We don’t recommend it! Breaking the Rules and Sneaking a “tiny” dog into Unesco Sites!
This is going to be a little long and will get me into a LOT of trouble. No seriously it will.
I am waiting for the: “Into the dog house with you! Where is your respect?” … kind of hate mail.
So here is the thing: I am NOT recommending this behaviour. I am NOT suggesting you try this. I am NOT saying you should even consider it. All I am saying is we did (Bad Montecristo Travels Team… BAD!!) and we got away with it… sort of. It really is a case of “don’t do what we did”. Okay? Is that clear?
Seriously I feel like I should get you to sign a waiver. At minimum please repeat after me: “I, The Montecristo Travels Reader, understand that the information shared in this post is not an encouragement to do the same. That it is not recommended and is in this blog purely for anecdotal purposes.”
Now … on with our story!
While traveling in Bulgaria we were itching to see some of their Unesco World Heritage sites. Two out of the 9 of them were way up on our “must see” list.
Unesco Site #1 – Boyana Church
Boyana Church is located on the slopes of the Vitocha Mountains. It’s a picturesque drive from Sofia that takes less than an hour. Upon our arrival we were surprised to find that not only was the inside of the Church not dog friendly (that we expected), but neither were the grounds. Something I had a lot of trouble understanding since a small pack of lazy wild dogs actually called the location home.
We got our tickets and since no one was supervising the “park” we walked in. After all the sign was barely visible and we figured we could always claim we had not seen it. When we do this, we accept that we could be asked to leave and are willing to pay a fine.
The grounds are lovely, with huge mature trees, and a nice variety of plants gone wild. The path is well marked and a fresh water spring gurgles gaily. In the centre you find Boyana Church, a small and un-pretentious building with a tiny front door. When we tried to enter we found that it was locked and a sign indicated that only 7 people were allowed inside at one time and for 15 minute visits only. We had to wait patiently for the previous group to leave before being allowed in. Twelve minutes later, I was half asleep in Mom’s purse, when the door finally opened and the bipeds, without really thinking about it walked in… with me still in the bag.
The tour guide indicated that bags and cameras had to be left on a chair. So Mom put her purse down and I popped my head out … Oh dear… Now what? We were in; the tour was starting and the timer ticking! Mom gave me the signal for quiet, draped her jacket over her purse and I snuggled into the bottom and took a nap. There was no reason why she and Dad could not take turns… but what was done… was done.
Pushing guilt aside, this is what I heard the guide tell the bipeds.
Boyana Church was built in three stages:
- in the early 11th,
- the mid-13th and,
- the mid-19th centuries.
But its architecture and age are not what makes Boyana Church famous; it’s the frescos inside. You can’t take photos so I will have to send you to Wikipedia to show you and post the photo I took of magnets at the souvenir shop. It’s the best I could do I am afraid.
The first layers of frescoes date back to the 11th-century and fragments have been preserved. But Boyana Church owes its world fame to the frescoes from 1259. Why? Because these demonstrate exceptional achievements in the evolution of mediaeval art. The majority of the 240 figures depicted display stunning individuality, something that would not happen anywhere else in the world of iconography for a very long time to come.
They prove that, contrarily to what might have been believed before, icons have the stiff look and lack of physical details (like the lack of toes on feet) because of rules imposed by the Church on the artists and not because the artists did not have the skill to produce emotionally charged works of art or accurate depth and scale.
The frescoes are genuine “chef d’oeuvres” with flawless technique, complexity and incredible realism. The portraits of the patrons of the church (Sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava), as well as those of the Bulgarian tsar Constantine Tikh and his Tsarista Irina, are the most impressive and lifelike frescoes. But, the bipeds really loved the 18 scenes depicting the life of Saint Nicholas the most. The painter drew aspects of contemporary life into the frescos that are amusing. Ex: In The Miracle at Sea, the ship and the sailors’ hats recall those from Venetian fleets. Something the bipeds found wonderful because the artist was using his own era, rather than that of the time of St. Nicholas. It would be like having an artist today depict the characters of the life of St. Nicholas on a modern ship in jeans, white t-shirt, and baseball caps!
Fact: The Church has one particular patron to thank for still being around; Queen Eleanor, second wife to King Ferdinand.
The story goes that the people of the Boyana region wanted to tear the old Church down to build a bigger and “better” one in its place. But the Queen had a “feeling” that it might be worth saving and called in a famous restorer for his opinion. He was stunned at the priceless frescos and what they showed of Bulgarian art and right away told the Queen they must be saved.
In order to keep the people of Boyana happy, the Queen gifted them with land to build their new Church. Then with her own personal funds, she paid for the restoration of Boyana Church. She also bought the surrounding land and had trees and plants from across the country brought in to create a Bulgarian garden. It has gone wild, but those massive trees protected Boyana Church from the WWII air raids. Although the entire surrounding area was completely destroyed, the Church remained untouched.
When she died in 1917, Queen Eleanor was fittingly buried in the courtyard of “her” Church, so she may always look over it and protect it.
Carefully maintained, Boyana is now under Unesco’s protection and the frescos safeguarded for future generations. An air-conditioning/humidity-regulating system keeps the temperature at 17-18 degrees Celsius (62-64 Fahrenheit). Special lighting systems that do not emit heat have been installed. And as we mentioned, visitors are only allowed in for 15 minutes at a time. It is open 7 days a week from 9:30 am to 17:30 pm, with an admission of 10 leva per person.
When the tour was finished (our guide spoke many many languages including French, English, Bulgarian and Russian) we quietly left without drawing attention to ourselves. And that Dear Reader is how I “somewhat accidentally”, ended up sneaking into Boyana Church.
Unesco Site #2 – Rila Monastery
Regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments; the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in the country. Named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD) it is perched high up in the mountains by the same name and is about a two hour drive from Sofia.
Now before we start regaling you with what we noted, you have to know that our visit was a little shorter than we would have liked because … I got caught being snuck in.
The rules to enter this functioning monastery are pretty darn strict and archaic. No strapless or spaghetti strap tops, no muscle shirts, no shorts and no short skirts. No cameras, no smoking, no drinking, no guns, no cellphones, no … no pets.
And… well… I was placed in my sling bag and brought in anyway. No pets inside the Church and museum made sense to us; but the huge outdoor courtyard? Anyway, all that to say that there are people enforcing the rules and this is what we recommend you DO if you go:
- Wear a loose long sleeved top or layers so you can cover up
- Wear a long skirt or long pants
- Come at minimum as a pair if you are with a dog and take turns
- It’s a long visit – x2 if doing the dog handoff so be prepared to wait for the other person for at least an hour and plan an activity (reading, hiking, fresh trout for lunch?)
I say this because we missed out on some things as a result of getting booted out. And because they are mean, if you get kicked out they don’t let you back in on the same day. You basically get black listed.
Now, on with our story about Rila Monastery and what we did manage to see.
As I mentioned, it is traditionally thought that the monastery was founded by Ivan the hermit. But the hermit actually lived in a cave without any material possessions not far from the monastery’s location. The complex was in fact built by his students who came to the mountains to learn but liked things a little comfier than their mentor.
It’s huge with an 8,800 m² (86.12 sq. ft.) footprint. It is rectangular in form, with an inner (3,200 m²/ 32.3 sq. ft.) courtyard, where the tower and the main church are situated. The main church of the monastery was erected in the 19th century and has five domes, three altars and two side chapels. The frescoes, finished in 1846, are the work of many masters and absolutely splendid! They are unbelievably colorful and bright. The church is also home to many valuable icons, dating from the 14th to the 19th century.
The four-story (not counting the basement) residential part of the complex consists of 300 chambers, four chapels, an abbot’s room, a kitchen, and a library housing 250 manuscripts and 9,000 old prints. The exterior of the complex, with its high walls of stone and little windows, resembles a fortress more than a monastery. You feel very intimidated walking up to Rila Monastery, and around it. Luckily the main entrance is bright and cheerful and so is the entrance at the back with its river and little bridge. The porticos inside that face the courtyard have a Mamluk influence with painted white stripes and domes, which were popular in the Ottoman Empire after the conquest of Egypt.
Boyana is truly a remarkable sight to see. The use of cameras and video recorders is forbidden inside the main church and museum, but luckily we were free to take photos outside.
The museum is famous for housing Rafail’s Cross, a wooden cross made from a single piece of wood. It was whittled down by a monk named Rafail using fine burins and magnifying lenses to recreate 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. Work on this piece of art lasted 12 years before it was completed in 1802, when the monk lost his sight… and…we never saw it. We got booted out. *sigh*
Ever since its creation; Rila Monastery has been respected. Be it Tsars, feudal lords, Sultans, and wealthy Bulgarians. It’s an unofficial depository of Bulgarian language and culture and is regarded as one of the foremost masterpieces of Bulgarian National Revival architecture. It was declared a national historical monument in 1976 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
It is beautiful and worth the visit if you happen to be anywhere nearby. It has a sense of “survival” about it. And other than the uptight monks that run the place, you will just simply fall in love. You’ll also curse not being allowed to take photos on numerous occasions; bring your mental memory card.
So much beauty, so much history! How could I not want to see these places? But the bipeds missed out on a key “must see” and … I hope they aren’t too upset about that
Have you ever snuck (been snuck) in someplace? Share your story in the comments below. I promise I won’t tell!