The Rila Monastery is located about 70 miles south of Sofia, in the Rila Mountains. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get there on my own easily, so I join a tour leaving from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral early in the morning. I can’t resist one more picture of the cathedral in the early morning light.
It takes us about an hour to get to the monastery, and it’s worth it. This place is so bright and colorful, and I can’t wait to explore every inch.
The Rila Monestary was established in 927 as a place for students of Ivan of Rila to stay while they received their education. It was supported by the rulers of Bulgaria until the 15th century, when it was raided by the Ottoman Empire. Rebuilt shortly after, it became the keeper of Bulgarian culture during hundreds of years of foreign rule. It was even a hideout for Vasil Levski and his companions in the mid-1800’s while he organized his plans to free Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. Today, it is still a working monastery and was visited by Pope John Paul in 2002.
The church is located in the center of the complex, surrounded by the living quarters. Once again, photography is not allowed inside the church, but the frescos on the ceilings outside are impressive.
We have a couple hours here to explore on or own so I wander around, taking pictures of everything from every angle. There really isn’t a bad view to be had.
Just outside the monastery is a little cafe where I have lunch. The menu is traditionally Bulgarian, and I order a kind of beef stew and some wine. It’s delicious. At one point, one of the girls on my tour joins me and we talk for awhile. She is from Israel and she’s only in Bulgaria for a few days before she has to head home. We exchange travel stories and the time passes quickly.
Back inside the monastery, I climb to the top of the bell tower to see the views from above. It’s a steep climb, but worth it!
This spot cracked me up. It’s an old toilet, but why is there so much light coming from it?
Turns out, it empties out onto the ground below. I sure wouldn’t want to walk around here back when this toilet was in use!
After our couple hours are up, it’s time to head back to Sofia. But we have one more stop on the way, at the Boyana Church. The main structure was built in about the 10th century and added on to in the 13th and 19th centuries. It’s very plain looking from the outside, but inside (again, no photos allowed) are the remains of some of the best preserved medieval art in the Balkans.
Entry is timed and people are only allowed in for 15 minutes at a time. The temperature and light allowed inside is strictly control to preserve the paintings. It’s a quick stop, and unless you have an interest in medieval art, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to come here, but since it’s included in the Rila Monastery tour, it was definitely worth a quick stop on the way back to town.
Back in Sofia, I meet up with Todor for dinner at a Bulgarian chain restaurant (started in Varna, as Maggie has made sure to tell me) named Happy. The fare is pretty similar to any Chili’s or Applebee’s you would find in the US – burgers, fries, salads and any number of foods you could ever want. While we eat, we watch the nightly protests march by. They protest every night, and it’s more like a parade with loud drums and whistles and people chanting. I ask Todor about it, and he says they are protesting the current government. You can read more about it here. After dinner, it’s time for bed. I have an early morning bus to Plovdiv to catch!