The train from Thessaloniki to Sofia pulled away from the platform right on schedule. I was grateful for the help I received at the platform because only the last two cars on the train were headed to Bulgaria, and my ticket hadn't indicated that. (I'm all for unexpected adventures, but I'm just as glad to have avoided that one.) I had a six seat compartment all to myself, and once I discovered how far the seats recline I began to catch up on some of the sleep I'd lost the night before. It's 231 km between the two cities, but it's a six and a half hour journey by train.
I didn't sleep the whole way. In Greece, every stop was announced (always reassuring), so I got a series of mental snapshots of small Greek towns nestled in the mountains. These mountains got progressively higher and steeper as we moved north -- Bulgaria has the highest peaks in the Balkans. The first stop just across the border saw two officers board the train: one Greek, and one Bulgarian. They conducted a brief interview, collected passports, and headed back to their respective offices to stamp them. (The passport stamps I've collected so far have been very boring, all following the same EU template.)
On arriving in Sofia, I was greeted on the platform by a smiling individual who offered to "help" me. I carefully did not tell him which hostel I was staying at and brushed away his suggestion of a taxi. As I hadn't changed any Euros, he paid the 50 cents for me to use the toilet in the train station. That business taken care of, I followed him up to the ground floor, where I bought some Bulgarian Lev. When I handed him the 50 cent piece and thanked him, he asked for money. "Information isn't free!" Well, actually... He vanished pretty quickly after I threatened to call the cops - I'd noticed several around the station.
Once I was outdoors, I fired up my GPS app and discovered the hostel is just a two kilometre walk from the station along a major boulevard. I was checked in soon after. Hostel Mostel is quite an impressive place. The rooms aren't quite as nice as the hostel in Thessaloniki, but the showers are better. I signed up for the day trip to Rila Monastery set for Friday and then began composing my Thessaloniki update.
The next day, three of us hopped into the car which had been arranged by the hostel and settled in for the two hour ride. We actually drove past the monastery, making our first stop further up the narrow valley. After parking, it was a short hike up a narrow path to the cave where the 10th century hermit John (or Ioan, or Ivan) lived for twelve years. There is now a small chapel just outside the cave, where he is buried. (It was locked.) We were able to climb up into the saint's cave from a small passage beside the chapel, and then up and out again through a very narrow opening in the roof. Pious tradition holds that people who do this leave their sins behind them in the cave - perhaps they're scraped off by the walls. I'd certainly have had difficulty fitting through at the start of my pilgrimage, but I'm much more svelte now.
From there it was back to the monastery, this time for a visit. The first monastic settlement dates to the 10th century, and was established by the disciples who had gathered around St John. It has played a central role in the history of the Bulgarian people since that time, although most of what is now standing dates to the 19th century. Our driver told us that there are about twenty monks still living there, in a facility built for fifteen times that number plus guests. Each year the monastery receives nearly one million visitors, so in spite of the peaceful surroundings, it must be a madhouse during the tourist season. (There were at most a few dozen visitors while we were there.)
Back at the hostel, I pecked away a bit more at the Thessaloniki update, but over dinner got to talking to two American guys. After several hours of conversation, I finally excused myself and headed up to my room. I was surprised at how stiff I had become, but as the evening progressed I realised I was getting sick - the muscles aching, chills, fever, and headache kind of sick. I've been hit with this a very few times in my life, generally only after weeks of extreme physical exertion. (Hmmm, what could have caused it this time?) Past experience has taught me that, while unpleasant, it's not serious, and recovery is a matter of a few days.
Saturday morning the aches were much worse - I felt as if someone had been beating me with a broom handle all night. I had breakfast at the hostel, and crawled back into bed as soon as I could. That afternoon, the chills began, and for the next twelve hours I slept fitfully, alternating between shaking violently with the cold and sweating copiously. Eventually I remembered I had a packet of cold and flu medication (the type that is dissolved in hot water), and that helped ease the pain and the coughing. On Sunday I dragged myself out of the hostel to the pharmacy conveniently located next door. It was only when I saw it was shut that I realized what day of the week it was. The hostel staff phoned someone who would be passing a 24 hour pharmacy on her way in to work, and she picked up more of the magic drink mix for me. The fever finally broke Sunday afternoon, but I only left my room for breakfast and dinner, spending the rest of my time horizontal on my bunk. I did keep working on the (by now very long) update about Thessaloniki, but I was so tired and weak it took a loooong time to finish. I did get to know two of the guys in my dorm over dinner - Adrian had just finished a semester of studies in Istanbul and is making his way home to Berlin, while Pau is on his way to Thessaloniki to meet up with some friends and then visit Mount Athos.
By Monday (today, as I type this), I was feeling much better. Still weak, but the aches and fever were gone. After breakfast I went back to bed for a few hours and then, along with Adrian and Pau and several others, took a free walking tour of Sofia. It lasted about two hours, and we even saw the sun from time to time. After that, I visited the Basilica of Agia Sofia, a 6th century three-aisled cruciform church built on the site of a 4th century church. The archaeological display in the crypt was closed (it's Monday!) so next I walked to the nearby St Alexander Nevski Cathedral and lit a candle for a friend who is undergoing a mastectomy in Canada today. Until very recently, this was the largest cathedral in the Balkans. It's big and impressive, and apparently can hold 10,000 people. The crypt houses a very large icon collection, which I intend to visit on a day that doesn't start with the letter M.
By this time, I had been on my feet for three hours, and I was starting to feel a little tired. On the way back to the hostel, I stopped at a restaurant and had a very tasty and filling lunch and headed back to bed for the rest of the afternoon. I've booked an extra three nights in the hostel, so I can ease back into walking around gradually before taking up my backpack and striking out for Istanbul.