Rila Monastery, the number one tourist sight in all of Bulgaria is located 117 km. south of Sofia. There are plenty of tours that will take you there, but we rented a car to see the country and this was just our first stop. It is a really easy and beautiful drive taking your through many picturesque villages, and the road ends up right there, so you just can’t get lost.
As we pulled up and paid our parking fee, the outside of the monastery reminded my of a fortress or castle. For some reason, I just didn’t expect the fortifications involved in protecting monasteries in that part of the world through the last 900 or so years. The walls were huge and there were very few windows, an imposing building.
Walking through the gate, though, even though there were throngs of tourists, there was still a feeling of calmness and serenity. Most people talked in hushed tones, and the view of the church and its vibrant frescoes was really awe-inspiring.
One thing that really touched me was the fact that Rila is a working monastery, not just a tourist sight. Priests were walking around talking with the people, or propped up against the fountain reading the morning paper. Life was just going on.
We walked around the courtyard and behind the church to begin with, where we discovered the monastery’s museum. There had been no entrance fee for the monastery, but there was an 8 leva fee for the museum. We gladly paid the equivalent of $5 and enjoyed the crisp and clean displays. Signs were in English and Bulgarian, and we were able to decipher a quick history of the monastery, as well as see what some of the items were used for in the past. Again I was struck by the enormity of the guns used for protection. They must have been eight feet long. I’m not sure how well they shot, but they sure did look impressive.
Finally, we headed to the church, where among the tourists were a number of worshippers and pilgrims. Of course there is no photography allowed in the church, but that’s ok, because you it is so dark and sooty, that you would have had to use the flash.
I walked in expecting a number of bright frescoes and brilliant icons that are so prevalent in Russian Orthodox churches. They were there, but with a subdued, almost dirty effect. From centuries of candlelight (even though there is electricity), the walls and paintings were covered with a black tone. Looking at the gruesome warnings about not sinning, it leant a sort of foreboding and anxiety to the interior.
Tending to the candelabras with a deft determination, a slight four foot babushka covered from head to toe in black garments, took her work seriously. She weighed how much had burnt down on the “candle”, if it was low enough, into the bucket it went. If it was leaning, but still had plenty of power left, it was moved to a more practical spot. I got the feeling she had been doing this for years and would continue to do so until her time comes to leave this world.
At one point, a priest leaned out of a small door carrying a 2 liter plastic bottle of water and a plastic pitcher. Mothers rushed up to him with their kids in tow vying for some of the “blessed” water he offered them. He did not give any to adults, just children. Hardly any words were spoken, and the entire moment lasted about half a minute. That’s it.
After admiring the frescoes, the wooden benches with their carved dogs’ heads, and the overall serenity of the church, I wandered back out to the courtyard into the blazing light of midday.
To please our stomachs, we meandered out the back side of the monastery searching for the restaurant. A friend had suggested we plan to eat there and have the famous trout that is farmed and pulled out of the Rilska river. There was a restaurantish building that seemed completely closed down behind the monastery, and to our delight it was open. We walked into a small room with a bar, two tables, and roaring fire. At one table were the waiters and other workers, and the waiter offered to take us through another door, down some steps, probably to the dining room, but we asked if we could sit at the table in that room. It was so cozy and it seemed like it was the place to be. We were right.
The menu was quite extensive, but we were a little confused to see that the only trout was on the warm appetizer menu. We asked and were assured that is what we wanted to eat. We ordered that and the famous shopska salad, and Kamenitska beer from the tap. Perfect.
Looking for the restaurant, we noticed another building with a very long line which never seemed to get shorter. It looked like people were buying some type of fry bread and loaves of other bread. The line consisted of only Bulgarians, no tourists, so of course, we had to go and try it out. We tried the fry bread, and it was pretty good.
We had a fantastic time at Rila. The monastery, museum, church, and restaurant made our first full day in Bulgaria a memorable one. I can see why it’s such a popular destination. If you only have a weekend or a few days in Sofia, make it down there. You won’t be disappointed.