As the realization dawned on me that the bus I would be sitting on for 3+ hours had no air conditioning and was equipped with windows that didn't open, I was pretty sure I was going to be miserable.
This fact was compounded by 90+ degree heat, a packed bus, and a chain-smoking driver who kept dozing off behind the wheel as we zoomed along on twisty, narrow mountain roads up in the Bulgarian mountains.
Did I say miserable? Perhaps “fearful for my life and sanity” is more like it.
Yes, it's true that the ride from Sofia to Rila Monastery was less than pleasant. In fact, it probably ranks up there as one of the worst bus rides of my life.
But the payoff?
TOTALLY WORTH IT.
It was in college that I first heard of Rila Monastery.
It was mentioned in one of my favorite books, “The Historian,” which weaves real history together with a modern-day vampire tale. That book was about 99 percent responsible for my desire to go to Eastern Europe in the first place. Even before I had made concrete plans for my summer trip to Europe, I knew that Bulgaria was going to be included, just so I could visit Rila.
The monastery (which is officially called the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila) is the largest and most well-known Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Pilgrims and tourists come from all over the world to visit its painted church, arch-laden residential buildings, and museum. The surrounding mountain scenery is an added bonus.
The current monastery complex isn't actually all that old by European standards, but its namesake, the hermit Saint Ivan of Rila, lived in a nearby cave in the mountains in the 900s AD. The early monastic buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1833, and reconstructed over the next 30 years.
Today, the site is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As soon as we arrived (and kissed the ground after that harrowing bus ride), I could immediately understand why this spot has been recognized by UNESCO.
The World Heritage organization recognizes Rila Monastery as “A characteristic example of the Bulgarian Renaissance (18th–19th centuries),” noting that “the monument symbolizes the awareness of a Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation.”
And what cultural identity there is!
Visiting Rila Monastery
The highlights of visiting Rila Monastery definitely are the courtyard and the Church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno with its yellow domes and exterior frescoes.
As you can see in my photos, when I say “exterior frescoes,” I mean exterior frescoes! The outside of the church is covered in striking, saturated frescoes. They were painted in the mid-1800s by a handful of Bulgarian artists, with the most famous being the Zograf brothers.
At first glance they look cheery, but you can find some pretty disturbing images, too, if you look closely.
These are contrasted by the serene, relaxed atmosphere that envelops the whole place. This is, after all, still a working monastery along with being a tourist attraction.
Along with touring the main church at Rila, you can also visit the Ecclesiastical & Historical Museum and the Icon Gallery, and grab lunch at the Restaurant Drushlyavitsa (just outside Rila Monastery's Samokov gate) or Rila Restaurant (part of the Tsarev Vrah hotel).
If you're staying overnight, there's also excellent hiking in the surrounding Rila Mountains.
Rila Monastery Tours
If you want to take a tour from Sofia (and avoid that terrible bus ride!), here are some options:
IF YOU GO…
Thinking of visiting Rila Monastery yourself? Here are some tips for your visit:
Getting there – If you don't have a car yourself and don't want to take a guided trip, the easiest (but not most pleasant) way to reach Rila Monastery is by public bus from Sofia. The ride takes roughly 3 hours one-way, with one bus transfer in the village of Rila. The tricky part is, there's only one bus per day from Sofia (leaving around 10:20 a.m.), and only one bus back (around 3 p.m.).
Pricing – Entry to Rila Monastery is free! The museum, however, requires a small entry fee. And donations, of course, are also accepted.
What to wear – Rila is still a functioning monastery, so modesty should be observed out of respect for the monks who call the place home. No mini skirts or short-shorts are permitted, and both men and women should cover their shoulders when entering the church. If you're deemed to be too exposed to enter the church, there are some cover-ups available for you to use.
Taking photos – You can take all the photos you want in the courtyard and of the frescoes on the outside of the church. Photos are NOT permitted, however, inside the church, the residential parts of the monastery, or the museum.
Where to stay – If you don't want to cram everything into one day, there are very basic, hostel-style rooms available to rent at the monastery. There's also the Hotel Tsarev Vrah just outside the monastery gates, which also offers very simple rooms. You can also look for hotels in Rila.
Just like the rest of Bulgaria, Rila Monastery isn't a place many people outside of Eastern Europe visit (yet). But I promise it's a site well worth the effort!
Would YOU want to visit Rila Monastery?
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*Note: I visited Rila Monastery as part of a complimentary 18-day “Eastern Europe Explorer” tour with Intrepid Travel. But all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.