There are many places in Bulgaria that are worth visiting, but there is one in particular that I consider imperative to visit at least once in a lifetime. I am speaking of the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s most famous and largest monastery, tucked between the Rila Mountains, 100 km south of Sofia.
I had just returned from summer vacation in Portugal and my mother had finally decided to visit me. I wasn’t really expecting it. It was probably an out of the blue kind of thing that made her change her mind. However, my work schedule wasn’t going to allow me to hang out with her that much, so we wanted to choose a nice destination, not very far from Sofia. That’s how we chose Rila.
My plan was the following:
1 – Drive to the Rila Monastery in the morning and spend the day there.
2 – Spend the night in Sapareva Banya or in one of the surrounding villages.
3 – Hike the Seven Rila Lakes on the second day and return to Sofia.
As initially planned, I drove south on I-1 Road, the exact same road and direction you’d take if you were to travel to Greece, and in less than 2 hours we had reached our destination, the spectacular Rila Monastery.
Rila Monastery was founded by the hermit Ivan of Rila in the 10th Century and rebuilt later during the first half of the 14th Century, after a devastating fire. In 1983 it was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site and nowadays it is one of the most visited holy sites in the Balkans.
Parking at the front costs 4 BGN and you can stay for as long as you wish, but if you’re willing to save, you can also park on the side of the road for free. Entrance to the monastery complex and the main church is free of charge. The main entrance, decorated with beautiful colorful frescoes is located right next to the parking lot.
The walls of the monastery were built in the shape of an irregular polygon. It resembles a fortress more than a monastery. Inside those walls, you’ll find the main church Nativity of the Virgin Mother, the four-story residential complex, a post office, a library, souvenir shops, the Tower of Hrelyo and a small chapel adjacent to it and, two museums, the Icon Museum and the Monastery Museum.
Nativity of the Virgin Mother is the name given to the main church, located at the center of the complex. The combination of its black, red and white striped façade and its golden domes is astonishing. Not only on the outside, but the inside is also quite interesting with its colorful frescoes that date back to the 14th Century. It is definitely one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful monuments.
Similar to the church, the residential complex that surrounds the courtyard is also painted in black, red and white stripes, combined with dark-brown roofs and balconies. Over the last decades the population of Rila Monastery has decreased, and nowadays only about 60 people inhabit this complex.
I visited both the Icon Museum and the Monastery History Museum. In order to visit the former, you’ll be charged an admission fee of 3 BGN. It is very small and there’s not much to see, just a few pictures of religious icons, as the name suggests. However, the Monastery Museum is larger and has a richer exhibition. There is an admission fee of 8 BGN, and inside you’ll find interesting cultural and ethnographic items, just like Rafail’s Cross, an antique wooden crucifix named after the monk who worked on it for 12 years.
Hrelyo’s Tower is the oldest building to be found in the complex. The 23-meter high stone tower dates back to the years of 1334-1335 and it is named after Stefan Dragovol, a feudal lord from northeastern Macedonia, responsible for the construction of the Rila Monastery after the fire. The Chapel of the Transfiguration of Christ is located on the tower’s top floor, and it can be visited for the admission fee of 5 BGN.
There is an archway at the northern wall connecting the courtyard to a nice area behind the monastery where a little stream runs. There you’ll also find several restaurants, souvenir shops and Hotel Tzarev Vrah.
In a matter of hours our visit to the monastery was over. We still tried to adventure ourselves through the only road going deeper into the forest but we ended up at a dead end. It was now time to get back on the road towards Sapareva Banya, where we were going to spend the night before hiking the Seven Rila Lakes.