UNESCO World Heritage Site #37: Rila Monastery (Bulgaria)

“[W]hen I came into this wilderness of Rila, I found no man over here, but only wild animals and impenetrable thickets. I settled alone in it among the wild animals, without food nor shelter, but the sky was my shelter and the earth my bed and the herbs my food. But the good Lord, for the love of whom I disregarded everything and endured hunger and thirst, frost, the heat of the sun, and corporal nakedness, did not abandon me, but like a merciful and child-loving father he lavishly satisfied all my needs.”

The Testament of St. John of Rila

The Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church at Rila Monastery, a brightly painted church contracted of stone and wood.
The Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church at Rila Monastery, a brightly painted church contracted of stone and wood.

My Visit

The city of Sofia, Bulgaria sits in the middle of the Balkan peninsula, on a plain under the solitary Mount Vitosha. Rila Monastery is a two-hour drive south, up into the sublime Rila Mountains.  The monastery, also translated as Rilki Manastir, sits isolated in the mountains and next to an arm of the Rilski river. The air is mountain air, stray dogs play at the entrance and make their way inside, and everywhere is the sound of moving, dripping, and running water.

My first visit I was overwhelmed by the lack of transportation options (which I’ll cover later), and so a friend and I booked a tour company to drive us and show us around. By my second trip, I had settled into the country and we opted to rent a car.  Either way, the first part of my visit was filled with a peaceful drive on a trafficless highway across flat plains, until all of a sudden the car is going up. Up and up and up and up.

Getting ready to hit the road to Rila
Getting ready to hit the road to Rila

The Site

I started listening to the Bulgarian History Podcast this week. I haven’t gotten to the tenth century yet, so I haven’t heard the show covering Rila Monastery (or checked if there actually is one…). But the host starts the series with a description of the geography of the Balkans and the note that geography is destiny. That Rila Monastery survived nearly 1100 years is a testament to this fact. Protected by the terrain, the monks maintained near-perfect continuity (with minor lapses) throughout the end of Byzantine rule, the second Bulgarian Kingdom, the Ottoman conquest, the Bulgarian Revival, the turbulence of the Balkan Wars and World War I, World War II, socialism, and today’s secular capitalism.

Inside the main church
Inside the main church

The monastery has the humblest of roots. Saint John of Rila (also reffered to as Ioan Rilski) was a 10th century hermit who lived in Rila for twelve years alone, spending his time fasting and praying. As pious Bulgarians learned of the hermit, they came to join him and formed a brotherhood. The monastery survived John’s passing, growing in importance throughout the second Bulgarian kingdom, when the Bulgarian tsars declared it exempt from taxes and donated lands and funds. Rila thrived up until the Ottoman Turks conquered the area in the late 14th century.

I’ve spent a lot of time in secluded enclaves of Eastern Orthodoxism that survived the Ottoman Empire, and this seclusion seems to be key. The painted churches in Troodos are up in the mountains in the middle of Cyprus, away from the lucrative coasts. The monasteries in Meteora are perched nearly in the clouds. Even the church in Boyana is  located far outside the city center.

While some Orthodox churches survived this time intact, others were turned into mosques (and some of these have since been turned back into churches). The politics of religion during the Ottoman Empire’s control is an interesting topic in its own right (and here’s a great place to start). While the Turks looted and destroyed many other Bulgarian monasteries, they asserted Rila’s official autonomy. This did not keep her completely safe though.  During this time the monastery was in danger of assault and pillaging, and many of her treasures were lost.

In the nineteenth century, a fire destroyed much of the original structure, although the 14th century Hrelyo’s Tower survived. The beautifully painted church in the Bulgarian Revival style, the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church, was constructed following this fire, and it is the image of this church which is one of the national symbols of Bulgaria.

Hrelyo's Tower and the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church at Rila Monastery
Hrelyo’s Tower and the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church at Rila Monastery

From UNESCO’s description:

Architectural styles have been preserved on the property as historical monuments of considerable time span (11th-19th c.). The basic architectural appearance is now one of the peak examples of building craftsmanship of the Balkan peoples from the early 19th c. As such it has exerted considerable influence on architecture and aesthetics within the Balkan area.

Criterion (vi): Rila Monastery is considered a symbol of the 19th Century Bulgarian Renaissance which imparted Slavic values upon Rila in trying to reestablish an uninterrupted historic continuity.

A fresco on the outside of the church depicting the Arch Angel Michael
A fresco on the outside of the church depicting the Arch Angel Michael

Getting There & Getting In

There’s no cost to get into the monastery. Getting from Sofia to Rila is straight forward enough if you know what you’re looking for. I found this article to be the best explanation on how to get from Sofia to Rila on public transportation, but I ended up making other plans. The first time I booked a tour that included transportation and lunch for about $50 per person. The second time, I rented a car for about $22 plus gas. For one person, the tour would have been less expensive. Adding in lunch (we spent $26 for two people, and driving ended up being cheaper for two people than taking a tour. Of course the tour includes a guide with information, so it’s a toss-up. Public transportation would be less expensive than both. (Side Note: the website Rome2Rio.com, which I normally love, doesn’t include this public bus for some reason).

A regal tree growing in Rila's courtyard
A regal tree growing in Rila’s courtyard

Things to Do While You’re There

  • Explore the main church, the little church, and the tower.
  • Go to the museum! I skipped it the first time, but I loved it the second time. It was 8 leva to get in (a little less than $5).
  • After visiting the monastery, we grabbed lunch at the nearest restaurant, which was pretty good. There are a few small restaurants in the area to pick from, but we went to the actual first one because we were insanely hungry.
  • The area is protected as the Rila National Park, and there are lots of hiking and outdoor activities available for those who are so inclined.
  • Strob’s Pyramid is nearby if you’re traveling by car

Tips

  • Take cash. There’s no internet, so if you want to go to the museum or buy souvenirs you need cold, hard leva.
  • Take your own snacks and drinks, there’s no place to buy them
  • A wide-angle camera lens is a good idea if you have one. 28mm wasn’t wide enough, most of these shots are with a 14mm.
  • Wear cobble-stone friendly shoes
  • Prepare to be outside most of the time (sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, etc)
I love traveling solo, but it's nice to travel with other people and get some awkward candids every once in a while
I love traveling solo, but it’s nice to travel with other people and get some awkward candids every once in a while

Further Reading

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UNESCO World Heritage Site #37: Rila Monastery (Bulgaria)
UNESCO World Heritage Site #37: Rila Monastery (Bulgaria)

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