I couldn’t believe it. We were visiting the Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria which is, in fact, the largest monastery in the country. When entering the church, a tall monk took a local person to inside the altar. I quickly hurried over as I was sure, if I asked politely, he might let us see the relic of St. Ioan of Rila, the hermit monk and its founder. And you won’t believe this! The relic is… a finger! But, there was a concession (to prove that we were pilgrims and not just stupid tourists), we would have to kiss it. I know it sounds gruesome but it was covered with a plate of glass and, inside the darkened church, you couldn’t really see what was under that glass anyway. I felt really honoured that the monk had allowed us near this item so precious to their order. The monastery hotel and cells had been freshly painted and it was truly beautiful. And the brightly coloured frescos painted on the outside of the church building itself, though 160 years old, could have been brand new. There must not be any pollution in these mountains for those images to look so fresh.
That morning I had gone to visit the history and iconography in Samokov. I love being able to get up close to art objects and the icons were hanging within my reach. They were stunning. Histro Dimitrov started the movement in Bulgaria in the 19th century, long, long after other Slavic and Soviet cultures had been working in this ecclesiastical artform.
Of course, the two Zograf brothers were the highlight of this exhibition, particularly Zahari Zograf. It was all very wonderfully done. But I was intrigued as to why they were so far behind other European cultures in art trends? The answer could be the strict orthodoxy of the Christian Church. But it could also be the 500 years of Turkish Ottoman rule that took place before the 19th century.
There were also artifacts from the excavation of Shishmanovo Castle. There were mechanical working models of forges and ironworks which this town was renowned for and some beautiful examples of national dress with the exceptional embroidery and bead work that the locals are famous for.
At one time, the main core of visitors to this museum were British, but since the global meltdown of 2009, that has all changed. Last year they only had 300 UK visitors. Shame.
I flew to Bulgaria on British Airways and travelled on the Heathrow Express.
Heathrow Express is the fastest, most frequent way to travel between Heathrow Airport and Central London. Trains depart every 15 minutes with average journey times taking just 15 minutes. Tickets are available online, at the station, on board and via the Heathrow Express iphone app. Prices start from £18 for adults and £9 for children over 5 years. For more details visit www.heathrowexpress.com.