Also known as the Monastery of Saint John of Rila, the Monastery is located in a valley of the Rila Mountains, near the Rila River, inside the Rila Nature Park, part of the Rila Municipality. That’s a lot of Rila!
We went with a tour group for the day to visit the Monastery, which was a two-hour ride outside of Sofia. We started at the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral early in the morning.
This tour had a quick stop at the Boyana Church, which is in Sofia, located on the outskirts of town. It is an 11th century brick church with frescoes, within a green space with huge trees. It is small though, so only ten people can go inside at a time; since we were on a tour with 20 people, we had to split into two groups. The church is nothing too special from the outside; you can tell the original, Byzantine construction, and the later add-on section.
There are no pictures allowed inside, so I bought the guide for $5 alogn with the $5 per person tickets; these pictures are from the guide. The frescoes are colorful even though some have peeled; it is a small, narrow space inside the church, but worth a visit if in the area, as it doesn’t take long to see.
After we had all seen the church, we were on our way to the Monastery. It was a nice mini-bus, but the seats were a bit small, so we were happy it was a relatively short drive. We arrived at the Monastery, outside the main entrance; walking inside and seeing the inner courtyard, its multiple floors where the monks lived (there are still a whopping nine monks that still live here, but there are rooms for more than 100), is really neat. Especially where the Monastery is situated, with green mountains in the background.
The Monastery was founded by Saint John of Rila in the 10th century. The original was destroyed and rebuilt in the 1300s, but all that remains is a guard tower.
The Monastery was destroyed again in the 15th century, and it was later rebuilt in the 1800s to what it looks like today.
There is no wall space wasted inside and outside the Monastery; every inch is covered with frescoes, walls and ceilings. They depict many scenes of devils and angels, fighting over the souls of men; skeletons and saints, and are so brightly colored. Since we couldn’t take pictures inside, all these come from outside in the entryway.
There is a fountain, that the legend goes, if you throw a coin in over your shoulder, it means that one day you will return to the Monastery, so of course we had to do it (Jesse did).
There are two entrances to the Monastery grounds, through the back entrance there is a restaurant, some shops selling religious artifacts and Bulgarian chotchkies, and the tiny stream that runs downward into a forest. We sat on one of the small bridges that cross the stream, our feet dangling over the edge, and ate our sandwiches we had brought for lunch. It was peaceful as we watched fellow tourists come and go, and listened to the running stream.
There is a gravel path to the right of the shops and restaurant that leads down to the old cemetery; it is a simple nature walk alongside the stream, and very peaceful, as not too many of the other visitors ventured this way. We walked until we saw the underwhelming cemetery, but it was just nice being out in nature and amongst green trees and free flowing water again; we had been in a lot of cities on this part of the trip.
We returned up the trail back into the Monastery, went back inside because who knows when we would be here again, and really took our time examining the many, many interior frescoes and intricate altars. Our guide had told us that the former Tsar of Bulgaria, Boris III, was buried here, and that he was Tsar from 1918 until 1943, when he was poisoned (at the age of only 49).
There was much speculation as to who exactly poisoned him, but it remains unknown. While the Bulgarians were allies of the Germans in WW2, the Bulgarians did not hand over any Jewish people to the Nazis in World War II, and Boris III kept them from the Germans by sending them to do work within Bulgaria, building roads and such. His grave was simple; and actually only his heart is buried here; as he was originally buried here, then his body was moved, and then moved again; on the third move his heart was removed, given to his wife, who returned it to the Monastery. Saint John of Rila, the founder of the Monastery, is also buried here. We took one last look at the courtyard and Monastery,
then boarded the bus, to return to Sofia. It was a great day trip and by going along on the tour we learned some things as well. Definitely visit the Rila Monastery when in Sofia!