Troyan monastery, craftsmanship​, and a cave

Troyan monastery, craftsmanship​, and a cave

This post was updated on March 22nd, 2020

Off the beaten track – Krushuna

Today’s journey takes us from our mountainside hotel down to the Troyan monastery before we visit a pottery artist in her gallery. After that, we will visit another cave before we make for our final destination of the day, Krushuna.

Krushuna, Sunday, June 17, 2018

An early start

We are starting the day early again, too early to enjoy the breakfast at the hotel, but Evo organized some sandwiches for us which we might enjoy later. We have to pack the car and then hit the road down to the Troyan Monastery to arrive there in time for the Sunday service.

How does a breakfastless start add up with Sunday service? Where I come from Sunday service would not start before 10 a.m. 
Here, however, it starts actually at 7:30 a.m., and we want to be at the monastery before it begins so that I can have a look around first.

Waking up turned up not to be much of a problem after all, and I sure was awake after I realized that I had collected about 60 insect bites during the night. Thanks to a last-minute decision when I was packing for this tour, I also packed anti-itching cremes – not one but two. Usually, that would have meant that I would not have needed it, well, not this time. But who cares, I am still alive, and I am not going to not have fun just because I am itching a little more.

Visiting a Bulgarian Orthodox monastery

Arriving at the monastery Evo gives me a short introduction into both Christianity in Bulgaria as well as the Troyan monastery Holy Mother’s Assumption (Bulgarian: Троянски манастир “Успение Богородично”). This monastery is the third largest one in Bulgaria. 
Christianity was first adopted as a state religion in Bulgaria during the First Bulgarian Kingdom in the 9s century. This seems late, considering both St. Andrew and St. Paul supposedly preached in Bulgaria during the first century AD. Also, the Thracian regions adapted Christianity already in the third century. However, other areas stuck to their pagan believes. In 865 Prince Boris I of Bulgaria decided to adopt the Christian faith and make it the official religion. This to unite the country, and to gain better relationships with the neighboring European countries. In his later days, Prince Boris decided to join a convent and become a monk leaving the rulership of Bulgaria to his oldest son, Vladimir. When his successor fell under the influence of the old boyars and tried to reintroduce the pagan believes Boris I led a coup against Vladimir. The coup d’ état ended in tsar Boris blinding his eldest Vladimir. The throne was then taken by Boris’ younger son Simeon, while Boris I retired into a monastery life again. 

History of the Troyan Monastery

A monk and his student are considered the founders of the Troyan monastery. They settled in the area at the beginning of the 17s century. The church building of the monastery dates back to 1835 – the Ottoman yoke did not end before 1878. This means that there must have been significant negotiations with the Ottoman rulers to establish a Christian monastery.

Troyan Monastery - Off the beaten track - Visiting a Monastery, an artist and a cave
Troyan Monastery

Inside, exquisite frescos decorate the walls and ceilings of the church. They are depicting scenes from the Bible, preserve the images of the first monks, and those who helped finance the monastery. It is also the home of the holy icon of the three-handed Mary.

Wait a moment. Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, had three hands? What kind of rumor is that? Or is it a rumor at all?

Three-handed virgin Mary - Icon in the Troyan Monastery.
Icon of the three-handed Virgin Mary

Legend of the three-handed Virgin

The legend has it that Saint John of Damascus was devoted in worshipping holy icons in the early 8s century. He got slandered by the Emperor and iconoclast Leo II the Isaurian. The Emperor informed the calif of Damascus that Saint John was committing treason against the calif. Saint John was thus sentenced to have his right hand cut off. After the execution of the verdict, Saint John asked for the cut-off hand. His executors granted him this, and he fell to the ground infant of the icon of the Mother of God. Here Saint John fell asleep while praying to Mother Mary to heal his hand. When he awoke his hand, mysteriously was unharmed and looked like it was never cut off in the first place. In thankfulness for his quick healing, he placed a hand, fashioned out of silver, on the icon. So this is how Mother Mary got her third hand. It is not like she would have had three arms and hands – even though some icons depict her like that. Saint John then accepted monasticism in the monastery of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified in Serbia, to which he took the icon. 

How the icon came to the Troyan Monastery

During the Ottoman invasion of Serbia, some Christians entrusted the safekeeping of the icon to the Mother of God herself. So they placed it on a donkey. The donkey, without a driver, made its way to the Hilandar monastery on Athos, Greece. 

Some years after the first monk and his student had settled in Troyan, another monk came to stay with them. This visiting monk carried the icon of the three-handed Mother of God with him on his way to Romania. After three failed attempts of getting into Romania with the image, he figured that the icon had decided to stay in Troyan. So the monk continued his way alone, while the icon is still at the right side from the entrance in the church of the Troyan monastery.

Inside the Church of the Troyan Monastery

Orthodox service

The orthodox mass is very different from what I know from the protestant ceremonies that I have attended. Not only is everybody standing during the mass, but the general visitor cannot see the altar. Only the priest has access to the altar room, which is hidden by the iconostasis. This because in the Orthodox believe God can only be reached through mediation by Christ. The separation of the believer from the altar reflects this. Monks and priests sing the scripture during the mass. This sounds a little bit like that monk choir The Gregorians – though without instruments. Actually, there are no instruments in the Orthodox church at all. It is a beautiful experience – though I don’t understand a word and I am otherwise not part of any religious lifestyle.

Outside wall of the church of the Troyan Monastery

Lunch is near

Time passes fast. Even Evo’s salt sticks, which he happily shares with us, cannot fill our empty stomachs for much longer. So we decide to get going taking an early lunch. Though it is everything but early for lunch – at the same restaurant where we had dinner last night. As always I am spoiled by not only getting my delicious grilled trout but some of Evo’s tasty barbequed chicken with spicy salsa. For dessert its ice-cream. After my first mouthful of it, however, Evo figures that we haven’t checked if it contains peanuts. So he runs off to ask someone from the staff if it will be safe for me to eat. Yea, it might not be such a bright idea to combine too many allergens at once?

He returns and immediately commands me to stop eating. We all hold our breath. Karin and Phil are looking at me in shock, awaiting the next catastrophe.

Lunch or what's left of it
Lunch is tasty trout

When the revelation comes, Evo was fooling around with us all; there are no peanuts in the ice-cream. I’ve got to admit he lightened the mood significantly. 

Visiting a Bulgarian artist

Time to continue our journey. It is but a very short drive to our next stop, the gallery of a pottery maker. Already in the entrance area of her little workshop, I am spotting beautifully made plates. If it weren’t for the risk that they would break on my journey back, I would for sure buy some here.

Handcrafted Bulgarian pottery
Handcrafted Bulgarian pottery

Craftsmanship in Oreshak

The soil in and around Oreshak (Bulgarian: Орешак) contains a lot of clay, making it impossible to use for agricultural purposes. Instead, people in this region became skilled in pottery making and wood carving. Trading their products against food – and later money of course – on the markets. Examples of the unique wood carvings created in this region are the entrance doors of the Troyan monastery.

Wood carving in the Troyan Monastery
Wood carving in the Troyan Monastery

Pottery making in Gallery Rosi

In the Gallery Rosi, we watch how a clump of clay is transformed into a stylish jar and how the dried clay then gets colored by the gifted artist. We also watch the process of decorating one of the plates.

The pottery making artist with some of her work
The pottery making artist with some of her work

Before Phil gets his chance of the day, decorating a plate for himself. Coordinating moving his foot to rotate the plate continuously while painting the plate seems harder than it looks. While Karin and I are busy to photograph his progress, Evo steps in and moves the wheel for Phil. Teamwork at its best, as always with these people.

Phil decorating a plate
Phil decorating a plate

The result is convincing to say the very least. 

As always time passes so fast here.

Nearby, we learn, is a small museum village, but we also want to make our way to Devetashka cave (Bulgarian: Природна забележителност “Деветашка пещера”) today. Karin leaves the difficult decision for me. Do I want to see the historic houses in this area? Well, sure, I would love to. But so far we have never made anything within the original schedule, “Wiebke schedule” is always one or two hours behind. Not that anybody would complain about it, but I do want to visit that cave…and I am pretty sure I will break the schedule again. So this time I decide not to see the museum village. I have to come back for another tour or two…

Visiting a cave with an alien landing place

Devetashka it is. The cave is huge, about two kilometers in length and up to 100 meters high. On the left side runs a little river forming a lake farther up the cave, while we can use the wide pathway on the right. 

Entering the cave of Devetashka
Entering the cave of Devetashka

A brief history of Devetashka

The cave has been inhabited since the Neolithic and was used by the Bulgarian military during the communistic era. Today a part of the cave is closed for visitors so that the approximately 30.000 bats can live there undisturbed. Devetashka got its name from the seven windows, or Maarata, which let natural light pass in from the outside. 

Photography is teamwork

Once again Evo and I form a team photographing in the accessible part of the cave. Of course, he helps me getting up and down the inclines whenever I need help. Not to say he is there for me faster than I can think of asking for help.

Devetashka Cave
Devetashka Cave

Alien landing place

There is definitively an alien landing place on the ground in a hidden section of the cave. What else but a UFO could have left these perfectly circular marks on the ground???

Alien spaceship landing place
Alien spaceship landing place

OK, military petrol tanks are an explanation, but alien landing place sounds so much more interesting, let’s keep it that way. Evo challenges me to take a 360˚ panorama of the cave, a challenge I gladly accept. (Click on the image below for a larger version)

Panorama of Devetashka
Panorama of Devetashka

Thoughts about this tour so far

Even on the way back to the car, I can still find new things to photograph. Phil asked me in Belogradchik how I liked Bulgaria so far compared to my expectations. My answer then is as correct now: I do not know what I expected, but I definitively did not expect to find all this!

Back in the car, we make our way toward Krushuna (Bulgarian: Крушуна). Not without another stop along the road, when we spot a goat-herder with his goats though.

Goat herd near Alexandrovo
Goat herd near Alexandrovo

Shocking surprises

After checking in, in Krushuna, I find myself in a stunning hotel room. Could someone please set this bathroom up at my place too?

But now the full extent of my insect bites from last night becomes obvious too. 60 was a far too low count. 200 is a way more accurate estimate. Over dinner Karin, Phil and Evo are shocked to find out about the true extent. So much indeed that Evo instantly offers me to take me to a doctor – or drive me anywhere I want to go. But I am already where I want to be. I have survived them to this point, some dope and cream and I should be able to cope with them while enjoying this brilliant company of people.

Another fantastic day ends with a delicious dinner. 

Tomorrow we’ll be back out there again!

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