Although I was born in Bulgaria, and now traveling the world, I discovered that looking to the far countries, I didn’t know enough about my own country. But sometimes we have to be a long time abroad, looking to our motherlands from far away. There are some things of our motherlands that only by this way we can discover.
So this time I decided to “visit my own country as a foreign tourist”. Starting from Plovdiv, which is my home city and a traveler’s treasure, I made my first trip around Bulgaria to its west corners. There is the highest mountain in the country and whole Balkans- Rila (Рила) mountain, with its highest peak Musala (2925 m). It’s a mountain, full of dark forests, deep valleys, glacier lakes and alpine peaks. The higher areas of Rila are a paradise for those, who like trekking, as I like too. And the lower areas hide some real treasure, including a historic and cultural side of this place, best presented by the Eastern Orthodox pearl- Rila monastery (Рилски манастир).
There is a road that goes around Rila mountain, and when we arrived at its western side, we turned left, on Rila’s longest valley, straight to this famous monastery. The road soon entered the valley and we proceeded slowly ascending deep inside the mountain, passing by Orthodox churches, small hotels, and roadside restaurants. Soon we arrived at the monastery, surrounded mysteriously by the steep slopes of Rila valley.
We stopped in front of a high wall and an arc-shaped entrance through it. There was a large outer arc, and an Orthodox-style painting of Jesus and two angels on His both side. Further inside the wall we passed through a smaller middle arc, finally through the inner arc, and entered the large monastery yard. What revealed in front of us, was like a journey back to the history. There were a big church and a Middle ages tower beside it. These two buildings stand on a stone floor, surrounded by a four-floor monastery residential part, which formed the same wall that we passed through. Some Orthodox priests were walking around. Despite the wandering tourists, everything was silent, like a mystic tale from somewhere in an ancient time.
Rila monastery is the largest monastery of Bulgaria and one of the largest Orthodox monasteries in the world. It is located in Rila valley, on 1140 m altitude, deep between Northwest Rila range and Brichebor range.
Its history dates back more than 1000 years ago. There was a man, called Ivan of Rila (Ivan Rilski, Иван Рилски). He was born in 876 AD, near the border between today’s Bulgaria and Macedonia (North Macedonia). First, he was a herder but later became a church priest. Soon he became different than other priests and start looking for solitude, but without cutting his relations with the people. He started living in an uncomfortable style, in various remote places, until finally, he arrived in Rila mountain. At that time Rila valley was wild and uninhabited, so he found a cave there (a little further behind the today’s monastery) and lived there until the end of his life. He was known to have disciples, who were spreading his Christian teaching. Also, he was famous for the miracles that God made by him.
One day the rumor about him reached the capital of the Bulgarian empire Preslav, and its king Peter I. He made a long trip to Rila mountain to meet with Ivan, looking for advice how to rule over the kingdom. But when he arrived at Ivan’s cave, he found that it is inaccessible, and Ivan refused to meet him face to face, trying to avoid the temptation of fame. So he just bowed to the king from distance, the king sent gifts by a soldier, including food, gold, and many other precious things. But Ivan accepted only a small portion of the food. He returned the gold, saying that the gold belongs to the kings, to rule their kingdoms and care for the poor people.
After Ivan’s death, his disciples built many churches and the first version of today’s Rila monastery. The monastery prospered during the next few centuries, kings made visits and sent gifts to it, until the 14th century.
It was just before the Ottoman Turks’ invasion to Bulgaria, when a local feudal lord, called Hrelja (Хрелю), and served mainly to the king of Serbia, built a tower inside the monastery- it was the tower that we saw beside the church- the tallest building of the complex. Then, a few decades later, the Ottoman Turks came and destroyed most of its buildings, during few raids in the area.
However, soon after that, a new age for the monastery began. A woman, called Sultana Mara Brankovic (Султана Мара Бранкович), a daughter of a Serbian king, later a concubine in the harem of Sultan Murad II of the Ottoman Empire, made a donation for restoring the monastery, along with the Russian Orthodox church. Three brothers of the nearby Dupnica region used this donation to rebuild the monastery. Although it was under Islamic Ottoman rule during the next few centuries, Rila monastery was in peace. Only in the 19th century, it was devastated by fire, but soon after that quickly restored.
From these old times, until now, Rila monastery has become the most important Bulgarian Orthodox monastery complex, and a popular tourist destination. Nevertheless, its mystery, beauty, and silence, combined with the wild mountain landscape around, remain until now.
THE MAIN CHURCH
So, we entered the main entrance, and the first building that stood in front of us was the Main church. It was not too old, being built in the 19th century, but as the all other buildings of the complex, very beautifully decorated. It was very silent inside, as in every Orthodox church. There we saw its gold-plated iconostasis, and a lot of frescoes, made by professional Bulgarian masters. And outside we saw the Mamluk style porticos and a small fountain beside them.
Then we went to the neighboring building- Hrelyova tower (Хрельова кула). It was the oldest survived building of the monastery. We entered inside on steep narrow stairs, in the silent darkness of the tower’s interior. We climb few floors, seeing a Middle Ages warrior’s armor inside, then few painting’s reproductions, reaching the highest floor, where the original paintings on the walls are protected. The tower served as a protection for the monks, treasure cache, as well as jail and isolation for mentally ill people. There were narrow windows, through which we could see the monastery complex from above.
THE RESIDENTIAL PART
Built like a fortress, with its high walls outside, the Residential part has four floors, 300 chambers, four chapels, an abbot’s room and a kitchen with enormously large vessels. It’s beautifully decorated in white-black stripes and is home of the monks and priest living here. We couldn’t enter inside, it was closed for tourists, although we saw few of them going out from there.
And as a part of it, there was
It has a rich collection of historic relics related with the monastery. But most famous of them is the Rafail’s cross. It was made by a whole piece of wood, by a monk called Rafail (Рафаил). He worked on it about 12 years in the 19th century and made a rich masterpiece of carvings, using magnifying lenses and fine burins.
FURTHER TO KIRILOVA POLYANA
Then we finished our walk in the monastery. But the mystery of Rila valley doesn’t end here. So we proceeded further inside the mountain, gradually ascending. We passed by few small relic places, where Ivan Rilski is said to have lived and buried, and after few road curves arrived in Kirilova polyana (Кирилова поляна). Its a meadow beside Rila river, surrounded by three high and steep slopes- of Malyovica range, Brichebor, and Vodni rid. Here the altitude is 1450 m already and spruce forest replaces the low mountain woods. There are only a few mountain huts for rest, as well as picnic sites here. From this point, the Orthodox area ends, and the high mountain hiking zone begins. Further, against the river flow the road becomes dirt until 1850 m altitude, then turns into a path, which ascends to Fish lakes (Ribni ezera, Рибни езера) circus, at 2320 m altitude, above the forest zone, in the heart of Rila mountain.
But we planned our further Rila trip for the next time. This time we had to back down to the lowlands, proceeding to other interesting places in Bulgaria.
HOW TO GO THERE
Rila valley with its famous monastery is one of the more tourist-developed places in Bulgaria. If you want to visit and explore it, there are a few ways to do it.
– By car. For those, who are not interested in mountain hiking, traveling by your own or rental car, is the most convenient and comfortable way to visit Rila valley. The main road is branching from the highway from Sofia to Greece, there is a sign directing to Rila monastery (Rilski manastir), and you have to drive 34 km to the monastery itself, and more 5 km to Kirilova polyana.
– By public transport. It’s not so convenient since there is only 1 bus from Sofia at 10:20 am, which arrives at the monastery at 13:00. It waits there 2 hours and leaves the monastery back to Sofia at 15:00. However, there are few other buses from Blagoevgrad (7:00, 12:00 and 15:00, back 8:10 and 17:00) and Dupnica. It’s convenient if you want to proceed hiking from Rila monastery or Kirilova polyana, crossing the surrounding mountain ranges and exit from the mountain on its other side.
– Trekking. Rila monastery is located on trekking route junction. There are few starting trekking points- Dupnica, Sapareva banya, Klisura through Seven lakes and Govedarci through Malyovica. These routes cross Northwest Rila range and descend right to the monastery. From the monastery, you can proceed to ascend deep into Rila valley to Fish lakes (Ribni ezera), Kobilino branishte pass or Iliyna river to the south.
There are a lot of small hotels and guesthouses throughout the whole Rila valley. You can see few roadside hotels, relatively cheap, 20 to 30 EUR per room. There is a complex Eleshnica, few km before Rila monastery. But one of the best accommodation options is to sleep in the monastery itself. There is a monk style hotel in the Residential part, next to the museum and you can sleep there for 20 leva (10 EUR) per person, and one night there is a really worth to try.
Further, in the valley you can find rooms in Kirilova polyana– the best of them is the family hotel “At Uncle Kiro” (Pri Chicho Kiro, При Чичо Киро), for 40 and 45 leva per room in summer. And the last accommodation place on the valley is Ribni ezera chalet. There are camping places too, mostly in the upper sections of the valley, in Kirilova polyana and above.
Check out your accommodation in Rila Monastery and the nearby area：
BEST TIME TO VISIT RILA AND ITS MONASTERY
For different people, the best season can be different. Winter is snowy, in the high areas of the mountain the snow can stay until May and even later. There is an avalanche danger in some place. The lower areas are covered by snow too, including Rila monastery. Spring comes gradually from low to high altitude. In my opinion, the most beautiful season for Rila monastery is the end of May, when the new leaves are fresh and the meadows are deep green, full of flowers. September and October are beautiful too when the leaves of the forest mix in various colors from yellow to red and green. But for trekking in the high areas of the mountain at the end of July, August and September are the best. Unless you prefer winter trekking, requiring winter gear.
Rila mountain is a really amazing place. If you visit Bulgaria for the first time and want to follow a basic itinerary, Rila mountain with its Rila monastery is a must, being one of the landmarks of the country.
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