Of all the things I wanted to see on my trip to Bulgaria, I really had my heart set on just one: the Rila Monastery.
I’d seen photos of it everywhere, this magnificent monastery complex nestled in the mountains. And it definitely didn’t disappoint.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, and one of the main attractions in the whole country.
The tradition goes that the hermit St. Ivan of Rila founded Rila Monastery in order to live in spiritual perfection. The monastery was established in 927, and survived as a spiritual center for Bulgarian language and culture through both foreign rule, and several disasters and reconstructions.
The oldest building in the complex is Hreylo’s Tower (and the small church next to it) which cost 5 lev (~$2.80 USD) to see. The tower is named for a feudal Bulgarian lord who reestablished the monastery in its current location—the tower and church date from 1333-1334. I chose not to do this, but it is the oldest part of the monastery!
The real stunner is the main church, the Nativity of the Virgin, which was built after a fire ruined the residential quarters in 1833. Construction began in 1835. Tsar Boris III (who reigned from 1918-1943) is buried in the church.
The frescos of the main church are nothing short of magnificent.
The frescos show biblical scenes, the descent to hell, the creation of man, and so much more. The frescos were completed in 1846.
They don’t allow photos inside the church, but they frescos are just as beautiful (although the color isn’t quite as vibrant due to smoke from the incense).
I could have stayed here photographing these frescos all day!
The Rila Monastery History Museum is well worth the admission fee of 8 lev (~$4.40 USD), if only to see the amazing Rafail’s Cross. The cross is carved from a single piece of wood and has 650 figures carved into it. Again, photos weren’t allowed, but it was one of the major highlights of the monastery visit.
The Rila Monastery doubles as accommodation (mainly for pilgrims)—you can actually stay here! I heard somewhere that rooms were as low as 10 lev (~$5.50 USD) a night! I’m not sure how you would go about booking accommodation or what typical prices are, but if you’re hiking in the Rila Mountains, I can’t think of a better place to spend the night.
If you go, make sure you pop out the back and get some mekitsa from the window of the stone building. Mekitsa is basically deep fried dough, served with powdered sugar. It was so good, and apparently some of the best in Bulgaria is at the Rila Monastery! They also sell homemade yogurt with it, which I wasn’t the biggest fan of, but is traditionally how you eat it. I got mekitsa for a snack for three people (plus a yogurt) for 4 lev (~$2.20 USD).
I visited the Rila Monastery as a daytrip from the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia. I think the easiest way to get there is by the Rila Monastery Bus/Traventuria trip, which leaves Sofia (from just outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) at 9:00am. The tour also goes to Boyana (although I had visited independently the day before). I wasn’t that impressed with the actual tour—our group was far too large, and our guide didn’t seem to care that most group members couldn’t hear him or weren’t caught up. It cost 25€, which was fine since I really just wanted transportation to/from Sofia. I’d book this again just for the ease of transportation (and the bus had free wifi).
Visiting the Rila Monastery really was a dream come true. The monastery complex is magnificent, and definitely one place you can’t miss in Bulgaria!
Have you ever visited a monastery or another spiritual place? Share your experiences in the comments below!