I had been a houseguest of my new friend in Bulgaria for several days, when he hinted that he might or might not work for a well-known intelligence agency referred to by three letters. CIA or KGB? To prove he was a real American, he sang an old TV jingle. In retrospect, he strongly resembled Bulgarian-American Cult Leader David Koresh, and maybe it was him. He also offered to take me on a tour of the legendary Bachkovo Monastery.
“Christianity in Bulgaria is a little different,” my new comrade offered sotto voce, with a mysterious smile parting his beard. “It’s kind of a mix between Christianity and Paganism!” With this in mind the next day, I accompanied him on a series of bus rides, filled with Gypsys wearing outlandish garb, until we found ourselves in the wide valley leading to Bachkovo. Founded in 1083, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After tramping a while, I asked if we could head back. There was something odd about the vast gorge that gave me the willies. We paused while the alleged spook located a stone sculpture he had made then left behind on a previous trip. He commented, apropos of nothing, “Did you know that some people think Eastern Orthodox monks can walk through mountains?”
And so we began to go uphill, until we came across a small fountain for washing our feet. There we ran into some other pilgrims treading the shining path with icon eyes blazing. They said something to us, which my new bud translated as “The Truth!”
Entering the monastery door into a cobbled courtyard, we saw some frescos depicting torments of hell. At the Sveta Bogoroditsa chapel built in 1604, we admired a Georgian icon of the Virgin, which our international man of mystery commented on with demonic cheer, “Looks like it’s from outer space, doesn't it?”
Indeed, all the Byzantine mosaics and frescos had figures with golden-halo helmets and otherworldly pagan robes. Black-clad Bulgarian monks swung censers to “drive away evil spirits.” On the walls, I also noticed the little eyes in pyramids, which many believe to be Masonic symbols. The Cyrillic alphabet, still used in Russia and many other places, was invented somewhere in these parts by Bulgarian monks Cyril and Methodius. At times resembling Latin, the Cyrillic Alphabet is occasionally decipherable. For example, Bulgarian BAP means BAR.
After admiring this old witchcrafty church, we took a lengthy hike to a remote shrine, which would have been impossible to find without my guide. Going up a steep hill, we came across an ancient picture of Christ in a cracked glass frame. I began noticing bits of rags tied to the tree branches. “What are those for?” I asked.
Suddenly, an old babushka crone came out of nowhere—yes, cackling. “The Baba, the Baba!” my associate laughed cryptically, as the woman ascended the hill with a gnarled wooden cane. “A witch!” he hissed. “There’s something I want you to see,” he continued, pulling me into a chapel. Inside, there was an ancient Christ Pantocrator painted on the ceiling like a peace sign and a prayer niche with a velvet curtain in front of it.
“Can I borrow your camera? There’s something scary here!” He shot a photo into the recess and a blinding flash shot back. Thus, a priceless Manichaean fresco was illuminated.
“What the f-!” I have to admit I was quite startled by what we saw. You must go there yourself to experience it. Let’s just say, there was an ancient heresy in Bulgaria around the 10th century called the Bogomils, who believed the world was created by Satan.
* * *
Back in town at a Thracian excavation site, we wondered why there was noone to protect the ruins from plunderers. Thracians, who practiced an orgiastic free-love linked to the wine god Dionysus, were greatly skilled archers and equestrians. One group called the Capnobatae (Smoke Treaders) got high on hemp seeds. I arranged a pile of Thracian phalluses, an archaeologist’s wet dream, and snapped a photo. I was really digging Thrace.
“You can take some if you want,” spy and moral compass David Koresh assured me. “Except they’ll probably confiscate them at the airport.” Grabbing a phallus and inserting it into my (wait for it) daypack, I became an amateur looter and smuggler.
Boarding the train to leave Plovdiv for Istanbul, I noticed a tour group wearing T-shirts emblazoned “Florida Friendship Front.” I pointed this out to you know who. He laughed, “Let’s see, FFF: F is the sixth letter of the alphabet, so that's 666, the number of the Beast!” Way clever, but it spooked me a little. I hoped the train didn’t have some ulterior destination such as Danté's Inferno.
I waved goodbye and settled into my compartment and off went the train. Soon, there was a sudden crash! On impact, I went flying backward in my cabin. The bunk over my head slammed down like an accordion in a crowded beerhall. Or, a Balkan Jack-in-the-Box. Had I not been thrown backward, I would have been killed. The train had hit a truck and was now derailed.
Thanking my lucky stars, I got off the train as Turkish workmen grimaced, ran around like maniacs, and smoked cigarettes dangerously near leaking oil. Nobody seemed to know what to do. It was a fitting end to my mysterious trip through the Balkans. Eventually, a battered dolmus arrived and I pressed in like that big fan of Orpheus Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side. I was headed off with my secret stashed phallus into the Turkish part of Thrace, where Europe ends and Asia begins.
John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly, Salon.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.