (0)

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