The Monastery in the Rhodopian Mountains – Bachkovo, Southern Bulgaria

The Monastery in the Rhodopian Mountains

Bachkovo, Southern Bulgaria

Irene and I have passed through Plovdiv and Asenovgrad in southern Bulgaria and are happy to have left the somewhat frenzy traffic of the cities behind us. Now we have taken a southern turn right into the Rhodopian Mountains, the mountain chain that separates Bulgaria from Greece in the south. Bachkovo Monastery, today’s destination, lies in a sea of green, embraced by rolling hills and a mountain chain as a backdrop.

We are lucky to find a resting place for the night, though it’s not quite cheap for the very spartan cell in a dark corridor of the big building. But as we have set our minds on passing a night in a monastery, we are quite satisfied with our two-bed room with a ramshackle wardrobe in one corner and a cold shower on the corridor.

When we relax on our beds, suddenly the lights go out. Should this be a kind of monastic curfew? When I go out to investigate I run into a monk taking a nap, lying stretched out on a bench and casting a drowsy glimpse at me when my presence has woken him up, without bothering to move too much. I can’t really blame the man. The wooden gallery we are on is built around the inner courtyard with old trees, a babbling well and lots of flowerbeds. Dusk is setting in and the place exudes harmony and tranquility. A policeman sitting beside him understands my problem and leaves to fix the lights.

The monk indicates that I sit down and succeeds in straightening himself up. He heard me talk German and starts a conversation, He as a monk had to learn a foreign language and his choice was German. His name is Brother D.

It ask him how the monastery is doing economically.

“We live from tourists mainly,” he says, “and from our big vegetable garden. The monastery has opened to the world, but we try to keep our balance and inner peace.”

And indeed, now that the tourists have left the place and the big gate has been shut at 9 sharp, the world outside seems to be far away. A transparent sky suggests a world beyond, and only some impertinent swallows criss-crossing the air bring some movement into the idyllic scene.

The future of Bulgarian monasteries seems not to be all roses. There are only 120 monks in all for about 70 monasteries, Brother D. tells us. This big place is inhabited by 6 persons, all old-age pensioners except one novice.

“What will happen if there are no new recruits?” I ask.

“This will be the end of the world.”


“Certainly, that’s what the holy tradition says.?

“Which tradition?”

And he tells me that his grandmother knew of a tradition saying the end would be near when people started to wear silken clothes. He didn’t buy the tale from her when he was a boy. But now the time had come, and his grandmother had already been told by her parents and grandparents even in the age of Turkish rule to beware of this very moment.

“We haven’t seen many people wearing silk in this country,” I doubt his statement.

“They do, they wear artificial silk, instead of wool, like they did in the old days. And when the end is here, there will only be left very few people, like some grain falling down when the reaper comes.” He is spinning on his apocalyptic vision.

Meanwhile practical-minded policeman has repaired the lights.

In the morning Brother D. tells us that there will be a great gypsy meeting here tonight and tomorrow morning. As we don’t want to miss this, we extend our stay.

Irene is a bit lazy and wants to rest a bit in the monastery. I hike the surroundings of Bachkovo. First I pass a former holiday camp from the socialist era. It must have been nice once, in the forest by a creek, but now it has fallen into galloping decay, with doors hanging lopsided in their frames and the roofs open to the sky. The only trace of life is a dead hedgehog in one of the rooms. The facilities are blocked off against a hill by rusty barbed wire. Up on the hill a small chapel looks down almost derisively on the vain effort below of educating generations of a new species of homo sapiens.

I reach another chapel, full of life. Inside a group of gypsies, sitting on the benches, making the sign of the cross, their brown faces in vivid contrast to the shining haloes of the apostles on the walls behind them. They don’t feel embarrassed by my presence. With naive joy they scratch their names on to the paintings. I try to find out where the little rock chapel is that Brother D. told me should be here. They indicate the way I have to take, and when I still don’t understand, take me by my hand and show me the trailhead. Stairs hewn out of the rock lead up to a little triangular cave. Inside the monastery’s holy icon of the Blessed Virgin, which the gypsies have come to venerate in the monastery, was hidden during the times of Turkish occupation. Up on the hill a rocky platform. The trees around are full of pieces of cloth bound around the branches. This – as Brother D. explains later – is a “heathen custom” meant to ban diseases by fixing them in the cloth and taking them to where they can do no more harm to family members.

In the evening the festival in front of the monastery is gaining momentum. We see the gypsies roast whole muttons on the spit, trading gossip, loud, noisy and full of life. The place is teeming with young ones, the girls dressed up in their colorful Sunday habits wearing heavy make-up, one of them running around in high-heel shoes many sizes too big. We sit and watch. Often we expect two or three of them to go at each other’s throat, but this doesn’t happen, it’s just their exuberant temperament which quickly evaporates into handshakes and smiles, with many men and women proudly exposing shining golden teeth.

If we expected the monastery doors to stay open in the evening, let alone that the people from outside would be invited inside, we now find that we are mistaken. No exception is made, the door is closed at 9 sharp, as usual. The gypsies stay out, even though they have come to celebrate a Christian festival. Can we at least stay outside a little longer tonight and come back later? Brother D. asks the abbot. The abbot says no. It we want to stay out, we have to stay out for the whole night. We remember the day we entered the country coming from Romania and were happy to find a monastery in the evening, hoping they would let us stay overnight. We had to wait for the abbot who arrived after one hour. He sent us out into the night. There they wouldn’t let us in, here they won’t let us out?

We hope that tomorrow we will be compensated, when the gypsies will be admitted into the inner courtyard. We are sitting together with Brother D., who tells us that the gypsies will celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They have a different calendar, which lags a fortnight behind the Orthodox calendar. A policeman has joined us, not the one from last night, who doesn’t really understand our interest in gypsies. Then suddenly he utters the sentence: “Hitler was good.” He says so in a self-contented way, without the shadow of a doubt on his broad-jawed, shining face. Leaving us speechless for a moment, we ask him why he thinks so. He makes an unmistakeable gesture at his throat: “Because he killed them.”

Brother D. translates. And laughs. It’s not an embarrassed laughter, more a kind of chuckle, which expresses something like “I could have told you so in advance. Why do you care for these people?” And he doesn’t bother to comment the policeman’s statement.

“Hitler was a monster,” I say. My words have no effect, they seem to fall into a deep void.

My wife protests: “Gypsies are humans, too.” And, turning to Brother D, “all people are equal in the eyes of God.”

“Well, they are humans, but bad humans. They always steal,” says Brother D.

“Maybe because they are poor?” Irene asks.

“No, it’s in their blood, they even steal if they don’t need to do so. That’s why the police is here. This is a National Monument. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain much was stolen.”

Irene is furious. “Hitler was a devil. You should know about this.”

He should. The walls of this beautiful place are covered over and over with frescoes of angels spearing horned and tailed black devils. The good side always wins. But if it looks easy to defeat the devil on the church walls, it seems quite difficult to confront him when he really comes.

Up in our room we hear a woman knocking at the door. Brother G. tells us that the gypsies want to come inside. But they haven’t got a chance. The whining sounds of music from cheap cassette recorders are wafting against the grey stone walls. A hymn title comes to my mind: “A mighty fortress is our God.” The fortress has been successfully defended, but we didn’t know they took it so literally here?

Gypsies inside the Monastery
Gypsies inside the Monastery
He next morning at 6, the gates open. Gypsies come in, but many choose to stay outside. Brother D. confirms that in former times many more came. They proceed to the church, watched by the law’s Argus eyes. One gypsy tears a little branch from a tree and is shouted at by one of the policemen. The custodian of the keys at the church door is wearing a big stick in his hand. It reminds you of convicts going for their daily walk within prison walls. Inside the church there is no regular service, only one priest is swinging a censer in the air and rudely brushes off one man asking for a bit of holy water.

And yet, they are climbing up the steps to kiss the holy icon of the Virgin, present their toddlers to her, make the sign of the cross, and light some candles. We sit and watch the unreal scene. One man is asking us a question. We talk to him saying we don’t understand. He seems to be happy not to be shouted at and shakes hands with us.

We leave the place. In a nearby restaurant we have breakfast. Irene’s eyes are dark and sad. Certainly there are problems because of these different ways of life, and still?

Suddenly three gypsy children ask the waitress a question. Do they want food, do they want money? The waitress is quite a nice person, actually. Since we gave her some tip yesterday, she thawed out a bit and reactivated her German vocabulary from socialist times. But when the restaurant owner appears she jumps up and shoos them away like molesting flies.

One of the older girls laughs, looking at the other two children. It’s more a kind of chuckle, which expresses something like “I could have told you so in advance. Why do you care for these people?” We have heard this kind of laughter before.