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Rila Monastery or Rilski Manastir has to be one of Bulgaria's most photographed attractions and probably the most visited. This monastery, founded by a hermit, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers visitors to Bulgaria some fine, extravagant pieces of religious art, exquisite traditional architecture and one hell of a natural setting.
Where is it and how do I get there?
It's 68 miles south of Sofia and 17 miles east of the village, Rila. You have to catch a bus to the village from either Blagoevgrad or Sofia. We caught the bus from Sofia's Ovcha Kupel station. Once you reach the village of Rila there are connections to take you to the monastery.
A little bit of history - Bulgarian style
Originally, the complex which was founded in 927 by Ivan Rilski or otherwise known as John of Rila sat in the north west of the country but was moved to its present location in 1335 and is now the most influential monastery in south west Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian royal family at this time were very generous and regulary gave the monastery outlandish gifts of money to finance the complex. It became a centre of learning and culture, attracting the finest of scholars and artists.
During the long years of Ottoman rule, Rila fought for Bulgarian national identity keeping the Orthodox faith alive and preserving Bulgaria's culture. The library belonging to the monastery has over 16,000 written works mostly handwritten on parchment. In the 15th century the monastery was damaged by insurgents and fire. What you see now dates after 1833 when donations were given from all over Bulgaria to invest in the complex, using renowned artisans of the time making it into one of the most beautiful monasteries in Bulgaria.
The area where the monastery is situated is very pretty and is in the centre of a mountain range that bear John of Rila's name. Several of the peaks are extremely steep and so close together that they seem to peer into the monastery complex over the top of the walls. It really is beautiful to look at.
The complex and interior
The monastery is built within an irregular quadrangle of fortified walls and has two entrance gates. The one to the west is called Dupnitza and the one to the east is called Samokov.
The interior space covers a lot of ground and at the centre sits the wonderful Church of the Nativity. This is one of the great masterpieces of the National Revival. It was built between 1834 and 1837 and what really stands out to me is the way the contrasting red tiles and stone have been arranged.
Some of the interior murals are so rich in detail they blind you with colour although I did notice that there were some signs of discolouration from the smoke from votive candles. Still the blanket of scenes from the Old Testament are bright enough and the work of Zahari Zograf is pretty outstanding. Although, I am sure he must have had helpers. There is no way he could have painted all of these by himself even if he was a Master.
In this part of the world you can't help bumping into walls and walls of icons. The Church of the Nativity features one of the best iconostasis I have ever seen. Reading from the information in the church I found out that it was started in 1839. What I particularly like about this wall is the way all the features have been carved so intricately. Beautiful, delicate flowers, animals and humans framed by columns of vines. There are several biblical scenes which are interesting too.
The outside gallery of the church is fun to look at and full of murals. The colours are a lot brighter than the murals inside and I found it much easier to study the detail here.
The monastery's museum is home to a large number of artefacts; precious icons and other objects to do with the church and religion. The Rila Charter is displayed in the museum which was signed in 1378 after it moved to its present site. My favourite artefact is the Rila Cross or sometimes known as Raphael's Cross. The story that goes with the cross is all to do with a monk called Raphael who lived at the monastery. He carved the cross out of one piece of wood with nothing more than a pin. Unbelievable - can you imagine the monotony of the task? The dimensions of the piece of wood were 80cm by 43cm. The carvings are tiny scenes from the Bible and I do believe there are 650 figures. Imagine a grain of rice - each figure is about the same size. Raphael the monk went blind in the end after spending 12 years working on his masterpiece but he finished it.
The rest of the complex falls around the church and the Hyrelyu Tower which stands at 82 feet. This is the only surviving feature of the 1335 building along with a tiny, ornate chapel (Transfiguration Chapel) on the top floor.
Bulgaria is one of the most fascinating countries I have been to - I am so pleased the authorities are promoting the National Revival Movement by giving grants to renovate the old, buildings in ancient quarters of towns and villages. Here, inside the monastery are fine examples of some of the work that is being carried out and I love the way the abbot's quarters, monks cells, kitchen with its enormous ceiling, bakery and store room are all built into the outside walls which rise to four floors with a double-arcaded portico all around the monastery complex. The wooden balustrades on the upper balconies offer panoramic views of the surrounding Rila mountains which on a clear day are awesome - the mountains take on a shade of metal grey and Prussian blue. Yet when the mist falls you can't see a thing and it gets quite spooky.
The wooden balconies that emphasise the upper floors fully represent the Revival style, with intricate wooden carving and cheerfully painted cornice detail. Four small chapels built in the shape of the Dome of the Cross have also been incorporated into the walls. Each one features fine woodcarving and fantastic murals.
There are other churches in the surrounding hills but I had seen enough after visiting this monastery. Although we did follow a marked footpath for about an hour after our visit. I recommend this walk from the monastery as it leads to the tomb of the founder of the monastery, Ivan Rilski. The tomb is situated in a cave in the forest and it's here where his bones were interred 600 years after his death.
Bulgaria is much easier to get to than it used to be and I thoroughly recommend a visit. There are so many fabulous attractions and Rila Monastery is in the top 10. It's free to get into the monastery although there is a small admission fee for the museum. Open from early morning to dusk. Museum is open from 8.15am until 4.15pm.