You don’t have to be religious to feel the spirituality of the place, nestled among the pristine forests and rocky peaks of Rila Monastery Nature Park. The area and the monastery have an unique appeal, which drew for centuries and is still attracting pilgrims, tourists, nobles, kings and politicians alike. Rila Monastery is an amazing warehouse of culture, history and architecture set within a mind-blowing scenery.
The total area which the holy complex including the church, the residential part (over 300 rooms), the dining room, the old kitchen, museums, icon gallery is 8800 sq m. The monastery courtyard, the Birth of the Virgin Mary church, Hrelyo’s Tower, the museums, the residential and the farming buildings are surrounded by impressive 22 m-high stone walls, giving the monastery a fortress-like appearance. There are over 300 rooms in the monastery. The prime sites of interest to the tourists are: The main church with its frescoes, iconostases and icons; the main museum featuring Father Rafael’s cross and other interesting exhibits; the guest rooms on the second floor; the exhibition of the farming and household equipment of the monastery; the old monastery kitchen and its a 22 m-tall cone-shaped smokestack.
Date of construction: 1334-1335
Hеight: 23 meters (5 stories and a rooftop chapel)
Use in the past: Protective fortification for the monastic brotherhood during times of siege; in peace period of time – as isolator for ill-minded people
Admission ticket: 5 lv
This is the oldest surviving part of Rila Monastery, which was constructed by the semi-independent feudal Hrelyo Dragovol. He had been serving Serbian monarchs, but paid homage to the famous Bulgarian saint. During bandit attacks, the monks used to hide and protect themselves and the monastery’s treasures in it. There was a well in the basement, sink, toilets, sleeping premises, window niches (battlements) on the 3-rd and 4-th floors and even a chapel on the top floor. The chapel has partially preserved frescoes from the 14th century. The window niches are small and you can not take a photograph through them or even get a good view of the monastery.
! We recommend visit to this sight only to tourists interested in 14th-century frescoes.
Date of construction: 1834 – 1837
Architecture: five-domed, cross-in-square building with large colonaded nartex (porch).
Frescoes: Work of the most significant Bulgarian mural painters of the 19th century
Iconostasis: One of the largest guilded iconostasis in Bulgaria made from walnut wood
The Nativity of the Virgin Mary is the main church of the monastery occupying the center of the inner monastery yard. This is one of the most striking buildings that immideately will grab your attention with its lavishness after you enter the Rila Monastery. Every inch from the outer porch and the inside of the church is painted with vivid frescoes, a work of the most famous and gifted Bulgarian Revival period artists. It is true carnival of colors. Tour the church with a guide to get a good insight of the many biblical scenes and their purely human interpretation. Inside the church The church preserves the coffin with the relics of founder of the monastery St. Ivan of Rila, the 12th century Virgin Hodegetria (giving light) wonderworking icon and the grave of the last Bulgarian king who ruled the country. There are three guided iconostases, but the chapel on the southern side is the oldest and is dedicated to John of Rila (a saint-hermit and founder of Rila Monastery). There is the grave of the last Bulgarian monarch – King Boris III (referred by Adolf Hitler as King Boris the Fox). Pilgrims and tourists flock in front of the icon of Virgin Hodegetria – interesting not only for its healing powers, but also that it possesses 32 relics of different saints, even a bone from Mary Magdalene (1st century AD) and one from St. Stefan.
The monastery was established in 10th century AD by a humble Christian hermit. His name was Ivan. As the story goes he was living in a small village 40 km off from the nowadays location of the monastery. After the dead of his parents, he sold his heritage and gave the money to the poor. At the age of 25 Ivan became a monk and retreated in Rila Mountains, not far from the recent location of the monastery. Praying he started performing miracles and healing people. His personality attracted Christians, who form a community around his dwelling – a cave, which is also a sight of interest. His fame even attracted the pious king Peter (912-969), who traveled over 400 km to meet the famed Ivan of Rila. The hermit refused to meet the king and did not accept the king’s gold presents, but welcomed the offered food. I bit off the topic, but ironically after his dead Rila Monastery received a lot of donations, became the largest monastery in Bulgaria with lots of gold treasures and even nowadays Ivan of Rila relief is on the 1 lev coin. Ivan or John of Rila was famous during his lifetime, but was canonized as a saint after his dead. His relics have traveled to Sofia (at that time Sredets), Budapest, Veliko Tarnovo, but in the 15th century they were return to Rila Monastery. It is believed that the relics have performed many miracles and are still worshiped by thousands of pilgrims every year. The relics are located just in front of the central iconostasis in the Nativity of the Virgin Mary church.
It is also referred to as the ecclesiastical museum or the history museum of Rila Monastery. The museum provides information about the life of St. Ivan of Rila and the history of the monastic complex throughout the centuries The museum exhibition comprises valuable examples of Bulgarian and foreign art from the 14th – 19th centuries. The most valuable (actually priceless) exhibit is the wooden cross decorated with exquisite miniature wood-carvings by Father Rafail. The master wood-carver used the finest chisels and tools and worked for 12 years until he finally finished his masterpiece in 1802, when he lost his sight as a result of the hard toil. It depicts 36 biblical scenes – 18 on each side, and over 600 miniature figures. The cross is made of single piece of boxwood!
Admission ticket: 8 leva
The monastery and its museum are splendid themselves, but if you have the time and weather permits, the short hike to the cave of St. Ivan of Rila is not to be missed. The guide-driver will drive you 4 km from the monastery to the start of the rocky path leading to the cave of St. Ivan of Rila cave. This is an uphill trail that usually requires 15-20 minutes of demanding walking. You have to be with comfortable walking shoes on and be in good physical condition. The invigorating walk is part of the experience since it is in a pristine beech forest – high slender trees, rocks covered with mosses, small bushes and song birds are all abundant. First you will see the small chapel “The Assumption of Ivan of Rila”, built in the 18th century on the place of the grave of the most famous Bulgarian hermit. Inside there are valuable frescoes, which are worth the peek. A few meters further up is the cave itself – a not very spectacular, narrow, dark and steep 5-meter chimney-like tunnel. Definitely the experience of going through it is not appealing at all, but almost everybody are doing it. Why? It is said that you will be guaranteed a purification of the soul if you pass through it. You will definitely feel relieve and exhilarated after going out of the tight exit. If you keep climbing a little further up, you will see the prayer rock where people write down a prayer/wish and stick it in crevices of the rock. Why not leave your wish there as well. Miracles do happen.
POST OFFICE & POSTCARDS
There is a post office in the inner yard of the Rila Monastery, from where you can send out postcards. There isn’t a great variety of postcards, but you can buy them from every stall or shop in or around the monastery. The price per card is about 1 lev.
ICONS & SOUVENIRS
You can buy icons drawn by different artists from the two shops in the inner courtyard (one attached to the belfry and one in the northern residential area) or from the stalls lined by the eastern gate (Samokov gate). Purchasing icons is something very personal and we refrain from recommending certain shop and artist.
Books and souvenirs are sold also by the same shops and also at the cash desk of Rila Monastery History Museum.
We usually do not recommend buying guide books from the monastery, since they are usually written by monks, have a lot of religious content and sometimes are not well translated from Bulgarian to English.
If you want to buy a souvenir spend sometime checking and comparing the prices from the few shops in and outside of the monastery. They are close together and you will not loose a lot of time, but probably save some cash.
Sampling local food is part of every journey’s experience. You can find food and drinks when you go out of the Eastern Gate (opposite the main gate, from which you have entered the courtyard). Just across the Eastern Gate is a stone-wall building. This is the monastery’s bakery selling bread, yogurt, and mekitsi. This is a place we highly recommend and this is the place where the Bulgarians eat. Mekitsi are typical Bulgarian food that resembles the American donuts. They are very tasty and you can buy 2 donuts for just 1 lv. With them, grab a jar of natural buffalo or sheep yogurt – product that Bulgaria is famous for. If you are looking for a drink and 3-course menu the there are two restaurants near the monastery gates. One of the is Drushliavitsa – more expensive, but with better service and cleaner than the other. This is the restaurant on the left side of the Eastern Gate. The other restaurant is named Tsarev Vrah, but getting served there sometimes takes a lot of time. If the group agrees, your guide can take all of you down the road to a decent restaurant (Gorski Kat) with great view over Rilska River.
Besides the mekitsi and the yogurt, another local specialty is the grilled trout, usually served with boiled potatoes. Keep in mind the fact that usually the offer in the restaurant menus is per 100 g (around 3 levs) and one fish is around 300 g and it will cost about 9-10 leva.
You may not have heard king Boris III, but surely you have heard of the English queen Victoria and the Belgium king Leopold II. They are all Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. King Boris III is the last king who ruled in Bulgaria. His son – king Simeon, became a king under age and the country was ruled by regents. When the communist regime was established the Bulgaria was no longer a monarchy. Boris III was an excellent diplomat, who managed to associate territories from Romania without spilling drop of blood and save about 40 000 Bulgarian Jews from the Nazis. He died in 1943 and his wish was to be buried in Rila Monastery. His grave is in the main church of the monastery. Learn more interesting facts about king Boris III and his son from our guides.
Bulgaria is one of the oldest nations in Europe, but pitifully the whereabouts of the graves of only two of its monarchs are known.
Next to the monastery is the grave of the famous Irish journalist James Bouchier, who was also in awe with the monastery.
This is a museum with an entrance on the northern side of the Eastern Gate. The theme of its exhibition is the instruments, machines and utensils used by the monks in their everyday life – the kitchen, huge cauldrons, water mill… Most tourists miss this museum.
The admission ticket costs 3 BGN.
The Ethnographic Museum and the Revival Period Rooms are worth visiting, though only a few people know about them. They are located on the 2-nd and the 3-rd floor in the northern part of the monastery. At the moment there are 4 guest rooms that are opened for tourists. They were constructed and decorated during the Bulgarian Revival Period (19th century). Their interior represents a typical in-house arrangements, colourful window’s adornments, wall-paintings, ceiling woodcarving ornamentions and decorations in homes of certain towns that were prosperous during the Revival Period. There is for example the Teteven guestroom (named after the town Teteven in the Balkan Moutains), the Koprvishtitsa guestroom (named after the town of Koprivshtitsa in the Sredna Gora Mountains) and others. The Ethnographic Museum exhibitions is spread in 3 rooms and thematic collections: Jewelry, Rugs and Clothes.
Admission ticket: 5 lv per person
Father Rafael completed his woodcarving work on the cross in 1802. 36 religious scenes and over 600 different figures. Now imagine all these in a cross made of single piece of boxwood that is 80 cm high and 42 cm wide. Amazed? Every figure has a different face, expressing emotions! This a precious masterpiece of the miniature woodcarving and the most famous exhibit in the Rila Monastery main museum.
The monastery offers simple accommodation for tourists and pilgrims. The rooms in the new part (XX century) are with en-suite facilities, while the ones in the older (XIX century) part are more basic. The price is about 15-20 lv per bed in a double room.
The monastery has also a hotel named Tsarev Vrah. The rooms there cost 45 lv per night. The telephone of the reception is: +359 7054 2180
There are a few family hotels around the monastery, a camping and bungalows.
The church is a medieval two-story building located in the Boyana district at the foothills of Vitosha Mountains. Boyana Church is word famous and included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, not because of its construction, but because of its frescoes. The frescoes are from different periods 11-12th century, 1259 (the most valuable ones) and 14th century. The saints and persons in the 240 murals from the 1259 have exceptional individuality and express deep psychological feelings – something characteristic for the Renaissance, which they predate.
The admission fee is 10 levs (BGN) per person.