The best-known of Bulgaria’s monasteries, famed for its architecture and mountainous setting, Rila receives a steady stream of visitors, many of whom come on excursions from Sofia. You can treat Rila as a day-trip from the capital if you book a coach tour with a travel agent in Sofia, or travel with the (summer-only) daily bus service.
The single road to the Rila Monastery runs above the foaming River Rilska, fed by innumerable springs from the surrounding mountains, which are covered with pine and beech trees beneath peaks flecked with snow. Even today there’s a palpable sense of isolation, and it’s easy to see why Ivan Rilski – or John of Rila – chose this valley to escape the savagery of feudal life and the laxity of the established monasteries at the end of the ninth century. The current foundation, 4km from John’s original hermitage, was plundered during the eighteenth century and repairs had hardly begun when the whole structure burned down in 1833. Its resurrection was presented as a religious and patriotic duty: public donations poured in throughout the last century, and the east wing was built as recently as 1961 to display the treasury.
Ringed by mighty walls, the monastery has the outward appearance of a fortress, but past the west gate this impression is negated by the beauty of the interior, which even the crowds can’t mar. Graceful arches above the flagstoned courtyard support tiers of monastic cells, and stairways ascend to top-floor balconies which – viewed from below – resemble outstretched flower petals. Bold red stripes and black-and-white check patterns enliven the facade, contrasting with the sombre mountains behind and creating a harmony between the cloisters and the Church within. Richly coloured frescoes shelter beneath the porch of the monastery church and cover much of its interior. The iconostasis is particularly splendid, almost 10 m wide and covered by a mass of intricate carvings and gold leaf.
Beside the church is Hrelyo’s Tower, the sole remaining building from the fourteenth century. Cauldrons, which were once used to prepare food for pilgrims, occupy the kitchen on the ground floor of the north wing, where the soot-encrusted ceiling has the shape and texture of a huge termite’s nest. Things are more salubrious on the floors above, where the spartan refectory and some of the panelled guest rooms are open for inspection. The ethnographic collection (daily 8 am–5 pm) is notable for its carpets and silverware, while beneath the east wing there’s a wealth of objects in the treasury (same hours). These include icons and medieval Gospels, Rila’s charter from Tsar Ivan Shishman, written on leather and sealed with gold in 1378, and a miniature cross made by the monk Raphael during the 1970s. Containing more than 1 500 human figures, each the size of a grain of rice, the cross took Raphael twelve years to carve with a needle, and cost him his eyesight.
For snacks, delicious bread can be obtained at the bakery (which is run by monks), just outside the monastery’s east gate. For more substantial meals, the restaurants at the hotels Tsarev Vrah and Rilets are preferable to the outlets near the monastery gates, which sometimes overcharge stray foreigners. Nightlife is limited to the plush bar of the Rilets, where there’s sometimes a disco.
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