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New Europe

Day Thirty-one: The Rila Mountains

Michael Palin - New EuropeI'm woken at half past five this morning, but I didn't need to be. I've been mentally marking off the minutes for almost an hour. It may be summer in the Balkans but in my tent, beneath clear skies and on a mountainside 7,500 feet up, the cold comes as an unwelcome shock.

There are some thousand people camped around me and I'm already worrying about how we're all going to fit into five toilets. Struggle to dress and clamber out of the tent. And there are all my neighbours of the night, huddled beside calor gas lamps or heading down the hill by torchlight towards what's laughingly called the bathroom block. It was dark when we arrived here yesterday evening, by four-wheel drive along the near-vertical course of a dried-up stream and then by horseback, so I've little idea of quite where we are. All I know is that it's a place special enough to be chosen for the annual coming-together of the White Brotherhood, a non-drinking, non-smoking community of vegetarians who follow the teachings of one Peter Deunov, whom they call The Master, and on whom the Spirit of God descended on 7 March 1897.

I try to find out a little more but it isn't easy. A tall, long-haired rangy figure in the tent next to me is a doctor, who gives off the irritating air of someone who knows more than I ever will, however hard I try.

Are you all members of the Brotherhood, I ask. He reproves me quite sharply. Of course not. They're not members of anything. More tentatively I ask if their choice of this place is an expression of their religion. Wrong again. They are not a religion.

'Our Master said,' and here he fixes me with ominously clear eyes, 'with paneurythmy I give you a weapon, it is for you to use it right.'

There is no time for me to ask what the hell paneurythmy is as everyone is getting up and heading up the mountain to greet the sunrise.

Sartorially, the White Brotherhood is a bit of a let-down. Most of my fellow
sun-greeters are in anoraks and windcheaters of every shade but white. We congregate on the edge of a rocky bluff. Hundreds of us clinging to whatever foothold we can find. As J-P, our director, observes, it's like a human puffin sanctuary.

Unlike in the tents last night, there is almost total silence. A reverent hush. Light slowly fills the sky to reveal a dramatic landscape. Directly below us a rocky slope falls away to a lake. Beyond that a panorama of interlocking mountain spurs stretches as far as the eye can see. A thin mist rises as if the whole land has been freshly baked.

Looking up at the faces around me I'm reminded of the Easter Island statues. Grave and passionless faces all turned to the horizon. Then, slowly, right hands
are raised, palms open, directed at the new light. When the sun is fully risen the hands are lowered and for the first time there are sounds from the multitude: prayers, low chants, people reading from texts, some thin music.

I'm as glad to see the sun as they are, and my mood is transformed as it illuminates the full glory of the place they call Sedemte Ezera, Seven Lakes, the spectacular heart of the Rila Mountains.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-one: The Rila Mountains
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Rila Mountains
  • Book page no: 74

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