Friday, 14 February 2014

Not just Valentine's Day

In Britain, today (14 Feb) is best known as St Valentine's Day, but it's also St Trifon's Day - a celebration of all things wine-related in Bulgaria. Here's a short excerpt about visiting St Trifon's cathedral in Kotor in Montenegro five years ago

The temperature kept us on the move. Constructed of pale limestone worn to a shine, the buildings and pavements reflected the sun’s heat back at us, and even the shadowed alleys, which ran between the old town squares like the filigrees of solder connecting transistors on a circuit board, were stifling. It was a dry, static heat, untempered by a breeze or the mixed blessing of humidity. We tried to shelter from it in one small church after another, but most of Kotor’s many places of worship were closed and we ended up wandering from locked medieval door to locked medieval door until we reached the largest building: the twin-towered Catholic cathedral of St Trifon. Here, in the porch, stallholders sold rosaries, pictures of Our Lady and crude metal trinkets, much as pardoners had sold indulgences in the Middle Ages. The door was open, though, and inside, amongst tall columns which looked too slender to support the vaulted ceiling, the air was cool. Several idiosyncratic monuments embellished the nave: a statue of a pilgrim with a gaping sore in his leg (St Trifon’s powers extended to miraculous healing); a stone chest which held the remains of the cathedral’s ninth-century founders; and a glass case containing a mummified nun whose face had been hidden behind a ghoulish plastic mask. The reliquary proper was up a flight of stairs. This was where the church kept its most precious treasures: a large stained wooden crucifix, the almost inevitable splinter of the True Cross and the skull of St Trifon himself, which, even though the sainted healer had been executed in distant Nicaea, had somehow ended up in Kotor, presumably in the luggage of a returning crusader. A number of mobile plinths attested to the fact that the church regularly paraded these relics through the streets. At the foot of the stairs, someone had pinned up some photographs from the previous year’s Nativity play. Three small boys wore large fluffy cotton wool beards, simultaneously impersonating the Magi and gently parodying the hirsute local clergy. A notice stated that the cathedral had been founded in 809, but had only been completed in 2008. The building’s history of construction, destruction and reconstruction was more complex, however. Although there had been a Catholic church on the site in 809, this had been replaced by a much larger cathedral in the twelfth century, which, in turn, had been destroyed or severely damaged by a number of earthquakes. The most recent of these seismic assaults had hit in 1979. Its epicentre had been in the south, close to Ulcinj and Bar, but it had caused devastation along the entire Montenegrin coast. The old towns in both Kotor and Budva had been flattened, and it was presumably the restoration work St Trifon’s needed after this particular cataclysm which had only been finished in 2008. Ornate and impressive as the cathedral was, not even the slowest of architects and stonemasons could have taken nearly 1,200 years to build it from scratch.

From 'Not Nearly So Far', Tom Phillips

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