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UNESCO World Heritage Site: Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery and Sofia


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Rila Monastery is worth every superlative I can muster!

The journey there was a smooth one through the mountains south of Sofia. We went in a minibus organised by our hostel; a group of young Japanese guys were with us. We had eaten a large breakfast, and on the journey we shared a very large sweet bun, so we didn't need any more food until we'd got back to Sofia.

Originally we were going to be visiting a special cave which lies beyond the monastery first, but just as we got to the monastery a problem with the minibus arose, so our driver told us to get out here and look round the monastery first instead. We had two hours, so by the time we had to meet back up, hopefully the problem would be sorted and we would continue to the cave.

The monastery itself forms a square of monks' living quarters with a massive courtyard; in the courtyard lies a small church, a medieval tower and some trees, and beyond the square there are a few smaller buildings, formerly the monastery farm I think but now a couple of restaurants and gift shops. The monastery is four stories high at least; cream coloured walls with lots of characterful wooden staircases leading upwards. It is still a working monastery today, so we weren't allowed to climb them due to the monks' living quarters being up there.

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Picturesque and impressive though these living quarters were, the main attraction was definitely the church. The outside walls and the undersides of the verandah that ran around three sides were absolutely covered in very brightly coloured and detailed religious scenes. It was utterly gobsmacking!

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The inside was lovely too, covered in murals and icons without an inch of undecorated wall. It was gloomier here, with the main light coming from a few candelabras and the many candles lit in front of the most richly decorated end. I bought and lit a candle of my own, for Dad.

After wandering around the grounds and church happily for quite some time, (and, with Kate and Andrew, having a drink of water from a stone fountain using a silver ladle chained to the side), I went up the medieval tower.

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Dating from 1335, Hrelyo's Tower is the oldest preserved building in the monastery. It was used as the monastery's fortress. In 1844 a belfry was attached to it; this holds the bells, clock and the monastery shop. The views from the top (there are five floors) through the windows were wonderful. I especially liked the one of the roof and dome of part of the living quarters, with snowcapped mountains in the distance behind. On the top floor there was a small out-of-use chapel with some medieval frescoes, but it was closed off to visitors. The door was of glass through so I could still see some of them.

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I bought a postcard and a fridge magnet from the shop and then wandered around happily with Kate and Andrew some more. We looked for the history museum and the ethnographic museum but only found the history one - when there was only about 15 - 20 minutes left before we had to return to our meeting place. We all went in anyway and still managed to have a good look round. It contained such interesting things as old school textbooks from the monastery school that used to be here, a Viennese printing press the monastery acquired in the 1860s, prints made using it, coins, weapons, jewellery and religious gifts from pilgrims and bishops from Russia, Greece and other Eastern Orthodox countries; Bibles, icons, weavings, embroidery, carved wooden crosses, silver plate, etchings and a giant candle (at least two metres high and a foot or two in diameter!) There were also written decrees from the Ottoman Turkish sultans, granting the monastery rights.

This was all on the ground floor - up the stairs there were was more silver plate and crosses, priests' and bishops' vestments, etc., but we had to rush past these because we were now due back at the minibus. The problem had been sorted - great. It took us further on, further up the mountain, to the special cave.

To get to the cave we hiked through the forest up the side of quite a steep gorge, so you can imagine how spectacular the scenery was! After about 10 minutes we came across a look out point, with an information board giving a list of the wildlife that lives in the area; this included wild boar, deer, and at least two different sorts of marten. We didn't see any though.

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About 5 minutes later, we reached our destination. There was a tiny church with a path on one side leading to a shrine and the entrance to the cave.

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The cave itself was very small and dark; you had to climb steps to get into it and it was probably only a few metres long. Within the gloom a small area was set up with a couple of small icons and some lit candles.

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The floor continued rising quite steeply inside, until you reached a few wooden steps followed by a stack of boulders, creating a tunnel you had to climb up through in order to pop out of the top! Only the most stick-thin person would be able to get through the hole without a bit of a squeeze. The girl at our hostel reception had told us that traditionally, people did this to bring themselves good luck; climbing through the hole 'cleansed' them of their sins. There was a large rock next to the hole we had emerged from, so naturally we all climbed up there to take photos.

On the way back down we stopped at the tiny church and went inside. It was a working church, not a museum; it was very atmospheric and colourful inside. We all sat in the wooden seats around the sides of the main room for a bit to rest.

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It was around 5 pm when we got back to the hostel in Sofia. We relaxed for a couple of hours and then decided to go out to a Bulgarian Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had good expectations because the one Chinese restaurant I'd been to in Bulgaria before, in Veliko Tarnovo, was excellent. However, the food at this place didn't quite reach the same standard. It wasn't terrible, but wasn't amazing either. One of our noodle dishes was quite stodgy and the sauce was a little glutinous. We also ordered a duck dish thinking we were going to get Peking duck with pancakes, but it turned out to be battered chunks of duck in the style of KFC. It was still nice though - better than the noodles.

Posted by 3Traveller 13:18 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains art museum monastery dad sofia bulgaria icons orthodox_church unesco_world_heritage_site cave_system rila_monastery

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