Staring ahead of me, all I saw was green. The leaves were an amazing bright color of green, occasionally reflecting the glaring sun that they so thankfully blocked out. I felt like I was in a tunnel and had no idea how long it would stretch. I questioned whether I should continue, but told myself that I would give it 20 more minutes. If I walked for 20 more minutes without seeing some sign that I was on the right track, I would turn around and hopefully find my way back to Rila Monastery.
I had only left the monastery a half hour earlier, but it felt like much longer. A map at the far entrance showed an arrow pointing in the direction of the Chapel of St. Ivan of Rila (also known as the St Ivan Rilski Chapel) that seemed to go past the restaurant and hotel that stood just outside the monastery walls. After walking for a few minutes down a paved road, I initially made a wrong turn, taking some stairs down to a wooded path that crossed a river. As soon as I got across the river, I felt that no, I wasn’t going the right way.
Back on the main road, I soon passed a campground before reaching an intersection. Which way to go? A faded map on a wooden signpost told me nothing. If it hadn’t been for a lucky glance of my eyes into the field above the road, I probably would have given up then. But that quick glance revealed a small sign with a picture of a saint – presumably St. Ivan of Rila – and an arrow, pointing toward the woods.
A slight path led through the field, enough for me to follow, but not enough for me to feel completely confident in where I was going. My guidebooks said the Chapel of St. Ivan of Rila was about an hour’s walk from Rila Monastery, so I checked my watch and gave myself a deadline as the field soon turned into forest.
I saw another marker quite soon, but then walked for what seemed like forever without seeing a thing. Even more unnerving was that I didn’t even see another person. I was completely and utterly alone.
I continued through the tunnel of trees and soon found myself in a small clearing – with no obvious path to follow. I slowly head to my right, only to quickly determine that was not correct. Sure enough, heading back to my left soon brought me to a large tree with a sort of shrine built around it. I must be getting close! Indeed, with every corner, I was sure the chapel would suddenly appear.
Forty minutes after I spotted the sign in the field, I spotted several buildings in the forest – but they were the long abandoned remains of an old monastery, not the chapel I was seeking (although if I had read my guidebook more closely, I would have known that I would reach this monastery just a short time before getting to the chapel). After taking some time to check out the monastery and refill my water bottle from the fountain flowing nearby (Bulgaria is known for its natural mountain springs, most or all of which are said to be safe for drinking), I continued on, feeling that I had to be getting close.
But let me take a step back – what exactly was I looking for? St. Ivan of Rila was a Bulgarian hermit in the 9th century. After becoming a monk, he made a home for himself in the Rila Mountains, living in caves. Soon, he became known for performing various miracles, which led to him attracting a number of followers. This, in turn led to the founding of the famous Rila Monastery and at some point, Ivan became the patron saint of Bulgaria. The chapel in the woods I was seeking and its adjacent cave were where he lived out his final days.
So back to the story…
The path kept getting darker and rockier and I really began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. And then I got a welcome surprise – two women walking toward me! One initially rambled a question to me in Bulgarian and then repeated it, apparently assuming I didn’t hear the first time. I did and I managed to understand that she was asking if they were heading in the direction of the abandoned monastery. I told her yes and explained that it was about ten minutes away in my mix of Russian-Bulgarian. Then I asked if I was headed in the right direction for the Chapel of St. Ivan. She assured me I was and I immediately felt 100% better.
Another ten minutes, and up a slew of rocky paths and steps, and I finally spotted the chapel! And to my surprised, I was not the only one there – at least ten other people were milling about. How did they get there? Where did they come from?
Next up was the cave next to the chapel. I slowly climbed up the dark stairs into the cave and then dug out my iPhone to turn on the flashlight app to light my way as I was starting into complete blackness. Inside the cave, I spotted another small shrine with a few candles. And then on the far end of the cave was a ladder.
The ladder led up to a whole that apparently came out on ground up above the chapel. I could see people outside who had entered the cave just before me who must have crawled through. But I was wearing a flowy skirt (obviously, not the best for hiking in the first place) and had my camera around my neck and my shoulder bad flopping against my hip and decided it just wasn’t worth it to go to the trouble to climb up this ladder and through the hole when I could easily just go back down the way I came.
My return hike to the monastery seemed to fly by and before I knew it, I was enjoying a shopska salad and plate of French fries with yummy Bulgarian cheese, seated at a wooden table just outside of the monastery walls. I couldn’t help but feel satisfied with my little adventure, which served to remind me of everything I love about travel – the excitement to discover something a little off the beaten path, the thrill of getting a little lost and the satisfaction of figuring it all out and finding what you’re looking for in the end.
It was only then that I flipped back to the pages talking about the Chapel of St. Ivan of Rila in my guidebook and read that everyone who climbs through the hole in the cave next to the chapel is absolved of his or her sins and is said to have a pure heart.
So I kind of messed that one up.