Rila Monastery, a Bulgarian treasure

Rila Monastery

The one daytrip I really wanted to make from Sofia was to Rila Monastery. It’s one of the, if not the, Bulgarian site most touted when I was doing my pre-trip research. (Rila Monastery even made an appearance in an audiobook I enjoyed, Street Without a Name, by a Bulgarian woman who left Sofia as a teenager shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and returned years later to her much-changed country.)

Lots of tour companies offer day visits to the monastery from Sofia, many of them combining the monastery with a stop at Boyana Church, another UNESCO site. I settled on Traventuria, a company that operates mid-sized motor coaches from near the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church.

In less than an hour, we arrived at Boyana Church which didn’t open its doors for 15 minutes after our arrival. We stood outside the gates in the chilly morning as our guide explained a little about a war memorial in front of the church. Once inside, David and I opted to just take in the gardens and the exterior of the small medieval church. While the church is known for its frescoes and we admired the photos we saw of them, we didn’t feel particularly moved to pay the entry fee and be herded through in a group. I like to think of it as one of the luxuries of having traveled and seen so much; I don’t feel much pressure regarding the touted “must-sees” and “must-dos,” especially of the variety on offer at Boyana. (“Some of the best preserved frescoes in the Balkans” just didn’t pull that hard on my curiosity.) On the other hand, I guess there’s a little sadness, or at least inevitability, to that raised bar for interest that comes with age and experience.

Boyana Church and the grave of Queen Eleanora of Bulgaria

Leaving Boyana, we drove through fields, vineyards, and wooded mountains up to Rila Monastery. We arrived to beautiful weather, a gift given the weather forecast and the frequent chance of clouds and rain in the mountains. The entrance to the fortified monastery, through an arched gate and under a wide pair of antlers (lead photo), is entrancing. (There are two, nearly identical entrances to the monastery.) This place had my full attention. It was impossible not to just rotate in the spectacular courtyard, trying to take it all in. Four stories of residential apartments overlook the courtyard and surround a central church and square tower. We headed for the church, drawn by the eye-catching paintings covering the vaulted arches and walls of the striped portico. Too soon, our guide was assembling us in the courtyard for a history lecture. The stories were interesting and worth hearing, but it was hard not to be impatient to just go exploring.

Rila Monastery is located at 1300m (4200+ft) in the Rila Mountains. The monastery was founded near where Saint Ioan (Ivan or John), a 9-10th century ascetic monk, lived for twelve years in a cave and then for another seven years on bare rock in the open air. Saint Ioan is the preeminent Bulgarian saint and Rila Monastery is its preeminent monastery.

After visiting the interior of the church with our group and guide, we headed off on our own to the small museum which houses various religious artifacts along with the monastery’s prize treasure, the Cross of Rafail. The cross is made of a solid piece of wood (81×43 ccm). It is named after its creator, a monk named Rafail who carved 104 religious stages and 650 small figures into the wood, a process that took him more than 12 years. The work finished in 1802 when Rafail lost his eyesight.

Back outside, we discovered that our gorgeous day had given way to a downpour. It was actually beautiful to watch the rain pour off the surrounding buildings while we ate a picnic lunch (bought in Sofia on the advice of Traventuria whose tour info warned us that the only dining options were notoriously slow). We visited a surprisingly lavish period monk’s cell that even included an attached room for a novice/servant who cooked and cleaned for the monk.

When the rain passed, we spent our remaining time exploring the monastery courtyard, grounds, Hreliov’s tower (a defensive structure built in 1334-1335 and the oldest surviving building in the monastery), and impressive kitchen. The far room of the kitchen boasts a 20m tall, room-sized chimney of amazing construction that, along with enormous pots and utensils, converted the entire room into a giant cooking area.

Practical info:

The cost for the Traventuria 8-hour tour (9am-5pm) with English guide was €30pp and does not include the 10 lev entrance fee to the church or the entrance fees to the various for-pay sites (museum, kitchen, etc.) on the monastery grounds. Our guide’s English was decent, if not great. Pick-up and drop-off is available for a fee, but must be at a hotel with a 24-hour desk. If staying at an apartment, etc., guests need to meet Traventuria at a qualifying hotel. We walked to the meeting point since it wasn’t that far from our AirBnB apartment.

There are shared and private rides available to the monastery from Sofia as well as a public bus. Info on those is on the monastery website.

Entrance to the Rila Monastery and church is free. Entrance to the monastery church is 8 lev ($4.48 US). Entrance to the monastery kitchen was, I think, 3 lev ($1.68 US). Entrance to the Tower of Hrelio, Ethnografic museum, Bulgarian renaissance guestrooms and Monastery farm is 5 lev ($2.80 US).

It is possible to stay at the monastery, but this is geared primarily for people on pilgrimage. The monastery also owns a hotel. 150′ from the monastery.

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