People fervently hope for miracles to cure illnesses and fulfill needs as thousands of candles and the lighted crosses of a dozen tiny chapels dot the chilly nightscape at Krastova Gora, a holy site high up in Bulgaria's Rhodope mountains.
"I've had a stroke. That's why I came here. For help!" said Yanko Dimitrov, 65, one of the many who have come to the sacred site.
AdvertisementEvery weekend, crowds of believers and non-believers converge on the hills around here to pray for healing miracles for themselves and their loved ones.
But the big day is September 14 -- the Orthodox Christian feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. According to local legend, spending the night out here on the eve of the feast can do miracles and cure all illness.
"One must have faith... Without faith, there's no life," Dimitrov told AFP, stirring with difficulty in a makeshift bed by the main church.
Hardly able to walk, he nevertheless travelled some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the central region of Veliko Tarnovo with his wife.
Mariana Vladova, 51, recovering from a complicated brain surgery, brought along a friend with muscle function loss after a stroke, hoping to help her regain her health and spirit.
"I am no devout believer, you know. But the first time I came here I saw with my own eyes the face of Jesus forming in the sky over the big chapel," she said.
Over 1,000 people come to these hills every year on the eve of September 14, each with their own pains and prayers: childless couples, mothers hugging sickly babies, wheelchair-bound youngsters and limping elderly people, as well as many ordinary believers.
"Everyone has something to pray for," Milka Dakova, 27, from the northwestern town of Montana said while playing with her two-year-old son on a picnic cloth besides the car-lined road.
It takes about an hour to hike up to the main church, while the very sick can be brought through by car. But the road is usually jammed.
At 1,545 metres (5,070 feet) above sea level, the autumn night can be chilly so pilgrims bring along anything to keep them from the cold, from cheap plastic sheets and blankets to sleeping bags, tents and even folding beds.
"We have been coming here every year for the past 12 years and will come as long as we live to wish health for us and our children and grandchildren," a retired couple said on their way up.
"The magic of this place makes us feel well," they added, remembering how the fog cleared and the rain stopped one year just for the feast's night mass, with clouds returning once the priest's chanting had seized to resound.
The site was apparently uncovered in 1933 when a strongly religious man from the nearby village of Borovo saw a cross of light in the sky over the hills, and had a vision telling him there used to be a monastery there that held remains of the Holy Cross on which Jesus was crucified.
After Evdokia, the frail sister of Bulgarian King Boris III, said she felt great relief from spending the night out there, the grateful monarch commissioned a metal cross to adorn the mystic hill.
A small chapel was then built as the fame of Krastova Gora -- Bulgarian for "forest of the cross" -- spread, and a growing number of miraculous healing stories started to circulate.
Even under communism, when atheism was imposed and church-going was taboo, locals helped desperate people smuggle their sick children up forest paths to the sacred site.
When the regime fell in 1989, the painful economic transition, rising unemployment and ailing healthcare system steered people back to the churches, and renewed interest in the site prompted the construction of a church, 12 small chapels for each of the apostles and a monastery.
But now, more and more people come simply out of curiosity, and smoking grills, cheap souvenir stalls and curative herb sellers have moved in with the crowds.
"It just seemed an interesting place to visit," said Radostina Simonova, who arrived on an organised tour.
"I've heard about the huge power of this place to cure diseases. Maybe it can also make dreams come true!" she said, while preparing to sleep under the stars.