Rila Monastery

Bulgaria’s finest monastery lies behind fortress walls; its church’s frescoes are an explosion of colour, in contrast to the dark pine forests nearby.

The road to Rila Monastery runs beside the River Rilska through beautiful wooded mountains. In summer and at weekends it is exceptionally busy, and, surrounded by buses and cars, it is hard to imagine what a remote and quiet place this was for most of its history. If you can arrive early, perhaps on a winter morning when a dusting of snow picks out the architectural features, then you may experience that feeling of awe at the immense walls and astonishment at the vibrant colours in the courtyard.

The first sight of the monastery’s towering exterior gives the impression of a fortress; in the past this security was necessary, as the wealth of the monastery attracted bandits and robbers, though its remote situation in the mountains and its altitude, 1,150m, helped to protect it. The founder, Ivan Rilski (880–946), was a hermit who sought enlightenment in the solitude of this place, but his reputation as a wise man with healing powers generated followers. In response to their requests he founded a religious community, which soon became a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the Balkans.

Rila Monastery Bulgaria by Takashi Images Shutterstock
© Takashi Images, Shutterstock

The monastery has occupied this location since 1335, a few kilometres southwest of the original hermitage, under the patronage of the bolyar, Stefan Hrelyo Dragovol. The oldest of the buildings visible today, Hrelyo’s Tower was built then.

The monastery suffered damage and destruction during the Ottoman conquest and the subsequent occupation, but after each setback renovation soon began again. The return of the relics of Ivan Rilski from Veliko Turnovo in 1469 was a significant event for the growing importance of the monastery.

After the great fire of 1833, the Ottoman sultan allowed the rebuilding of the monastery, and plentiful financial donations from the people, together with the gifts of time and skills by many great artists and craftsmen, resulted in the splendid building we see now.

Rila Monastery by Dennis van de Water Shutterstock
© Dennis van de Water, Shutterstock

Passing through the huge gates of the monastery for the first time is one of life’s special moments: the scene changes from grey severity to a carnival of colour. All round the enormous courtyard are tiers of monks’ cells behind boldly decorated, arcaded balconies. In the centre, the church itself, with richly coloured frescoes in the shelter of its porch, is the focus of attention, its lavishness emphasised by the simplicity of the 14th-century tower alongside it.

The temptation to conclude the visual feast by going straight into the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary should not be resisted. The iconostasis is a splendid mass of intricate carvings, heavily decorated with gold leaf. It is made of walnut wood and its subjects are from nature: flowers, fruits and birds.

The pulpit and bishop’s throne echo its magnificence and the colours are repeated and strengthened in the frescoes covering every available wall, ceiling and arch. Zahari Zograf, perhaps Bulgaria’s most famous mural painter, was one of the artists who worked here. The theme of the frescoes is the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. The mood is optimistic and the colours light. The external frescoes have particularly lively depictions of the seven deadly sins and the descent of their perpetrators into Hell.

Rila frescoes Bulgaria by VILevi Shutterstock
© VILevi, Shutterstock

At the time of its completion it was the largest monastery church in the Balkans. It is a cruciform shape with several altars and two chapels. The acoustics are excellent, and hearing a service there is a wonderful experience. The service is preceded by a monk walking round the outside of the church banging a wooden stick, a ceremony said to be a reminder of Christ being nailed to the cross.

Getting to Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery is a popular day trip from Sofia. Leaving Sofia in the direction of Pernik, the road skirts Vitosha Mountain and then, as the E79, heads directly south. The road to Kulata (for the border crossing to Greece) gives easy access to the Rila area for drivers and bus passengers. The route follows the River Struma for much of the way, and the railway line crosses and re-crosses the road and river. It is a busy road; the stretch to Blagoevgrad has been upgraded to motorway, but road building continues, resulting in some diversions and delays.

By car, the journey will take a couple of hours and the easiest option is to hire a car, with or without a driver/guide. Most of the Sofia travel agencies can arrange a car with a driver/guide costing about 450lv for one passenger, 250lv each for two and 185lv each for three. It’s worth looking online and shopping around.