Bulgaria: Need a room? Get thee to a monastery

After a bloodthirsty introduction to medieval Plovdiv, Christian Walsh checked into a friary to exorcise his demons

I'm in medieval Plovdiv, surrounded by scenes of nightmarish ghastliness. Blood runs across the cobbles in front of the Djumaya mosque as a vile-looking Turk hacks and slices with his Ottoman sabre. By the tourist office, a huddle of emaciated peasants fight in the snow over the carcass of a sacrificed pig, and just next to Marko's souvenir stall an Orthodox father is exorcising demons from the village lunatic. Shaken, I take a table in a café and am served coffee by a toothless crone who spits in my cup before pouring the boiling liquid into my crotch.

I'm in medieval Plovdiv, surrounded by scenes of nightmarish ghastliness. Blood runs across the cobbles in front of the Djumaya mosque as a vile-looking Turk hacks and slices with his Ottoman sabre. By the tourist office, a huddle of emaciated peasants fight in the snow over the carcass of a sacrificed pig, and just next to Marko's souvenir stall an Orthodox father is exorcising demons from the village lunatic. Shaken, I take a table in a café and am served coffee by a toothless crone who spits in my cup before pouring the boiling liquid into my crotch.

This isn't the kind of fantasy one usually has on holiday. Especially in a town as picturesque as Plovdiv. But enter the Museum Zlatyu Boyadzhiev and you step into a world of grotesque and hallucinatory images painted by Bulgaria's most inspired folk artist. You'll never look at Plovdiv in the same way again.

A fairytale backdrop to Boyadzhiev's cavalcade of caricatures, the old town of Plovdiv could be described as "Tudor in pastels". But the official term for this style is National Revival, alluding to the period following Bulgaria's independence in the late 19th century. Wooden beams support overhanging galleries, while neat rows of shuttered windows, trompe l'oeil pillars and cornices are painted against mauve, mustard and spinach-green walls.

The houses are both stately and homely, having enough Baroque elegance to make them look like town houses without forgoing some sort of higgledy rustic charm. The two-tiered effect of the buildings, together with steep, uneven roads, gives the impression that everything within old Plovdiv is leaning in a different direction. This experience is reinforced by the aforementioned cobbles, which are so large and cumbersome that pedestrians are forced to perform a drunken dance through the alleyways.

The historic quarter is under a government preservation order, which is just as well, as parts of the new town are blighted with the kind of Communist-era public art that can only be improved by graffiti. From Roman times, Plovdiv was an important stop along the trade route between Constantinople and the West. Following the Turkish occupation from the 1300s onwards, this was a town where Muslims and Christian merchants lived back-to-back with differing degrees of neighbourliness depending on whether the Turks or the Slavs were in power. The resulting skyline jams a Roman amphitheatre up against church belfries, domes and minarets.

I left the café (where the old crone had materialised into a pretty Bulgarian waitress with hennaed hair) and traversed the expanse of cobbles leading to the Church of St Konstantin and Elena. I almost missed the low gate in the wall that led into a courtyard. The church is barn-like with an open veranda painted in purple and orange chequers, gnarled wooden pillars and time-polished flagstones. Stepping inside, I passed from rural simplicity to Orthodox kleptomania. The symbolist painter Gustave Moreau could not have dreamt a richer, denser vision of glittering spiritual clutter. A great shimmering tangle of bronze and silver ornaments lay between myself and the gold iconostasis that encompassed the entire back wall like an opulent stage set. Stern Slavic saints, their faces worn from being kissed, stared from behind gilt frames. Hundreds of sweet-smelling beeswax candles fizzed and gutted noisily and swaths of oil-encrusted incense burners hung like vines overhead.

A pair of chattering old women scuttled between the candelabra, snatching dying candles and tossing them with the accuracy of a Harlem Globetrotter into a bucket several feet away. A third woman darted in and out of a little souvenir hut – more like a candle-lit grotto – rearranging her display of wooden rosaries and wallet-sized images of saints and relics.

That afternoon I caught a bus to one of Bulgaria's most important spiritual centres, Bachkovo monastery, where I planned to spend the night. The monastery is an hour's drive from the city, in the Rodopi mountains, an area of thick forests and deep valleys. This being Saturday, the locals had turned up in droves. Rows of stalls offered drinks and snacks, local honey and sweetbreads, and families tucked into vast plates of grilled meats in the roadside restaurants. It appears that a visit to Bachkovo is as much about expanding the waistline as it is about salvaging the soul, and as I made my way up the short path to the monastery the crowds of weekenders had all but dispersed.

Bachkovo is built like a small fortress. But the massive wooden door wasn't enough to keep out the Turks who razed much of the original monastery in the 16th century. The main church was rebuilt in classical Byzantine style, resulting in a complicated structure in which little red-tiled roofs and round turrets jostle for supremacy over the variegated brickwork below. From inside the church drifted an eerie call-and-response: deep male voices issued a line of prayer followed by a line of plainsong. The church was heavy with the smell of incense and my eyes were dazzled by the candlelight reflecting off a forest of silver and gold crosses, candelabras, icons and a thousand other indefinable, heavily gilded objects. In front of me stood four characters straight from Boyadzhiev's folk art: Orthodox priests, their long grey hair indistinguishable from their long grey beards which formed a furry mask around beady black eyes. This forbidding-looking group were singing the response to another voice that came from behind a little gold saloon door set in the gold- panelled division. The door opened and a man appeared wearing a bishop's tall hat. A heavy iron cross hung over his black cassock. Having said a few lines he disappeared again through the little door, and continued his prayer from behind the division, popping out now and then to hold the cross to the lips of the elderly priests.

I exited this intimate scene and found the monastery absolutely silent, devoid of the afternoon's tourists. In the cloisters there seemed to be a surfeit of aproned women of a similar age and stature to the candle-snuffers in Plovdiv – tiny, wizened and permanently busy. I asked one if I would be able to lodge in the monastery for the night and was led to a cell containing three beds and a desk. Alone, I picked the most comfortable-looking bed and lay down. The mattress sagged extraordinarily and I was instantly cocooned, my arms forced across my chest and my behind inches from the floor. A little later a knock on the door woke me and two elderly women pushed their wrinkled faces through the opening. They seemed pleased to see me and cooed happily from the doorway. "Dobro?" said one. Yes, very good, I replied. The other woman just made soothing clucking noises and signalled me to go back to sleep.

With a satisfying thud, the heavy gates were closed at 10pm and the wooden beam slotted into place. I could not pinpoint at what moment the demons of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev's paintings had been exorcised from my mind, but in spite of the sagging bed and the regular passing by my window of muttering priests, I enjoyed the deep sleep of the righteous.

The Facts

Getting there

There are frequent direct flights from Gatwick to Sofia with Balkan Air Tour (020-7637 7637) from around £194 return, and from Heathrow with British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.british-airways.com) from around £165. Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114; www.balkanholidays.co.uk) operates a weekly charter flight from Gatwick to Plovdiv every Saturday from the end of December until the end of March. Return fares cost from £179.

Being there

Hotel Hebros (00 359 32 26 01 80; www.hebros-hotel.com) is a painstakingly restored traditional house set in the heart of the old town. Rates for a double room start from €75 (£50). For budget travellers, the welcoming Hotel Leipzig (00 359 32 63 22 50) offers good value at 60 Bulgarian leva (£20) for a double room.

Hourly buses from Plovdiv to Bachkovo monastery leave from platform one at the Rodopi bus station, just behind the train station. A night in the monastery costs Lv10 (£3.30). Bathrooms are shared and there is no hot water. No need to book.

Further information

Winters can be very cold, and heavy snow can limit access to the Rodopi mountains. Spring, summer and autumn (until late November) are dry and sunny, although the July heat can be overwhelming.

Bulgarian Tourist Board (020-7589 8402; www.travel-bulgaria.com).

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