With virtually five days in Sofia, there was no doubt that I was going to get a Bulgarian day trip out of my time there. I was even planning two – but I didn’t know what to prioritise in case the second one didn’t work out (whiiiich… it didn’t). Rila or Plovdiv? Plovdiv or Rila? A monastery or a city?? WHAT TO CHOOSE?
Let me tell you RIGHT now – I’m sure I would have liked Plovdiv, but Rila Monastery was 100% the correct choice.
It’s not often that I walk into a courtyard, feel my jaw involuntarily drop, and hear myself shout “WOW” without even realising I’m doing it.
Rila Monastery? THIS PLACE had that effect on me.
Originally, I had been planning to take the public shuttle from Sofia, which takes you out there in two hours and gives you a good amount of time at the monastery before whisking you back to the city. When I arrived at the hostel and saw that they offered a tour there for the same price, I booked it through them assuming it would be the same sort of deal.
So imagine my surprise when I was led out, expecting to be shoved onto a bus with a load of other people, and instead faced with a car that would be taking six of us out to Rila National Park.
It was practically a private tour.
An American girl and I were squeezed into the back – we were basically in the boot, on two seats so low down to the ground that our knees were up by our chests! And you thought it was going to sound glamorous.
What I hadn’t expected from Bulgaria was so many mountains. Sofia is surrounded by them, and an hour to the south lies Rila National Park which is full of them.
It also has a smattering of cute towns and villages, and we stopped in one of them for a break from the winding mountain roads and the chance to get some food or water. Everything was silent and peaceful.
We learned that lots of people have these trellises across their properties to grow their own grapes for wine!
Our first proper stop wasn’t even the monastery – it was actually a cave, where a hermit monk lived over a thousand years ago.
Ivan Rilski is now a saint in Bulgaria, and next to his cave lies a beautiful little church, the Church of Sveti Luka (or St Luke’s Hermitage). It’s said that St Ivan lived in the cave for seven years to become closer to God, and that he founded Rila Monastery itself.
The church is unassuming, and the inside is worn down, but equally it harnesses a charm that I couldn’t quite place. It was just incredibly peaceful.
After climbing out of the cave through a tiny hole in the top, we headed back to the car for the main event.
We had already passed Rila Monastery, though I had barely noticed. From the outside, it’s a huge mass of brick wall and absolutely no hint of what’s inside. I think that’s part of what made the place so incredible. You have a plain old brick building outside, and then suddenly:
I walked around the monastery for a long time, taking it all in and looking at everything from different angles. There are various rooms around the courtyard, from gift shops to art galleries to museums.
I had read just before we left that you HAVE to go into the museum, and being that the monastery itself is completely free, I decided it would be worth paying the 8 lev to go in and learn a bit more about it.
I’m going to be completely honest and say it wasn’t.
It had a lot of artifacts through the ages, such as the Ottoman period, and some of the pieces were interesting. But the museum was way smaller than I expected and I didn’t feel that interested in what it was showcasing (mostly fancy dinnerware and crowns and bishops’ outfits, and a lot of crosses). It didn’t really have much actual history of the monastery, which is what I had wanted. That said, I don’t mind the money going towards preserving the place as a whole, because it is amazing.
And so I was happy to walk around some more.
The paintings on the outside of the church are absolutely amazing too.
There are a few places around to grab lunch too; some of it felt a little touristy (doughnut stall, anyone?) but we picked a place that our tour guide recommended right opposite the back of the monastery. The service was so bad that it was hilarious. I came to learn that that seems to be how things are in the Balkans (either that or I got INCREDIBLY unlucky!!!). At one point, we politely reminded the waitress that we had ordered some extra bread and she barked “YES, I KNOW! I can’t do EVERYTHING!” and then literally threw the bread onto our table! (On the flip side, the bread was delicious! Homemade flat bread with herbs!) Then when we were paying, she shouted at one of us to move. It was incredible.
But, not a standalone incident in the slightest. We brushed it off, but we did laugh about it on the way back!
Plus, this was our view:
To get back to the bus, we had to walk through the monastery again, which was such a shame. As the clouds rolled in, I managed to get this shot which I really like, so I’ll leave you with a more atmospheric one:
What’s the most beautiful monastery or church you’ve been to?! This has to be one of my favourites!
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