Rila Monastery was a full two day diversion that seemed worth it, not least to survey the Rilski valley it sits in. The monastery itself has been a cultural powerhouse of Bulgaria for more than a thousand years, acting as a centre of learning, language, literature and art. However, it was UNESCO-ed in 1983 and is now an architecturally stunning husk of only 8 monks, down from 150 at its peak, when it spawned dozens of cloisters over the country. Whilst speaking to an eight of the permanent population there, I was told that 900,000 tourists a year doesn't make the optimal environment for deep spiritual purification, and numbers of monks had been swept away by the touristic tide. It does seemed to make for improved lodging facilities though, and a second night was spent comfortably in an Orthodox monastery.
Another life hack: always buy honey from the places of exceptional natural beauty, this seems to apply worldwide. There seems to be something intangible in these environments that is so eminently taste-able. Inconsequentially, the beekeeper's impression of any one of his winged minions stands as a testament to inter-specie improvised theatre.
The next day I was setting camp and feeling pleased with myself namely for improved location scouting, efficiency of erection, and ever expanding culinary repertoire. I awoke at 4 am, senses alert to some nearby life, rustling and footstep-like sounds, I figured remaining neutral and silent in the tent was likely the best decision on average. But I didn't wholly trust my instincts, and in order to sleep the rest of the night I put my panic down as paranoia. When up an out in the morning, i found my food stash meticulously and almost methodically ripped apart, with non of the obvious bite marks of a dog. The Rhodope mountains are the second most famous destination, after the Transylvanian Carpathians, for tourists to see brown bears in the wild. I'll say no more than I was glad to have stayed in my tent.
As I pulled in to Plovdiv at the end of the next day, I believed that I had already earned my R&R, but then Leo challenged me to a race down the town's crowded historic high-street. Leo was a 4-year old on a bike-scooter (the toy where the pedals are removed and the child has to scoot themselves along), his eyes caught my absent-minded one and he raised an eye-brow as in a drag race whilst his lip curled up with life. He took off at his full pace, as I graciously managed mine to keep it a fair fight, his mother's helpless calls echoed in the crowds. We reached an implicitly agreed point, admittedly we were both influenced by the levels of motherly panic behind us. He pulled into an early lead on the home straight, but was impeded by the troublesome shin of a passerby. The race ended in a dead heat as the relieved mewing of the mother was drowned out several times over by the uproarious laughter of the Grandma. A much needed human interaction after only tarmac for company all afternoon.
Plovdiv's Ancient Theatre