I left the hostel and went in search of breakfast, but it was still too early for the street stands of bakeries to be open. I was so hungry, I even noticed that McDonalds, Burger King, and Dunkin were even all closed. I headed towards the tour meeting place, Alexander Nevski cathedral, sure that something would be open. I was out of luck. I walked around the cathedral, saw where all the tours met, and then tried again to go find food. At one point, I saw a bunch of cops gathered in front of a cafe, and thought, "great, it will be opening soon." As I walked by and noticed how closed it looked, one of the cops said something to me in Bulgarian and pointed down. Iooked, but I hadn't dropped anything, so I said "what?" At this point he gave an "oh"-like response and waved me along. As I turned to go, I noticed that two of the guys "lined up" to get into the cafe weren't cops. They were actually teens. And then I realized that there was a small bag on the ground where the cop pointed. Yeah, I'm pretty sure I walked right through the middle of a 7am drug bust and literally stepped on the weed. Oops. I just kept walking because I was certainly not turning back down that road. Eventually, after about an hour of hungrily walking the city, I found a subway that was open 24 hours. Saved! At this point, I didn't even care that they had all the exact same stuff as the states, I just wanted food. I was able to get cream cheese on my sandwich, which was a bit different, but everything else was exactly the same-filling. My tummy happy, I headed back to the cathedral to wait for the tour shuttle. I went inside, since I hadn't been inside yet. I'm pretty sure I'm cathedral jaded. The walls were painted with great paintings, but it was so dark i t was hard to see. The windows weren't anything special, and mostly not even stained glass. It was very austere compared to most cathedrals I've been in. While I was waiting outide, the bells tolled. And not just a ding. The bells gonged and tolled and pealed and rang out with an interesting rhythm and melody. They rang for a. Minute and then two. And they just kept going. I dont know if they do this every Sunday at 8:30 or only on holidays, but if you have a chance to hear them not just toll, but really play, I highly recommend it. I've never heard church bells ring for so long. They went on for over 20 minutes!
Towards the end of the long ring, I met with my tour group (V travel). They had 2 different vans to take us since we didn't fit in one. The van was comfy and clean, although I wish the driver didn't keep sticking his head in while he was outside on smoke break. That kind of defeats the purpose of stepping outside. We rode to Rila Monastery through very green forest and farmland, with only a brief gas station stop so that the other van could catch up to us. The tour guide (who was in the other van) walked us into the monastery and gave us a brief history of when and why it was built, before setting us loose. Rila is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and it's clear why this was selected as a place of meditation. 72 steps up the tower, and I had a great view of the picturesque mountains and the monastery. In addition to having time to climb to the top of the tower, I had time to see the church a bit,but not enough time to see the icon museum. For a tour that is supposed to be based around the monastery, they sure didn't give us enough time there. The church on the inside looked very similar to other overly-decorated churches, but it's the paintings on the outside that were unique and fun. Many were recognizable bible stories- Adam and Eve, Moses with his tablets, even the devil. But many were not things I remember from the bible- a man hanging upside down from his ankles, getting sawed in half through his genitals, a lizard-bodied king with wings, a couple of dragons. What I really should have done is seen if the gift shop has a book that tells the story of what is happening in each of those paintings. At the appointed time, we went to the vans, but since they apparently weren't strong enough to make it up the parking lot (steep) hill filled with people, we hiked back up to the entrance and met them there. From the monastery, we drove a bit to a nearby restaurant. Clearly, this is not a place locals go, but a place where tours bring large groups of tourists so they can get good kickbacks. The food was supposedly Bulgarian (and not the best I'd had), and the service was very slow. I'm sure it didn't help that other large tour groups were eating at the same time as we were. Still, I'm not sure that excuses them serving me baked frozen food service fries. (The menu said fried potatoes, so it was technically accurate, but not at all what I wanted.) I still came away full, so I happily sat for a while as we drove back by Sofia to Boyana. Then, the ennui set in. I saw some signs for other tourist attractions. I don't know how good or far they were, but it would have been nice to make another stop along the way, just to get out and move a little. At this point, we had been sitting almost all day- hours for the drive to Rila, at the restaurant, and hours back. We really spent more time travelling than anywhere and spent about as much time at the restaurant as at the monastery. I can't say I was happy about that. When we finally arrived at Boyana, I was so relieved to be standing, I just went in. The second bus and guide hadn't arrived, and our driver didn't say anything, so it seemed ok. We bought tickets to go into the church, and enjoyed the nearby gardens as we waited. The church is so small that they only allow groups of up to 8 people in at a time, and only for 15 minutes, according to the sign. In reality, the guy at the door let in slightly larger groups and allowed people to take as much or as little time as they wanted. We looked at the painted walls for a while, and the the guide showed up. He explained that the under layer of paining visible was the original art that came with the church when it was built a looooong time ago. It hasn't been restored. Over top, the second layer is also ancient, but was put on when the church expanded. Because St. Nicholas was the local patron saint at the time, the king had the artist paint lots of pictures of him. I just can't get over how different Santa Claus looked before Coke got to him and closer to the time he actually lived. However, St. Nick, and many of the other saints on the walls were missing their eyes. Apparently, at one point in time, the (painted) eyes of the saints were considered good luck, so people would scrape them off and take them home. Yes, they vandalized a house of worship for luck. The Boyana church isn't too far from Sofia, so we were back quickly from there. One of hte other girls on the tour and I went for dinner at MishMash, a restaurant that was on a food tour she had done yesterday. Perhaps if I hadn't already eaten my weight in cheese over the past 3 days, the food would have been much better.
After dinner, I checked my wallet and was utterly surprised. I had pulled WAAAAY too much cash. I had thought that $50 per day for food, souvenirs, hostel, tips, tours etc would be just about right. I was far off as Bulgaria is much cheaper than expected. So, we strolled down the main pedestrian boulevard to look for something useful to buy and use up the money. First, I found a balloon artist and made a donation, that apparently was worth quite a few balloons. I really just wanted one, but he insisted that I take more, so I did. I walked a block or so until I was out of sight, and then found a few kids that looked like they might want balloons and gave them away. Next, I started looking in shop windows to see if there was anything I needed. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and a holiday (St. Cyril and Methodius Day, a celebration of the alphabet saints), so there wasn't a lot open, and I didn't really need too much. Then, it started pouring. Since I had to be there soon anyway, I gave up my wandering in the rain to head to the airport, and bought nice earbuds, a ridiculous amount of granola bars, birthday cards for the next year, and a couple of other items. Yeah, I had a lot of cash left over and everything there is dirt cheap. Moral of the story- do not take so much cash to Bulgaria next time.